You may not live on the Chesapeake Bay or another waterfront, but chances are there is some stream, creek or river nearby.

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 the streams, creeks and rivers that flow into a waterway, like the Chesapeake Bay.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed is 64,000 square miles. It includes parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, 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), organisms and, in some cases, 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 the 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 fresh water.

Many wildlife species depend on these tiny waterways. Streams provide spawning and breeding habitat for small fish and other wildlife like aquatic insects, turtles, frogs, toads and salamanders.

The fields, woodlands and wetlands along a stream are also important habitat for amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Known as riparian habitat, these areas provide food, water, shelter and shade.

Streams are good for the soul. Often, a small stream will be one of the first “natural” places a child investigates. I still remember the tiny stream I explored almost daily as a child. Although it was in the middle of suburbia, to me it was wild and full of adventures. Today, I am still lured by small woodland streams. 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 in-stream erosion are the primary sources of nonpoint source pollution in the nation’s waterways. Because of pollution and the loss of habitat, 33–75 percent of aquatic species are either rare or extinct.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed reflects this national picture. The quality of the Bay watershed continues to decline from habitat destruction, including the extensive destruction 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.

As humans, we tend to put imaginary boundaries around everything, but it is extremely hard to disconnect a smaller waterway from its downstream destination. The fluidity of water makes this virtually impossible. We can learn a lot from this connectivity. If we realize that every tiny watershed is merely an appendage of a bigger watershed, we soon become connected not only to our immediate surroundings but to 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:

  • Get to know your local waterway whether it is a stream, creek or river; get involved with local watershed associations.

  • Treat the land and water as one. Remember that what you do on the land also affects the local waterway. Reduce your use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. If you must use these products, carefully follow all directions.

  • Conserve water. In some households, as much as 40 percent of the water used each month finds its way into the landscape. Wasted water running off the land carries nutrients, sediment and traces of toxic products into local streams. Also, by using less indoor water, 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 plants as vegetative 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.