Plant Riparian Forest Buffers

Trees and Shrubs to Protect Water Quality

There are natural and human-caused activities that affect water quality and availability, including extreme weather events, wildfires, and changes in land use. Clearing forests and developing land for residential, commercial, or industrial uses can negatively influence water quality. One effective tool for helping to slow the speed of and filter pollutants out of the water is to establish healthy riparian forest buffer zones along streams and other waterbodies.

Riparian Forest Buffer: a linear wooded area of varying width near a water feature that helps to filter nutrients, sediments, and other pollutants from runoff, as well as removes nutrients from groundwater. Riparian refers to water features, so riparian forest buffers are transition areas that protect streams, creeks, or other water bodies from pollutants.

Riparian forest buffer zones contain many trees and other vegetation, which slow and absorb floodwaters. This reduces the likelihood of floodwaters reaching downstream areas that may be heavily populated and developed. When streams or rivers overflow their banks due to flooding, riparian zones slow these waters, causing them to drop much of the sediments and nutrients they were carrying in suspension. Trees and other vegetation trap and absorb the sediment, promoting further growth and increasing the density of root systems.

Stream or riverbeds and the soil of riparian forest buffers play an important role in the storage and filtering of groundwater. During spring thaws and other periods of flooding, they absorb water through many different cracks and pores quite readily, storing it as groundwater, allowing it to slowly percolate back into our water supply.

Riparian buffers also provide important wildlife habitat along waterways. The dense networks formed by trees and other plants in riparian buffers provide excellent shade to cool water temperatures.

Planting Forest Buffers

Establishing new riparian buffers on open land where they don’t currently exist, or expanding existing buffers provide many benefits described previously. Riparian forest buffer species include trees and shrubs adapted to tolerate periodic flooding and saturated soils.

VDOF Seedling Nurseries grow riparian tree species for sale in our seedling store.

VDOF can provide assistance to landowners in planning how best to establish a buffer. Steps often include getting the land ready (preparation), planting trees or ensuring natural seeding of new trees, and follow-up.

Read more about riparian forest buffers in urban areas.


Get help with planting riparian forest buffers.

Find a VDOF Forester


A variety of financial assistance programs are available through VDOF and partner agencies for forest management activities to help protect water quality.

Explore All Financial Assistance Programs


Additional Resources

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Factors Limiting Early Development of Riparian Hardwood Plantings in Page, Shenandoah, Warren and Rockingham Counties in Virginia (2010-2013)
Factors Limiting Early Development of Riparian Hardwood Plantings in Page, Shenandoah, Warren and Rockingham Counties in Virginia (2010-2013)RR-126

Thousands of hardwood seedlings are planted in Virginia every year through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). The plantings are inspected initially and again two to three years later to monitor success. Report summarizes the results of those inspections and underscores the influence natural impacts and maintenance can have on the success of planting.

Viewresearch-resource-information resource-informationpublication
Forest Research Review 2007-09
Forest Research Review 2007-09

Research reports and updates from ongoing VDOF studies. In this issue: financial value of improved loblolly pine seedlings, loblolly pine planting density, white pine seedling handling and planting study, pre-commercial thinning of loblolly pine, riparian buffer planting success, and tree-of-heaven control methods.

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Forest Research Review 2012-08
Forest Research Review 2012-08

Research reports and updates from ongoing VDOF studies. In this issue: effects of pruning in loblolly pine, effects of planting density and fertilizer on loblolly pine growth, varietal vs open-pollinated loblolly pine, biosolids for fertilizing loblolly pine, shortleaf pine provenance test, interplanting loblolly pine, tree shelter comparison for red oak in riparian buffers, crop tree release and fertilization of white oak and southern red oak.

Viewresearch-resource-information resource-informationpublication
Forests and Water - Get the Most Out of Your Land
Forests and Water – Get the Most Out of Your LandP00211

Publication is directed to landowners to educate about forest buffers, stream water quality, watersheds, riparian buffer tax credit program and other programs that can assist. Printed copies available.

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Riparian Buffer Implementation Plan 2006-2010
Riparian Buffer Implementation Plan 2006-2010

Report provides details of the implementation plan to support the Virginia Riparian Buffer Initiative.

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Riparian Buffers Tax Credit
Riparian Buffers Tax CreditP00123

Brochure described the Riparian Buffers Tax Credit program, including who is eligible, how to sign up, application requirements, application approval, Buffer specifications, noncompliance, and inspections. Printed copies available.

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Riparian Forest Buffers - Forests on the Water's Edge
Riparian Forest Buffers – Forests on the Water’s EdgeP00140

Publication is the effort of the Chesapeake Bay Program, including multiple states within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, to educate the community leaders and the public about the benefits of riparian forest Buffers, their importance to watersheds for air quality, water quality and fish and wildlife habitat, forest Buffer losses and how we manage growth in riparian zones, how to maintain quality riparian forest Buffers, efforts in riparian forest restoration, and what you can do for forest Buffers. Printed copies available.

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Riparian Forest Handbook 1 - Appreciating and Evaluating Stream Side Forests
Riparian Forest Handbook 1 – Appreciating and Evaluating Stream Side ForestsNo #

Handbook is a valuable resource describing why riparian forests are important, evaluating the health of your riparian buffer, and determining how to restore your riparian forests.

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Virginia's Forestry Best Management Practices for Water Quality - Field Guide
Virginia’s Forestry Best Management Practices for Water Quality – Field GuideP00134

Technical field guide provides a convenient pocket instruction guide for timber harvesters to protect water quality when harvesting timber and comply with applicable laws. Printed copies available.

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Virginia's Forestry Best Management Practices for Water Quality - Technical Guide - Fifth Edition
Virginia’s Forestry Best Management Practices for Water Quality – Technical Guide – Fifth EditionP00104

Technical guide provides detailed instruction for timber harvesters to protect water quality when harvesting timber and comply with applicable laws. Printed copies available.

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Why Plant Forest Buffer? - Planting Riparian Forest Buffer is Real Forestry
Why Plant Forest Buffer? – Planting Riparian Forest Buffer is Real ForestryFT0013

Forestry topic information sheet emphasizes the importance of riparian Buffers to protect waterways, including what are riparian Buffers, riparian Buffer implementation, and cost-share programs available, such as the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP).

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Contact Us

Your local VDOF forester can provide guidance with planting riparian forest buffers. Contact your local VDOF forester.

For more information or questions, e-mail us or use our contact form.