If you canoe or kayak on rivers, you quickly find that you spend more of your time prepping supplies and equipment, loading and unloading, and shuttling between the put-in and the take-out, than you ever do paddling on the water. So, it was no surprise to me last Friday that my friend and I were ready to launch on the St. Croix River, just in time to stop and eat lunch. We climbed into our canoe, shoved off from the landing, and then paddled more or less diagonally straight across the river to a sandbar where we promptly parked ourselves for the next hour.
The sandbar was part of an island, one of many in the St. Croix River, which was covered in a floodplain forest comprised of towering silver maples, sedges waving in the wind, bright red bursts of cardinal flower, and low-growing arrowhead. After eating, my son and I set off, following deer tracks that led this way and that across the beach and through mud and tall grass. Further down, we spotted raccoon tracks, which he said looked just like baby handprints in the sand. It was clear from our short tour that the island was a hotpot for wildlife.
Riparian areas – the land along lakes, rivers, and streams – are some of the most productive habitat for plants and animals. Birds build their nests in these areas, accessing the water easily to fish, skim for insects, and hunt for frogs and more. Turtles sun themselves on fallen logs during the summer and bury themselves in mud along the bank during the winter. Larger animals like deer, raccoons, fox and fishers come frequently to the water’s edge as well. In addition to providing wildlife habitat, the trees, shrubs, and other plants that grow in riparian areas are well adapted to fluctuating water levels and stabilize the soil, preventing erosion along lakeshores and river and stream banks. Deep and widespread root systems spread out underground, creating a mesh net that holds the soil in place.
In light of Minnesota’s new buffer legislation, many people are wondering, what exactly is a buffer and will more buffers statewide really improve habitat and water quality? The Buffer Initiative is a multi-agency effort led by Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture, Board of Water and Soil Resources, Department of Natural Resources, and Pollution Control Agency. In general, the new law will require all lakes, rivers and streams in the state to be surrounded by vegetated buffers 50-feet wide, on average, and all public ditches to have 16.5-foot wide buffers as well. Buffers will need to be installed on public waters by November, 2017 and on public drainage systems by November, 2018. Legally, any perennial plant can be used for a buffer, including turf grass, though many people choose native plants that don’t need to be mowed or perennial grasses and legumes that can be used for hay.
While it is true that buffers will not solve all of our water pollution problems in Minnesota, they do offer many benefits. To begin with, deep-rooted native and perennials plants provide excellent protection against erosion. I recall kayaking along the Rush River in western Wisconsin last year and seeing places where corn was literally falling into the river because the riverbank was sloughing away. Erosion is a serious problem not only for water quality – the sediment muddies the water, clogging fish gills and smothering spawning sites – but also for landowners; the soil along a river’s edge might be productive, but not if you lose half an acre to erosion. Additionally, vegetated buffers can filter out some of the nutrients and pollution that flow overland into lakes, rivers and streams. Finally, as I’ve already noted, these areas create habitat for frogs, turtles, fish and other wildlife, particularly if the buffers include native trees, shrubs and plants. Even narrow buffers along ditches and straightened streams can have habitat value if they include flowering plants with nectar for butterflies and bees.
In Washington County, most of the local Watershed Districts have existing buffer rules in place, some of which require native vegetation, and the Washington Conservation District is able to help local landowners to tap into federal and state assistance programs to establish and maintain buffers as well. In addition, watershed cost-share grants help homeowners to restore their shoreline areas by planting native plants in areas where there is currently only turf or eroding ground. Learn more about these programs at www.mnwcd.org/planting-for-clean-water.
Learn more about the Minnesota Buffer Initiative at www.dnr.state.mn.us/buffers.