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By Catherine Clabby

Right now, waterfront property owners in some parts of the state are required to sustain undisturbed strips of vegetation along adjacent  waterways.

But in coming months, North Carolina legislators must decide whether that is good public policy or an unfair imposition on private land.

Senate Bill 434, if approved by the House of Representatives, would order the Environmental Management Commission to repeal a rule that riparian buffers be maintained along of the main stem of the Catawba River.

The bill successfully passed through the Senate this week.

The measure would also forbid all municipalities from requiring buffers bigger than those required by the state or federal government.

Sen. Andy Wells (R-Hickory), a commercial real estate developer and a primary sponsor of the proposed legislation, made his current take on buffers crystal clear in a blog post published Wednesday.

“[I]t’s a taking without compensation,” Wells wrote in the post. “If the DOT wants to build a road across private property it pays the landowner for a right-of-way. But the Department of Environment [sic] pays a homeowner nothing when it takes part of his property for a riparian buffer.”

A slide from NC State University associate professor Michael Burchell II’s presentation to the state Environmental Management Commission (EMC). Image courtesy of the EMC

On the other side of the argument, Sam Perkins, the Catawba Riverkeeper, sees assets, not losses, in buffers.

Lifting the requirement along the Catawba, Perkins said, could affect as much as 1,000 miles of waterfront and, potentially, the quality of drinking water quality for millions of people. Because the Catawba remains dammed up and divided into lakes in several places (a vestige of Duke Energy’s onetime hydropower system) he claimed the river is vulnerable.

“Water quality can degrade quickly when water stagnates and does not flush through the system,” Perkins said. ”This is a major issue given that the river and its lakes also supply millions in the region with drinking water.

“Every little bit – including buffers – helps.”

Riparian what?

Requiring riparian buffers, frequently 50 feet wide, has been central to  North Carolina’s efforts to prevent nutrient pollution from washing into public waterways for decades.

Riparian buffers hug banks of streams, rivers and lakes placing a natural border between waterways and developed land, including crop land. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture

The state Department of Environmental Quality has created buffer programs for the Neuse River, Tar-Pamlico River and Catawba River basins and for Randleman Lake Watershed, Jordan Lake Watershed and Goose Creek Watershed, which, together, provide drinking water for millions of people.  Some municipalities have established their own buffers.

As documented by former DEQ assistant secretary Robin Smith, the use of buffers took hold in North Carolina in the 1990s after excess amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus, food for algae were linked to fish kills. Most dramatic was a three-month episode in the Neuse River in 1995 that killed tens of millions of fish.

Nutrient sources on land include lawn and crop field fertilizers, livestock manure, human sewage and automobile and coal-fired power plant air emissions that fall to the ground. These contribute to large algal blooms, which can reduce oxygen needed for many organisms underwater and can produce toxins dangerous to people and animals.

Environmentalists like buffers because research has shown that they not only can reduce nutrient pollution reaching waterways, they help support plant and animal habitats that development otherwise erase.

In a presentation to the state’s Environmental Management Commission last year, Michael Burchell II, an associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering at N.C. State University, cited evidence of several benefits from strips of vegetation.

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Buffers behave like natural filters, Burchell explained. On the surface, grasses slow the flow of storm water, making it easier for plants to absorb excess phosphorus in sediments in the water. Plants and microbes within buffers also use nitrogen in groundwater beneath the surface of a buffer, reducing the quantity of that substance released into streams.

On top of that, the roots of the assorted plants within buffers help stabilize stream banks, which reduces sediment runoff that can cloud waterways and threaten aquatic life. The plants also produce shade that helps limit algae growth.

And plant matter that flows into waterways contributes to the food chain that supports fish and other organisms within.

There are economic benefits, too. Municipalities, which often carry the pricey burden of treating wastewater discharged into rivers to help meet federal clean water standards, value barriers for their cleansing effects, said Scott Mooneyham, a spokesman for the N.C. League of Municipalities.

“Allowing riparian buffers that exceed state minimums is often the most cost-effective means of meeting federal permitting standards,” Mooneyham said.

“Science says buffers are the least expensive and most effective means of treatment.”

The state Department of Environmental Quality also wants to sustain buffers said Andy Miller, DEQ’s legislative affairs director.

In coming months  agency officials hope to meet with Wells, co-chair of the Senate’s agriculture, environment and natural resources committee, to both better understand and try to address his concerns and to share evidence of the benefits from buffers, he said.

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Catherine Clabby

Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...