Simply stated, a riparian buffer consists of a border of vegetation existing adjacent to waterways or wetlands, either natural or planted, and which serves to filter upland storm water runoff from directly entering those resources. Within the Gateway Conservation Zone, with its primarily residential development, such runoff often carries fertilizers and pesticides used to enhance residential lawns extending between homes and the river. In some marina locations where such buffers exist, the vegetation can also filter other chemicals such as petroleum products and cleaning solvents. Riparian buffers are also important habitat for wildlife, including the many species of birds that live in the lower Connecticut River valley or annually migrate through the area on their way either south to winter, or north to summer. In some instances, mature riparian buffer vegetation also provides visual buffering of Conservation Zone development as well.
The riparian buffer card shown at left, and several other informational pieces which will be available at local town halls and libraries, were developed for the Gateway Commission by Ms. Judy Preston of the Tidewater Institute. The riparian buffer work was intended as background for a Commission effort to adopt extensive riparian buffer standards within the Gateway Conservation Zone. Following the work and further consideration, the Gateway Commission decided to use the riparian work - at this time anyway - for educational purposes only. Standards, if appropriate and supported by Gateway member towns, will come at a later time. Besides, the Gateway Commission already has a protective riparian buffer standard which prohibits the removal of vegetative buffers within 50 feet of the Connecticut River shoreline and those of its tributaries and associated wetlands (Old Saybrook adopted a more stringent 100 foot riparian buffer regulation). Where no riparian buffer exists, efforts are made during development application reviews to convince property owners to plant such buffers for the health of the river.
In 2009, Tidewater Institute prepared a Riparian Sampler that provides significant information and photographs of riparian buffers within the lower Connecticut River and within the Gateway Conservation Zone. As stated in the preamble, the pictures contained therein come from the 2006 investigation of Connecticut River estuary riparian buffers undertaken by the Connecticut River Estuary Regional Planning Agency (CRERPA) and Tidewater Institute (TI). The intent is to demonstrate what natural and modified riparian buffers look like, with helpful suggestions for enhancing the effectiveness of these important environmental filters.
Despite abundant scientific research that has been conducted in the CT River estuary, no single study had up to that point consolidated information on the existence and condition of shoreline vegetated buffers and riparian areas that are known to be an important natural tool to counter the affects of nonpoint source water pollution. The investigation pulled together both existing GIS data and field observations to produce a regional tool that has succeeded in guiding further resource protection - through the conservation of riparian buffers - in the CT River estuary and the Gateway Conservation Zone.
In addition to experiencing the lower CT River and its major tributaties as only a small open boat can afford, this study also underscores both the extraordinary beauty and vulnerability of the lower CT River region. The lower river is fortunate to have had, and continue to be the focus of considerable attention that has translated into a large percentage of intact shoreline, primarily through conservation land acquisition and conservation easements by federal, state and local organizations (almost 50% of properties bordering the river within the Conservation Zone are owned in conservation by organizations including the Gateway Commission, The Nature Conservancy, the CT DEEP and numerous smaller municipal conservation organizations and local land trusts). While invasive species concentrations suggest that these conserved areas are not entirely free of threats, they are nonetheless serving the important role of protecting water quality of the CT River through intact vegetated buffers. While large areas of the shoreline remain in marsh or woodland, currently developed and vacant parcels throughout these local communities continue to experience development pressure. The very thing that attracts new residents and leads to rising property values - the quality of life that can be realized living in close proximity to an exemplary natural resource - is also what will challenge the Gateway area communities in the lower river to preserve what makes this valley so special.