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Rivers and Streams

Overview

There are hundreds of thousands of creeks, streams and rivers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. These tributaries send fresh water into the Bay and offer vital habitat to aquatic plants and animals. These tributaries also provide people with public access points where they can fish, boat and swim. While pollution and the installation of dams, culverts and other structures can affect the health of rivers and streams, local cleanups and reductions in polluted runoff can conserve their health.

Why are rivers and streams important?

The rivers and streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed send about 51 billion gallons of fresh water into the Bay each day. Almost 90 percent of this fresh water comes from just five of these tributaries: the Susquehanna, Potomac, Rappahannock, York and James. These rivers are home to a diverse population of invertebrates, amphibians, fish and other critters:

  • A number of aquatic plants can be found in freshwater tributaries, including algae, mosses and several species of underwater grasses.
  • Diverse communities of benthic organisms can be found on the bottom of rivers and streams. These organisms—which include bacteria, clams, crustaceans, insect larvae and worms—form an important link in the food web, and act as an indicator of watershed health.
  • Some fish can only be found in freshwater tributaries. These include bass, catfish and sunfish.
  • Anadromous fish—which include American shad and Atlantic menhaden—spend their adult lives in the ocean but migrate into freshwater rivers and streams to spawn.
  • Frogs, turtles and salamanders can be found in freshwater tributaries during some parts of their lives.

Rivers and streams also provide people with much-needed public access points where they can fish, boat and swim, observe wildlife, and reconnect with the watershed. Building personal connections with the environment can benefit public health and conservation and stewardship efforts.

What factors affect river and stream health?

Litter and debris, nutrient and sediment pollution, chemical contaminants, and the installation of dams, culverts and other structures can affect the health of rivers and streams.

Litter and Debris

Aquatic litter and debris includes plastic bags, cigarette butts, beverage bottles and other waste that enters the marine environment. Sometimes, this waste is thrown onto a street or into a waterway on purpose; other times, it enters the environment accidentally. In urban and suburban areas, waste that is on a street or sidewalk can be pushed into storm drains, rivers and streams when it rains. Aquatic litter can detract from an area’s beauty, smother grass beds and bottom-dwelling organisms, add chemical contaminants to the water, or be ingested by animals.

Nutrient and Sediment Pollution

Excess nutrients enter the water through agricultural and urban runoff, vehicle emissions and other sources. These nutrients can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and lead to low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life.

Excess sediment enters the water through agricultural and urban runoff, stream bank and shoreline erosion, and other sources. Suspended sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses, smother oysters and other bottom-dwelling species, and clog ports and channels.

Chemical Contaminants

Almost three-quarters of the Chesapeake Bay’s tidal waters are considered impaired by chemical contaminants. These contaminants include pesticides, pharmaceuticals, metals and other substances that can harm the health of both humans and wildlife. These contaminants enter rivers and streams through air pollution, agricultural and urban runoff, and wastewater.

Dams and Culverts

Dams, culverts and other structures can alter the flow of rivers and streams, accelerate the accumulation of sediment and block migratory fish from reaching their spawning ground. In some areas, dams are being removed or lifts, ladders and passageways are being installed to reopen river habitat and allow fish to swim upstream.

Take Action

For Chesapeake Bay restoration to be a success, we all must do our part. Our everyday actions can have a big impact on the Bay. By making simple changes in our lives, each one of us can take part in restoring the Bay and its rivers for future generations to enjoy.

To conserve the health of rivers and streams, consider reducing the amount of pollution that can run off of your property. Install a green roof, rain garden or rain barrel to capture and absorb rainfall; use porous surfaces like gravel or pavers in place of asphalt or concrete; and redirect home downspouts onto grass or gravel rather than paved driveways or sidewalks. You can also follow safe and legal disposal methods of paint, motor oil and other household chemicals to make sure they do not run into rivers and streams, and participate in local stream cleanups.

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Chesapeake Bay News

In The Headlines


Health of Freshwater Streams in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Between 2000-2010, more than 14,005 sites were sampled and rated for biological integrity.  The average stream health scores in a subset (10,492) of these of these sampling locations indicated that:

  • 4,537 (43 percent) were in fair, good or excellent condition
  • 5,955 (57 percent) were in very poor or poor condition

Nitrogen in Rivers Entering Chesapeake Bay: Long-Term Flow-Adjusted Concentration Trends

Seventy percent of long-term stream monitoring sites in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed have improving flow-adjusted concentrations of nitrogen. Between 1985 and 2012:

  • 21 out of 30 sites show improving flow-adjusted trends for nitrogen concentrations
  • 3 sites show degrading trends
  • 6 sites show small changes that are not statistically significant

For more information go to the U.S. Geological Survey's webpage, Summary of Trends and Yields Measured at the Chesapeake Bay Nontidal Network Sites: Water Year 2012 Update

Phosphorus in Rivers Entering Chesapeake Bay: Long-Term Flow-Adjusted Concentration Trends

Seventy-three percent of long-term stream monitoring sites in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed have improving flow-adjusted concentrations of phosphorus. Between 1985 and 2012:

  • 22 out of 30 sites show improving flow-adjusted trends for phosphorus concentrations
  • 4 sites show degrading trends
  • 4 sites show small changes that are not statistically significant

For more information go to the U.S. Geological Survey's webpage, Summary of Trends and Yields Measured at the Chesapeake Bay Nontidal Network Sites: Water Year 2012 Update

Sediment in Rivers Entering Chesapeake Bay: Long-Term Flow-Adjusted Concentration Trends

Twenty-eight percent of long-term stream monitoring sites in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed have improving flow-adjusted concentrations of sediment.  Between 1985 and 2012:

  • 8 out of 29 sites show improving flow-adjusted trends for sediment concentrations
  • 8 sites show degrading trends
  • 13 sites show small changes that are not statistically significant

For more information go to the U.S. Geological Survey's webpage, Summary of Trends and Yields Measured at the Chesapeake Bay Nontidal Network Sites: Water Year 2012 Update

Reopening Fish Passage

In 2013, 33 miles of fish passage were restored. This brings the total to 2,576 miles, or 92 percent of the goal.


Chesapeake Unscripted: What are we doing to protect our rivers? (Washington, DC)



January 30, 2014

We asked people around Washington, DC what they think is being done to protect their local rivers, and what things we should all be doing to help keep our water clean.

Produced by Steve Droter
Music: “Old Man Blanchard” by Josh Woodward

From the Field: Restoring Washington, D.C.‘s urban streams



May 31, 2012

Peter Hill and Stephen Reiling from the District Department of the Environment take us on a tour of two successful stream restoration projects in Washington, D.C., and explain why controlling polluted stormwater runoff from cities is so important to Chesapeake Bay restoration.
Closed captions: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ToijHlsv9y0

Produced by Steve Droter

Take Action: Project Clean Stream



April 27, 2011

More than 5,000 volunteers picked up close to 300,000 pounds of trash at 250 different sites around the Chesapeake Bay region during the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s annual Project Clean Stream in April 2011. See how everyday people like you are doing their part to help create a healthy environment and healthy future.

Learn more about Project Clean Stream at allianceforthebay.org/pcs

Produced by Matt Rath
Music: “Resonance” by mindthings


Publications

Restoring Migratory Fish Passage in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Publication date: February 23, 2004 | Type of document: Backgrounder | Download: Electronic Version

Over the past two centuries numerous mill dams, hydroelectric dams and small blockages were constructed, which prevented fish throughout the Bay watershed from reaching their natal rivers. Migratory fish populations consequently suffered…

Forested Riparian Zones and their Benefit to Anadromous Fish in Chesapeake Bay

Publication date: November 11, 2001 | Type of document: Backgrounder | Download: Electronic Version

Riparian forests are essential interfaces between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. They intercept surface runoff, subsurface flow and deeper ground water flows for purposes of removing or buffering effects from nutrients, pesticides or…




Maps




From Around the Web

Bay FAQs

  • What pollutes rivers and streams?
  • What is the difference between a tidal river and a non-tidal river?
  • How many rivers and streams are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed?
  • How is fresh water brought into the Chesapeake Bay?
  • What is the difference between an estuary and a river?
  • How do fish passageways work?
  • How do dams affect rivers and streams?
  • What is fish passage?

 

Bay Terms

  • Amphibian
  • Anadromous fish
  • Benthic
  • Chemical contaminants
  • Crustaceans
  • Dam
  • Nutrients
  • Sediment
  • Tributary

 

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