Saturday, July 13, 2024

Virginia Sees Increase in Forested Buffers, but Watershed Struggling to Meet Goals

A forested buffer planted along Reedy Creek in Richmond. (Charlie Paullin/Virginia Mercury)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — State and regional partners in Virginia saw an increase in forested buffers planted within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed to reduce pollution and sediment erosion in 2023 compared to 2022, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program.

The gains in Virginia are an improvement, but come as the rest of the 64,000-mile region that extends into New York is falling short of its annual goal as part of the multi-state effort to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

“Forest buffers are foundational for meeting many of the partnership’s goals for water quality, habitat, climate resilience and people,” said Katherine Brownson, U.S. Forest Service liaison to the Chesapeake Bay Program and coordinator of the Chesapeake Bay Program Forestry Workgroup, in a statement.

Riparian forest buffers are the trees, shrubs and bushes planted along waterways that catch nutrients running off from land before they enter and pollute waterways feeding into the Chesapeake Bay. The roots also hold onto dirt along stream banks, preventing erosion from clouding streams and rivers that fish swim in.

In 2022, the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the Chesapeake Bay Program that tracks cleanup progress of the Bay, acknowledged that targets to clean up the Bay by a certain amount next year are not likely to be met.

This month, the Bay program reported that Virginia had planted 298 miles of buffers in 2023, up from 50 in 2022. The watershed as a whole added 640 miles of riparian barriers in 2023, up from 457 in 2022. The watershed’s goal is to add 900 miles a year, and conserve existing barriers until 70% of the riparian, or stream, areas are forested.

Satellite imagery from the Bay Program’s Land Use and Land Cover Data, collected every four years, shows that in 2013 and 2014, about 69.3% of the watershed’s 4.6 million riparian area was forested. That number fell to 68.8% in 2017 and 2018, a loss of 21,743 acres representing a .47% decrease.%

Virginia, which has about 40% of the watershed’s riparian area, had forested over 70% of its riparian area as of 2018, but experienced the largest loss of all the watershed states between 2014 and 2018, about .85%, or 15,829 acres.

The Bay Program also noted an increase in general tree canopy numbers within the watershed, but a net loss trend. This year, members of Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate passed bills that expanded statewide the authority to replace and conserve trees that may be destroyed during the homebuilding process, but Gov. Glenn Youngkin vetoed them, while signing one that encourages a review of tree conservation efforts and calls for the creation of an urban forestry plan.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental nonprofit focused on cleaning up the bay, noted that this year’s forested buffers planted across the region were the most since 2016, but said, “our region is losing more forested buffers to development and other causes than it is gaining through planting.”

“Even though we’ve long known that protecting and restoring trees along waterways is one of the most efficient ways to prevent pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, these efforts are still falling short,” said Alison Prost, Bay Foundation vice president for environmental protection and restoration, in a statement.

The Virginia Department of Forestry has a program to help install tree buffers on people’s properties, which has included a partnership with the Bay Foundation and the James River Association to install over 1,000 acres of trees planted along waterways in the Upper and Middle James River Watershed over the past five years.

“These forested buffers are planted at no cost to the landowner,” said Matt Kowalski, Watershed Restoration Scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Virginia.

The total new riparian forested buffer areas as a result of a partnership between the Virginia Department of Forestry, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the James River Association. (Courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation).

The Department of Conservation and Recreation offers a cost-share program for farmers to install the buffers on their property, as well as several other pollution and sediment reduction agricultural best management practices.

Following record amounts of funding devoted to DCR’s cost-share program in recent years, at its June 26 meeting, the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board is expected to allocate about $206 million to the cost-share program to implement the best management practices throughout the state, with about $106 million devoted to the Bay watershed region of the state

According to information from DCR, cost-share funding led to the installation of about 6,000 acres of forested buffers as of 2023. About 4,000 acres need to be planted this year, and each of the next three years, in order to meet a Bay cleanup goal of 21,000 acres of forested buffers planted by the end of 2027.

The Farm Bill, a federal piece of legislation carried out primarily by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has funded a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program that offsets costs for forest buffer installation, and recently made changes to dole out payments on a rolling basis rather than on an annual occurrence.

Last year, Virginia Farm Bureau President Wayne Pryor wrote in the organization’s September magazine that tree buffers, among other practices, “are conservation methods that farmers may already want to implement, but don’t have the resources to do so.”

Martha Moore, senior vice president of governmental relations at the Virginia Farm Bureau, added that the development that is taking up land with forrested buffers “is probably impacted by solar.”

“That’s why the tree conservation plan” the Department of Forestry is working on is important, Moore added.

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