Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Science



First Advisor

Schoonover, Jon


Riparian buffers in agricultural landscapes are designed to trap pollutants in overland flow by slowing, filtering, and infiltrating surface runoff entering the buffer via sheet flow. However, observational evidence suggests that concentrated flow is prevalent from agricultural fields. Also, over time sediment can accumulate in riparian buffers forming berms that restrict sheet flow from moving into the buffers; these berms ultimately back up surface runoff, resulting in an eventual breakthrough which concentrates runoff. Breakthrough by concentrated flow can lead to gully formation that may reduce the filtering capacities of buffer systems by providing direct conduits to stream channels. This study explores the frequency of concentrated flow paths in riparian buffers at both the field and watershed scale. At the field scale, intensive topographic surveys were conducted at 10 field sites in southern Illinois to characterize concentrated flow paths, accumulated berm sediments, and field area drained by concentrated flow. Detailed digital elevation models (DEMs) were created for each site and riparian buffer and agriculture field characteristics were analyzed to assess the development and occurrence of concentrated flow paths. At each site, soil samples were analyzed to characterize sediment deposition patterns within the buffer. To assess the prevalence of concentrated flow paths at the watershed scale, three watersheds in southern Illinois were selected for walking stream surveys. Five stream segments, approximately 1000 m long, were randomly selected within each watershed and surveyed for the occurrence and size of concentrated flow paths. These data were analyzed with respect to riparian buffer vegetation, buffer width, and surrounding land cover data. Concentrated flow paths were identified in all topographic surveys and all walking stream surveys indicating a common occurrence in agricultural watersheds of southern Illinois. Among field scale sites, concentrated flow accounted for 82.5-100% of the drainage areas contributing to riparian buffers. Results from the watershed scale analysis suggest that concentrated flow paths are significantly more abundant in agricultural land cover, than forested land. Current riparian buffer design principles are based on the assumption that sheet flow is the primary form of surface runoff entering buffers. Furthermore, buffers are installed and not maintained which can lead to berm accumulation and buffer failure. Results from this study indicate that concentrated flow was the prevalent form of runoff at field scale sites. Managers need to consider the occurrence of concentrated flow paths when designing riparian buffers to protect stream water quality.




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