Riparian buffers are an important conservation practice to mitigate water quality degradation in the Coastal Plain of the Chesapeake Bay watershed (CBW). Although forested and grassed riparian buffers have been implemented in this region through government programs, the impacts of riparian buffers on water quality have been rarely examined. The objective of this study was to assess the long-term effects of riparian buffers to improve water quality in the Coastal Plain of the CBW. A watershed model, Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT), was employed for this study. Considering impacts of model uncertainty (i.e., equifinality) on the effectiveness of riparian buffers, we adopted all parameter sets that produced acceptable simulation results. Multiple riparian buffer implementation scenarios were developed to generate the baseline condition on total organic nitrogen (TON) loads without riparian buffers and examine variation of TON loads with areal coverage of riparian buffers. Through the calibration processes, a total of 235 acceptable parameter sets were identified and used to simulate TON loads. The simulation results indicated that riparian buffers significantly reduce TON loads. Without riparian buffers, annual TON loads from the 220 km2 study watershed were 18 to 34 metric tons, but declined to 8 to 21 metric tons with riparian buffers. The effectiveness of riparian buffers on reducing annual TON loads increased from 17% to 45% with an increase in the extent of riparian buffer implementation. The effectiveness of riparian buffers tended to be higher during early spring than other seasons as high soil water conditions promote occurrence of surface water flow and thus TON loads. Riparian buffers were more efficient on croplands than other land use types due to high soil nutrient levels caused by fertilizer applications. The effectiveness of riparian buffers differed considerably by parameter set. Thus, efforts to consider model uncertainty are important to provide better insight into the impacts of conservation practices. This study supports ongoing riparian buffer programs for the Mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain by demonstrating the effectiveness of riparian buffers and informing implementation guidelines.
Published in the Journal of Hydrology, Volume 585, June 2020: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhydrol.2020.124779