Agriculture is the state's largest industry. It can also be a major contributor to water pollution. In large quantities, essential elements in farming such as nitrogen, phosphorus and pesticides become toxic to streams. Eroding soil can be deadly, too.
But George Vellidis, a University of Georgia researcher, said farmers can help. By enhancing the streamside forests, they can create protective barriers between the state's delicate waterways and the potentially harmful materials they use in their fields.
"Resources out of place become pollution," said Vellidis, a UGA associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering. "With this (research) we're looking at water quality and how much agriculture is affecting it."
At the Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton, Ga., Vellidis worked along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to see how well these riparian, or streamside, buffer zones work in Georgia.
A riparian forest is an area of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants next to and upslope from a stream or waterway. Vellidis said nature has its own way of dealing with potential pollutants when given a chance. This organic buffer zone slows down harmful runoff from fields into streams. It gives nature a chance to safely absorb and deal with them.
The buffer zone allows bacteria in the soil to convert harmful nitrates dissolved in groundwater into harmless nitrogen gas. And the root system of the forest controls eroding soil that could become stream-choking sediment.
This type of forest is also an investment for landowners. Part of it can be planted in trees. Harvesting these from time to time brings extra cash flow from the land.
Many streams in south Georgia have these buffers naturally. Vellidis said this is a major reason why the quality of the water there is relatively good. As you move into southwestern Georgia, these natural buffers occur less.
Riparian forests don't fight pollution just on farms. In north Georgia, he said, urban sediment is the No. 1 pollutant in streams.
Because of the sloping landscape, runoff quickly finds its way into urban waterways. By studying the hydrology of this area, scientists could construct a riparian buffer zone to battle misplaced resources.
Buffer Zones Work
These riparian buffers, he said, have proven to work in other parts of the country. The Chesapeake Bay was being polluted by dairy farming in Pennsylvania and row crop farming in Maryland. An initiative was started seven years ago, he said, to construct buffer forests in these states.
"We know the research works," he said. "We are now moving away from the research and into demonstration, and into the public's mind."
The Riparian Buffer Initiative was started with 24 on-farm demonstration sites in Georgia. The sites show how the buffer zones work with major farming operations.
Farmers and landowners can get funding through the Conservation Reserve Program to establish riparian buffer zones on their land. The program gives farmers financial incentives to place land under conservation protection.
Vellidis said the economic incentive is often not great enough for farmers to take land out of production. Through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, a state can offer greater incentives for farmers to take critical land out of production and into conservation. But Georgia has not yet applied for this program.
For more information about the CRP, landowners should call their local Farm Service Agency.
(Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)