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Soil Bioengineering

Protecting Our Streams with Plants

Our streams provide us with drinking water, recreational opportunities, and a bountiful array of fish to enjoy. If we are to continue to enjoy these gifts of nature, we must protect our streambanks from erosion and degradation. The technology of soil bioengineering, the use of woody plants to protect our streambanks, lakes, and river edges has been known for centuries, and has recently gained popularity. Bioengineering combines engineering principles with plant science.

Photo of Streambank Stabilization

Living plants protect soil along our shores from erosion caused by rain, ice, wind, and quickly flowing water. Vegetation binds and restrains soil particles through root systems and protects against the mass movement of soil.

The use of plants is preferable to structural engineering methods of erosion control for several reasons:

  • soil bioengineering is often less costly
  • plantings can be more aesthetic than bare concrete and rock
  • plants provide wildlife cover and habitat
  • plants trap sediment and other pollutants and provide nutrients to streams
  • plants shade streams and keep the water cool for fish.

A landowner with an eroding streambank may seek to resolve this problem through the use of soil bioengineering techniques. With assistance from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) or the local Soil Conservation District, the landowner might choose to place woody plant cuttings at the water line.

As vegetation is established, the shoreline becomes more resistant to the forces of fast moving water. Often a combination of soil bioengineering practices and rip rap (stone armor protector) or other structural engineering techniques must be used. Under certain conditions, soil bioengineering techniques cannot be used and structural methods must be employed.

To inquire about the use of soil bioengineering along your stream, contact your USDA Service Center.