For the Whole Stream: Riparian Buffers

Part 2: Downstream

Read For the Whole Stream Part 1: Upstream here.

For the Whole Stream is the first installment of a new series called the Horn Farm Ecosystem. Through monthly articles, we’ll walk the land in writing: visiting the forests, regenerative fields, and ecological action sites of the Horn Farm Center to explain our stewardship work, uplift nature, and inspire love for the land. To learn more about the Horn Farm Ecosystem blog series, check out our February 17th, 2023 newsletter.

Like a drop of water in a stream, ecology ripples outward.

Actions taken (or neglected) in one place have resounding impacts elsewhere over time. Non-native introductions that did not start at the Horn Farm Center have given us the likes, tests, and uses (note the paradox) of multiflora rose, Japanese honeysuckle, garlic mustard, Japanese stiltgrass, and tree of heaven. Each of these plants–without a native niche or co-evolutionary partnership to balance its influence–was once a newcomer here in some seemingly innocuous form. And now, they’ve all reshaped the ecology of our landscape, in many ways monopolizing our land tending energies. Once a drop, now pervasive, plucked from a place beyond the scope of what we can see.

The same story of compounding impacts unfolds for beneficial engagement with the land. Replanting natives where non-natives have been removed reverberates outward to support the species they host, the plants those species pollinate, and the food chains they underpin. Stopping the cycle of tilling soils in farming bolsters soil stability, improves water infiltration, replenishes soil nutrients and microbiology, enhances crop vitality, and contributes to carbon drawdown from the atmosphere, not to mention the benefits of reduced stormwater runoff on neighboring waterways and habitats. Over time, one lever releases many, and the catalyst of change can begin small. The humble backyard, the wayward farm, the thin edge of a streamside … if you haven’t already taken Douglas Tallamy’s hint about bringing habitat home here, this is your cue. As we work to rebuild ecological balance in one place, that act of recovery may well be exported along the world’s energy flows–carried by the wind, water, seeds, scat, and human messaging. Our riparian buffer, of course, is no exception.

How exactly? As noted in Part 1 of this blog set, our eroded stream deposits into Kreutz Creek, which flows into the Susquehanna River. Kreutz Creek is one vein among thousands tethered to a crucial ecological artery. The Susquehanna River meanders 444 miles south from its headwaters in central New York, carving down Pennsylvania before cutting briefly into Maryland and emptying into the Chesapeake Bay. Given its size and might, the Susquehanna River is one of the primary water channels of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

All of the creeks, streams, and rivers encompassed in the highlighted area eventually drain into the Chesapeake Bay. Source: PA Department of Environmental Protection.

In fact, nearly half of the freshwater flow into the Chesapeake comes from the Susquehanna River, making it the largest water contributor to the bay. This means that Pennsylvanians, not one of us in viewing distance of the Bay, have a surprisingly crucial role to play in addressing the degradation of downstream ecologies in the Chesapeake.

As the environmental pressures of development and agriculture continue across the watershed, the Chesapeake Bay has become a collecting ground for chemical and nutrient pollution, excess sediments, and other waste carried away by the exposed waterways that feed it.

Indeed, it’s estimated that 65% of the nitrogen and phosphorous polluting the Chesapeake have come from Pennsylvania.

Carried by stormwater runoff, most of this pollution originates from bufferless, steam-adjacent farms that rely on nutrient inputs to feed large-scale crop production on ailing soils (manure is a part of this problem as well). Nutrient pollution at this scale, alongside sedimentation, has spelled existential trouble for the Chesapeake over time. Biodiversity has suffered with seagrasses, shellfish, and fish succumbing to depleted oxygen levels in the water, caused by both over-sedimentation and unchecked algae blooms fueled by nutrient pollution. (Note: algal blooms can cause direct harm beyond aquatic life, potentially harboring toxins that threaten human health). Loss of biodiversity to this degree, echoing the stream habitats in our backyards, has implications that ripple out: destabilizing food chains, upsetting local economies, and undercutting the Bay’s resilience as a storm buffer against increasingly powerful weather.

Since the EPA’s heightened attention to the Bay in 2010, PA farmers and property owners have responded increasingly to statewide calls (and incentives) for waterway protection using riparian buffers. The state fell short of conservation targets in 2017 and recommitted through robust riparian programs emphasizing agroforestry in buffer design–an angle taken up at the Horn Farm Center (more to come on that!).

Between this growing movement, increasingly common torrential rains, and a keen interest in ecological land stewardship, the Horn Farm Center broke ground on our first riparian buffer planting in 2018.

As the planting and learning continues, we’ve come to see the riparian buffer not just as an enactment of our responsibility to ailing lands and waters around us, but as a teaching tool–a window perhaps–into how ecology works. That is: how ecology teaches us that small changes can bring about resonant impacts, and to recognize that our proactivity (or neglect) in one area determines outcomes for areas and systems even beyond our scope. For every upstream, there is an innumerable family of downstreams.

Volunteers planting trees and installing tree tubes in support of our water protection efforts (10/2021).

As beneficiaries of the soils, lands, and waters nourished by the Susquehanna, the Chesapeake, and the generations that tended this landscape before dominant culture abandoned the caretaker lifeway, it’s only right for us to lean back, reacquaint ourselves with the ground, and work to bring back balance in whatever capacity we can. Because when we nurture and bolster an ecosystem at home, we hold the key to rebalancing it elsewhere, and restoring humility to ourselves in the process.

Click here to read For the Whole Stream Part 3: Beyond the Stream

About the Author: Andrew Leahy

Growing up in the foothills of Ricketts Glen State Park, Andrew spent his early life in the embrace of Northeastern PA forests, sowing the seeds for his ongoing enchantment with the natural world and its stewardship. While studying English and Music Composition at Muhlenberg College, he gravitated toward nonprofit engagement as a work study student in the college’s Office of Community Engagement. Now, at the Horn Farm Center, Andrew manages social media, develops educational programs, coordinates volunteer events, and collaborates on marketing projects, large events, and organizational capacity-building. Through all of this, he is a dedicated student of the land, with a life’s mission of learning (and providing spaces for others to learn) about bioregional ecology, regenerative agriculture, permaculture, foraging, and locally-focused ways of living in reciprocal relationship with nature.

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