Riparian Zone Effects on Water Quality
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Riparian ecosystems in Georgia are almost exclusively forested wetlands or floodplain forests. Our understanding of the importance of riparian ecosystems in maintaining water quality has been based on a relatively small number of research projects carried out over the last decade. Much of this research has examined effects on runoff and drainage from agricultural land. The Southeast Watershed Research Laboratory of the Agricultural Research Service, in cooperation with the University of Georgia, has made substantial contributions to our understanding of riparian ecosystems. This paper will present a review of research on riparian ecosystems and water quality in the coastal plain and will examine a number of management issues concerning riparian zones. In the Gulf-Atlantic Coastal Plain of the southeastern U. S., riparian forests often form a natural buffer between row-crop fields in upland areas and the stream channel. This natural buffer was not always in place. When plowing and cultivation were done with horses and mules, it was possible to plow closer to the stream than it is today with large tractors. Aerial photographs from Turner County, GA show clearly that forest buffer strips which are now 30m to 40m wide were not present in the 1930's (Lowrance et al., 1986). Although water quality data for these earlier times are not available, it is likely that the lack of a riparian buffer strip resulted in higher sediment loads and contamination of surface water with the agricultural chemicals used in those days.