Riparian Buffers, Water Quality and Carbon Sequestration

Streamside buffers on farmland are a centerpiece of efforts to improve water quality and achieve Bay restoration goals, along with other benefits to wildlife habitat and cooler stream temperatures for brook trout and other aquatic life. The Bay states, including Maryland, set a goal of 70% tree canopy along streams by 2025. Yet only 58% of the streams in Maryland have tree canopy, according to a recent study conducted by the Hughes Center, Chesapeake Conservancy, and others. Incentive programs exist to encourage farmland owners to plant forest or grass buffers, including the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and Maryland’s Conservation Buffer Initiative.

This study, led by Dr. David Newburn and Dr. Erik Lichtenberg at the University of Maryland (UMD), aims to analyze the incentive program features that are most effective in encouraging rural landowners in Maryland to plant streamside buffers. The UMD researchers conducted a survey of farmland owners throughout Maryland to collect farm-level information on current streamside buffers and landowners’ responsiveness to existing and proposed alternative incentive program designs. The alternative programs vary in terms of the contract length (5 to 15 years), upfront payments, and other features. The economic analysis of the farm-level likelihood of participation will be combined with site-specific estimates of nutrient and sediment reductions using the Chesapeake Bay Program Watershed model and other information. Additionally, the project plans to explore whether paying farmland owners for sequestering carbon in forest buffers as an extra revenue source would significantly increase landowner participation in existing incentive programs like CREP.

The project aims to improve the effectiveness of buffer incentive programs to achieve water quality improvements and provide insights to help reach types of farmland owners who have been under-represented in existing agricultural conservation programs. As a UMD Extension Specialist, Newburn plans to work with a wide range of agencies and resource professionals to perform policy-relevant analysis based on the goals of the stakeholders across the state and the Chesapeake Bay region.

(Photo Courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program)