Lake Look - Are you Stream Wise?

JULY 2023

Lake Champlain has one particular quality that sets it apart from its Great Lake neighbors. The Lake Champlain Basin has the highest ratio of land to water; in other words, it has the greatest amount of land draining to the smallest area of water. That means that residents of the watershed have an opportunity to use land stewardship as a means of water protection. There are many approaches to managing land with water quality in mind depending on what kind of land you’re working with, but one surefire land management strategy for healthy waterways is a stream buffer. Stream buffers are the vegetated land between streams and any kind of human development like roads, buildings, or agricultural fields. This land acts as a protective sponge to soak up runoff from the adjacent development and prevent pollutants from entering waterways that will carry them to Lake Champlain. Stream buffers are also key wildlife habitat, as forested land around streams supports a wide diversity of birds and mammals that depend on water, as well as the aquatic life in the stream itself that relies on woody debris from the surrounding forest. Critically in the era of climate change particularly, healthy stream buffers also help with flood resiliency by keeping water levels in streams lower, slowing the flow, and preventing erosion.

The Lake Champlain Committee (LCC) is a partner in a new program called Stream Wise. Organized by the Lake Champlain Basin Program, Stream Wise is a way for people who live near streams and rivers to be recognized and rewarded for maintaining a healthy stream buffer. The program consists of an assessment wherein a trained Stream Wise assessor visits your property and helps determine if it meets the criteria to be considered “Stream Wise” and issues awards and recommendations accordingly. It helps landowners learn about what makes a stream buffer effective and how to improve the land around the waterway that runs through or along their property. LCC will be offering free, voluntary Stream Wise assessments for landowners (and renters!) whose land is directly adjacent to a stream all summer and into early fall.

What exactly makes a stream buffer “Stream Wise”? Size is the first key component. A narrow hedge running alongside a stream is better than nothing, but for a buffer to fully function as it should, it must be wide enough to catch and filter stormwater runoff. Buffers should be at least 50 feet wide on properties larger than an acre, and at least 30 feet on smaller properties. This amount of vegetated land effectively slows down the flow of stormwater and captures more runoff before it reaches the stream.

The next thing we look for in “Stream Wise” properties is the composition of the different buffer zones. Buffers consist of distinct zones as you work your way from the stream itself to the outer edge of the buffer, and all zones need to be intact in order to be Stream Wise. The first zone is the stream bank itself. There should be no erosion or channelization caused by upland runoff, and if hard armoring along the stream like rip rap is used, it must be stabilized by extensive woody vegetation. The second zone is the streamside zone, which comprises the first 15 feet from the edge of the stream into the buffer. The streamside zone should have no disturbance, clearing, or development whatsoever aside from access paths and a small amount of pruning for stream views. The third zone is the middle zone, which extends from the streamside zone to the edge of the minimum buffer edge. There should be limited human-caused disturbance in this zone, with a maximum of 10% development (this includes maintained lawns and compacted soil, as well as structures and pavement). The final buffer layer is the upland zone, which extends beyond the minimum buffer edge throughout the property. While this is not the technical buffer itself, it is important because this is where stormwater makes contact with the building or parking area. This is where natural topography, vegetation, gardens, and green stormwater infrastructure like rain gardens can be added to spread out stormwater and prevent runoff from entering the buffer in the first place.

After the buffer zones are accounted for, the final Stream Wise category is buffer vegetation. On land that would be forested prior to development, which is the case for the majority of the Lake Champlain Basin, there should be a mixture of all vertical tiers of woodland. This includes the upper canopy layer of mature trees, an understory layer of saplings, a shrub layer, ground cover herbaceous plants like native grasses and ferns, and a duff layer—the organic dead plant material you find on a forest floor. The vegetation should be at least 75% native species. The edges of streambanks can be prime habitat for invasive species like Japanese Knotweed. While a buffer full of invasive species can still appear to be densely vegetated, it cannot function as healthy habitat and often forms a monoculture, which is detrimental to biodiversity.

A program like Stream Wise has many functions. For one, it has a direct impact on the land being assessed: landowners who value resilient natural communities and water quality will have access to specific resources for making the greatest impact in their own backyards. Another less tangible function of Stream Wise is to educate the broader public about how streams and their buffers are important and why they should be maintained. It helps foster a cultural shift towards land management that prioritizes water quality, flood resilience, and biodiversity.

In the Burlington area, LCC plans to conduct Stream Wise assessments on properties near Englesby and Potash Brooks. If you are interested in learning more, please email Sign up here for a free Stream Wise property assessment.

LCC’s Stream Wise project has been funded in part by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) under assistance agreement (LC00A00981-0) to NEIWPCC in partnership with the Lake Champlain Basin Program.

Lake Look is a monthly natural history column produced by the Lake Champlain Committee (LCC). Formed in 1963, LCC is a bi-state nonprofit that uses science-based advocacy, education, and collaborative action to protect and restore water quality, safeguard natural habitats, foster stewardship, and ensure recreational access. You can joinrenew your membership, make a special donation, or volunteer to further our work.