The Potomac Highlands Watershed School 

Stream Cleaner Environmental Forum

Native Guides

Watershed Program Leader, USDA Forest Service, Northeastern Area S&PF


The watershed matters! 


The Chesapeake Bay is the nation’s largest and most productive estuary. It was also one of the first to be targeted for restoration.  The unique nature of cooperation among government (federal, state, and local), scientists, and private and non-profit groups has made the Chesapeake Bay Program an international model of large-scale restoration and partnership.  However, all that help and interest doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. 


The watershed of the Bay drains more than 64,000 sq.mi., that’s over 40 million acres and includes portions of six states, stretching from the Finger lakes in New York south to Norfolk VA, and from the mountains of West Virginia nearly to the Atlantic Coast.  It includes Washington, DC, our nation’s capital and the watershed is home to over 15 million people.  This vast landscape ranges from the flat coastal plains, through the fertile hills and valleys of the Piedmont to the steep forested mountains of the Appalachians. 


The Bay itself is 200 miles long and 4-30 miles wide.  It has an intricate shoreline that snakes over 5000 miles in length - more shoreline than the entire pacific coast of the United States. But describing the Bay and its watershed, does not fully illustrate the importance of the land’s influence on the water.  Compared to other bodies of water in the world, the Chesapeake Bay has a huge drainage basin; about 2414 square miles of land for every cubic mile of water. This ratio is orders of magnitude larger than the next Bay in line, the Gulf of Finland, whose land to water ratio is only about 350 to 1.  The principle reason for the Bay’s dominance in these statistics is not its size but rather is extreme shallowness.  The Bay has an average depth of only 22 feet.  However, it is this shallowness that causes its amazing productivity but also its sensitivity to what goes on in the watershed. 


Of the 41.2 million acres of land, about 24 million acres are forested or 58%, one third is agriculture, and about 9% is developed urban areas.  The ways that land is used within the watershed largely determines the quality of the water, the vitality of living resource habitat, and ultimately the health and resilience of the Chesapeake Bay itself.  Although it may seem daunting, this fact also makes us confident that if the tough decisions can be made to improve what happens on the land, the Chesapeake Bay will indeed respond.


The good news is that all of our actions to protect and improve the land and the water no matter where we live cumulatively have an impact.  The bad news is there is no “silver bullet”, no single action or management practice that will save the Bay.  The goal of restoring and then more importantly sustaining the health of the Chesapeake Bay over the long term, requires lots of different actions, by lots of people, in lots of different places to be realized. 


Tributary Strategies

In order to break down this challenge, the Chesapeake Bay Program has developed Tributary Strategies -- river-specific cleanup strategies that detail the "on-the-ground" actions needed to reduce the amount of nutrients and sediment flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.  They are a framework that evolves over time to chart the most efficient and effective course to a clean Chesapeake Bay.   The Bay’s problems ---eutrophication and hypoxia – are due to excess nutrients, the direct result of land use and the human population. Runoff of soil, fertilizers, manure, and pesticides from agricultural lands, point sources of municipal treated sewage, increasing runoff from urban areas, clearing of forests and destruction of wetlands, and atmospheric deposition all contribute to the problem.   To restore the Bay, these point and non-point sources all needed be addressed to some degree.


When all 36 strategies are added together, there should be cleanup plans in action in every part of the Chesapeake Bay's 64,000 square-mile watershed .By changing the way we manage farmland, treat our important riparian areas and wetlands, retain and expand our forests, reduce stormwater from streets and houses, and minimize pollution from wastewater treatment plants, we can improve water quality and habitat for the plants and animals that call the Bay watershed home.


The tributary strategies outline a series of “best management practices” to minimize pollution. These include planting new riparian forest buffers, upgrading sewage treatment plants, implementing nutrient management on farms, wisely managing storm water runoff, protecting forests from development, and other innovative programs to accelerate the restoration of the Bay and its rivers.  Each strategy is tailored to that specific part of the Bay watershed – just as there is no “silver bullet” there is no "one-size-fits-all" strategy for the entire Bay watershed.   The pollution reduction actions needed in rural watersheds, for example, often vary from those needed in urban areas.


Most importantly, the strategies must serve as a catalyst for both action and innovation.  Some of the actions needed are clear and well tested.   However, new approaches and ideas are also needed and could come from scientists or local innovators such as schools.  Citizen and local action will also be needed to ensure that policy makers and elected officials identify needed funding initiatives and policies that must be implemented and technologies that need to be developed to expedite Bay restoration.  Here is some more information on the tributary strategies. (PDF)


Natural solutions

However, not everything needed to clean up our tributary rivers requires installing a practice or restoring the environment.  We also need to retain the healthy conditions of our watershed that are often threatened.   For example, many take for granted the important benefits provided by forests and forests were rarely a part of discussions about non-point pollution control.   Just as economic capital provides steady financial returns, the natural capital of forests provides steady environmental and economic returns in the form of ecosystem services. In fact, the public spends millions of dollars on technological replacements for services that forests provide naturally—such as drinking water filtration, storm water management, air pollution control, and flood mitigation.  The beauty is that forests can continue to provide these benefits even when they are being sustainably managed for the wood products we use every day.  Forests matter to the Chesapeake Bay. 


We know that forests are absolutely the best land cover for preventing nutrient pollution.  Every acre of forest lost means more nutrients entering the bay.  Yet, we continue to lose forestlands to urban growth and expanding agriculture at a rate of over 100 acres per day.   Retaining and expanding forests across the watershed is one of the most cost effective strategies for ensuring long term reductions in nutrient loads to the Bay.  In his book, "Turning the Tide", Tom Horton wrote:


"…We must learn to see the Chesapeake Bay as a whole;  as a system whose forests and oysters and underwater grasses and marshes are every bit as much components of pollution control and environmental health as sewage treatment plants, catalytic converters, and sediment control fences." 


Lessons Learned in Managing a Watershed

For more than two decades, the Chesapeake Bay Program has evolved.   Efforts targeted to protect and restore the Bay are being taken by the local service club to the community school to city hall to state legislative to the managers of federal agency programs.  What began as a water quality program has now grown to involve a more integrated management of land, air, water, and living resources.  This integration of knowledge and goals into the institutions of daily life is essential for watershed efforts at both small and large-scale. 


The pressure of urban growth creates new complexities and difficult tradeoffs. Local traditions can make change and innovation slow, thorny, and frustrating.   Competition for public funding and resources has given environmental protection and restoration a back seat to many other social issues of the day.   Much has been accomplished but many challenges lie ahead for restoration of the Chesapeake Bay.  Each of us is a part of the strategy for facing those challenges in the future.