Watts Branch post-restoration

Watts Branch, a tributary of the Anacostia River, after its restoration. The project was funded largely by the District of Columbia Department of Energy and Environment and involved the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Park Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington Water and Sewer, and several local organizations. 

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 of the land drained by a specific waterway. A watershed also includes all of the streams, creeks and rivers that flow into this waterway, like the Chesapeake Bay.

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. It contains more than 100,000 miles of streams and creeks. Virtually everyone in the watershed lives within a half-mile of a stream or creek that eventually flows into the Bay.

Watts Branch pre-restoration

Watts Branch, a tributary of the Anacostia River, before its restoration. 

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 downstream to larger bodies of water. They also carry sediment, nutrients and pollutants.

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

Streams are an important source of freshwater for reservoirs and the Bay. Hundreds of thousands of small creeks and tiny streams feed five major rivers within the Chesapeake watershed: the Susquehanna, Potomac, Rappahannock, York and James. These rivers provide almost 90% 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. These areas provide food, water, shelter and shade.

The fields, woodlands and wetlands alongside a stream are also important for amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

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. Sediments from runoff and erosion are the primary sources of nonpoint source pollution in our nation’s waterways.

Pollution and loss of habitat have led to 33–75% of aquatic species becoming either rare or extinct.

The Chesapeake watershed reflects this national picture. The quality of the Bay watershed has declined as a result of the loss of natural habitats, including extensive stream systems so vital to the health of the Bay and its surrounding ecosystems. Many, if not most, of the region’s streams have been altered by 300 years of agriculture and development. Approximately 50% of stream miles lack sufficient vegetative buffers to slow and absorb runoff.

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.

Be a stream savior

  • 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.
  • Conserve water. In some households, as much as 40% of the water used each month finds its way into the landscape. Excess outdoor water use runs off the land and carries nutrients, sediment and traces of toxic products into local streams. By reducing our water use indoors, less water has to be processed 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.

Kathryn Reshetiloff, a Bay Journal columnist, is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

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