Wetland buffers are no substitute for landscape-scale conservation
Ecosphere , Volume 10 - Issue 4
Wetlands in farmland are at risk of contamination by fertilizers and pesticides. One recommendation for reducing wetland contamination is to maintain a buffer of contiguous uncropped land around the wetland (a wetland buffer). Many agricultural water protection policies around the world recommend 5 to 50-m wide uncropped buffers around water bodies, but it is unclear how large wetland buffers must be to effectively protect against these chemicals. In addition, it is unclear whether wetland buffers have similar—or stronger—effects on fertilizer and pesticide contamination than reducing the amount of cropped land within the larger landscape context around wetlands. Our study, conducted across 37 wetlands in eastern Ontario, Canada, addressed the following questions: (1) Does increasing buffer width, or increasing the amount of contiguous uncropped land within recommended buffer width guidelines, reduce nutrient and pesticide levels in agricultural wetlands? (2) Does increasing uncropped land cover in the broader landscape reduce nutrient and pesticide levels in agricultural wetlands? and (3) What is the relative importance of buffer size and landscape-scale uncropped cover for reducing nutrient and pesticide levels in agricultural wetlands? A rigorous site selection process was employed to minimize the correlation between buffer size and landscape-scale uncropped cover, minimize spatial gradients in these predictor variables, and minimize variation in potentially confounding variables. We obtained nutrient and pesticide data by collecting water samples from each wetland under similar weather conditions in June–July 2015. Nitrate concentrations were measured using ion chromatography, and atrazine and neonicotinoid (pesticide) concentrations using a combination of high-performance liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry. We found that nitrate, atrazine, and neonicotinoid concentrations in study wetlands were unaffected by wetland buffer size. However, concentrations of each chemical decreased with uncropped land cover in the surrounding 150 to 300-m radius landscapes. To effectively protect water in agricultural wetlands from contamination by nitrate-based fertilizers and atrazine or neonicotinoid pesticides, we recommend either increasing the policy-recommended width of wetland buffers to at least 150 m, or abandoning the buffer paradigm in favor of landscape-scale conservation.