You may not live on the Chesapeake Bay or any other waterfront, but chances are there is a stream, creek or river close to where you live. So what does that mean? Plenty. We all live in a watershed. A watershed is all the land drained by a specific waterway. A watershed also includes all of the streams, creeks and rivers that flow into this waterway.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed is 64,000 square miles. It includes parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia and the District of Columbia. There are more than 100,000 miles of streams and creeks in the watershed. Virtually everyone in the watershed lives within a half-mile of a stream or creek that eventually flows into the Bay.

Like capillaries bringing blood and nutrients to vital organs in a body, streams are the lifeblood of a watershed. Streams flow over and through the landscape, carrying water, detritus - decaying organic matter, fish and other aquatic life - and pollutants downstream to larger bodies of water.

Streams shape our landscape. Flowing water transforms land features, transporting and depositing soil from one place to another. Deposited onto a floodplain, these mineral-rich soils often become highly prized as farmland.

Streams are an important source of freshwater for our reservoirs and the Bay. Hundreds of thousands of small creeks and tiny streams feed five major rivers within the Chesapeake Bay watershed - the Susquehanna, Potomac, Rappahannock, York and James. These rivers provide almost 90 percent of the Bay's freshwater.

Many wildlife species depend on these tiny waterways. Streams provide homes and breeding areas for small fish, aquatic insects, turtles, frogs and other aquatic life. The fields, woodlands and wetlands along a stream are also important habitats for amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. These areas provide food, water, shelter and shade.

Often, a small stream will be one of the first "natural" places a child investigates, a seemingly wild area full of adventures. The sound of trickling water as it flows over small rocks and winds through the landscape is both soothing and calming. Streams offer us a place of refuge from the stress that has become a part of our everyday lives. Streams connect us.

Nationally, freshwater rivers and streams have been seriously damaged by our activities on the land. Sediment from runoff and erosion are the primary sources of nonpoint source pollution in our nation's waterways.

Aquatic species have been greatly impacted: Roughly 68 percent of freshwater mussel species, 51 percent of crayfish species, 41 percent of amphibians and 39 percent of freshwater fish are either extinct or at risk of extinction as a result of of pollution and loss of habitat, as well as the encroachment of nonnative species.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed reflects this national picture. The quality of the Bay watershed continues to decline because of habitat destruction, including extensive degradation of stream systems, vital to the health of the Bay and its surrounding ecosystems. Fifty percent of stream miles lack sufficient buffers, and many, if not most, of our streams have been altered by 300 years of agriculture and development. To ensure that our rivers and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay are healthy and able to support fish and wildlife, we must have healthy streams.

People tend to put boundaries around everything, but it is extremely hard to disconnect a smaller waterway from its downstream destination. The fluidity of water itself makes this virtually impossible.

We can learn a lot from this connectivity. If we realize that every tiny stream is merely an appendage of a bigger watershed, we soon become connected not only to our immediate surroundings but the entire ecosystem. In this context, streams can either be the first point of destruction or the first line of protection for our environment.

Here's what you can do to protect streams and the Chesapeake Bay:

  • Know your local waterway; get involved with local watershed associations.
  • Treat the land and water as one. Remember that what you do on the land also affects local waterways. Reduce your use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
  • Conserve water. In some households, as much as 40 percent of the water used each month finds its way into the landscape. Excess outdoor water use runs off the land carrying nutrients, sediment and traces of toxics into local streams. By reducing water use indoors, less water has to be treated by a sewage treatment plant or in a septic system.
  • If your property includes a stream, creek or river, plant native vegetation as buffers along the waterway to reduce erosion, intercept pollutants and provide important streamside habitat for wildlife. Contact wildlife or natural resource specialists for information about using native plants and creating wildlife habitats.