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Riparian Buffers

What is a Riparian Buffer?

Riparian buffers are strips of vegetation (trees, shrubs or grass) planted next to streams or other waterbodies. By planting vegetation along streams, space is created between the water and upland land uses, which helps protect the water quality and stream habitat.

Picture of vegitation along stream

Benefits of Buffers

  • Streambank stabilization
  • Erosion and sediment control
  • Filtration of nutrients and other pollutants
  • Reduces the impact from floods
  • Habitat and food for wildlife and pollinators
  • Shade for streams

Three-Zone Concept

Healthy buffers that can withstand flooding and provide the highest level of protection for streams consist of multiple zones.

Forest Buffer
Photo Credit: Stroud Water Research Center

Zone 1:The area closest to the stream or waterbody should be planted with native species of water-tolerant trees and large shrubs with little or no harvesting. This zone provides streambank stabilization and provides leaf litter inputs to the stream. Leaf litter is eaten by macroinvertebrates in the stream, which are in turn eaten by fish. When trees grow in Zone 1, they shade the stream, which cools the water and provides better conditions for brook trout or other cold water-dependent fish species. Ideally, Zone 1 should be at least 15 feet wide.

Zone 2: The zone upland from Zone 1 should be planted with native faster growing, smaller, shade-tolerant tree or shrub species. This zone allows water runoff to be absorbed and held in the soil. Nutrients and other pollutants are also filtered by the soil. Faster growing plants are able to uptake and store nutrients in their woody biomass. Zone 2 can range from 20 to 60 feet in width.

Zone 3: The zone farthest from the stream and next to land use areas (for example, houses, crops or pastureland), should be planted with native grasses, wildflowers, or other herbaceous plants. These plants slow fast-moving water runoff and filter sediment. Zone 3 can range from 15 to 60 feet in width.

The total recommended width for all three zones is at least 100 feet. Riparian buffers that are at least 100 feet wide provide the minimum protection for water quality and stream protection. Wider buffers provide an even higher level of stream protection and provide better wildlife habitat. Diversity of plants in each zone is key. Zones with a variety of plant species are more resilient to severe weather (drought or extreme storms), disturbance by deer or rodents, and invasive species or pests.

Planting and Maintenance of Riparian Buffers

Proper planting and maintenance of riparian buffer sites can help to ensure long-term survival of the plants and proper function of the riparian buffer.

Riparian Buffer Funding Programs

A variety of federal, state and local programs provide technical assistance to landowners, municipalities and conservation organizations for planting riparian buffers to improve water quality and wildlife habitat. For a list of programs, refer to the table below or download DEC's Funding and Assistance for Planting Riparian Buffers brochure (PDF, 801 KB).

Program Description

Agricultural Nonpoint Source Abatement and Control Grant Program (link leaves DEC's website)

New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets administers the competitive Agricultural Nonpoint Source and Abatement Program (AgNPS), using New York State Environmental Protection Funds (EPF) to assist farmers in preventing water pollution from agricultural activities by providing technical and financial assistance to implement best management practices. Riparian buffers are an eligible practice and projects that incorporate riparian buffers receive priority scoring.
Chesapeake Bay Watershed Grant Program DEC has made up to $1 million available for the protection and restoration of riparian buffers in the New York portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Grants awarded through this program will support local land stewardship programs to purchase land or conservation easements that will permanently protect riparian corridors.
Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) (link leaves DEC's website)

The Farm Service Agency's Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is the primary federal program for protection and restoration of riparian buffers on agricultural land. Landowners receive an annual rental rate, practice cost share, and incentive payments to establish riparian buffers through this program.

Trees for Tribs A program of the State Tree Nursery at Saratoga, DEC's Trees for Tribs program provides landowners, municipalities and conservation organizations with low-cost or no-cost native plants and free technical assistance.
Tompkins County Stream Corridor Restoration & Flood Hazard Mitigation Program (link leaves DEC's website) The Tompkins County Legislature periodically funds a program to help residents and municipalities minimize property damagers associated with future flood events. Tools developed by the program include a stream buffer planting guide, model riparian protection agreement, model riparian buffer easement, and model stream buffer ordinance.
Water Quality Improvement Project (WQIP) Program DEC's WQIP Program is a competitive grant program that distributes New York State Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) money for projects that reduce polluted runoff, improve water quality and restore habitat in New York's waterbodies. Riparian buffers on non-agricultural land are a priority practice through this program.