Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Working together for clean water, healthy streams

Sally Claggett
Liaison to the Chesapeake Bay Program, USDA Forest Service
April 8, 2021

A picture of two women planting a tree in a large grassy area where many other trees have been planted.
Volunteers are key to our efforts to plant trees and improve watersheds. They do the hard work of planting young trees in the ground and affixing plastic tubing that protect saplings from deer that would otherwise eat the trees. (Photo courtesy Chesapeake Bay Program)

This photo was taken before the Covid-19 pandemic and before wearing a mask or physical distancing mandates were in place.

The earthy smell of early spring and the sound of rushing water hangs in the air along the banks of Beaver Creek in western Maryland. A group of volunteers on a service-oriented Spring break don work gloves and fan out along a 50-foot-wide swath of open streambank. They work steadily downstream, through pastures and cornfields, planting seedlings in the soft soil. Another group follows closely behind, affixing plastic tubes around the seedlings as protection against marauding deer that feed on vegetation.

In the mid-Atlantic region, Spring fever and planting season has reached this group of young volunteers. They chat amicably as they put young trees and shrubs in the ground to grow between streams and farm fields. These plantings are one of the most effective methods the USDA Forest Service and partners like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation use to improve water quality in the bay watershed.

“These natural buffers between farmland and streams have an immediate effect on water quality, and buffers benefit the landowner and the ecosystem,” said Rob Schnabel, a restoration scientist with the Maryland Chapter of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “In the case of Beaver Creek, the root systems of these trees have kept the stream from washing away the soil on the farmer’s land. As the trees have grown larger, their canopies shade and cool the stream. In just a few years, these streamside buffers have had such a profound impact that native, cold-water trout have reestablished themselves here.”

Streamside buffers are akin to installing a charcoal filter on the end of a faucet. Trees and plants filter and purify water that flows off farmland. They process excess nutrients, prevent flooding, and provide food and habitat for wildlife.

The quality of the water in even these small streams is important. For instance, Beaver Creek, a natural trout tributary, feeds into the larger Antietam Creek, which eventually makes its way into the Chesapeake Bay the largest estuary in the United States and one of the most productive bodies of water in the world.

An aerial picture of a the Chesapeake Bay watershed with a small stream entering the larger body of water.
Watersheds are large and complex, often encompassing hundreds and even thousands of square miles. Small streams are important in these intricate systems, as they feed into larger waterways. (Photo courtesy of: Chesapeake Bay Program)

Since 2000, nearly 10,000 miles of streams in the bay watershed have been restored with forested buffers. This impressive achievement has taken a myriad of partners working tirelessly with landowners for an ideal trifecta: improved water quality, healthy habitats for wildlife, and climate resiliency.

Still, the work is not easy.

The bay, a giant watershed, is consistently on the Environmental Protection Agency’s impaired waters list. The watershed encompasses 64,000 square miles of mostly private lands and is the source of water for 18 million people. The bay watershed spans across six states, the District of Columbia, and thousands of management jurisdictions. The area is important, too, as a recreational destination, boasts commercial fishery worth billions of dollars, and is home to two of the largest commercial ports on the East Coast – Baltimore and Hampton Roads.

Caring for this watershed successfully means that management has to be shared among federal, state, local and tribal governments, and with private land managers.

While intense effort and hundreds of plantings have successfully restored many streams in this watershed, there is still much work to be done. States set an ambitious target of 1,400 new miles per year in their 2019 watershed plans.

A picture showing several people planting many small trees in a grassy field with nothing but freshly planted very small trees.
Trees between farmland and streams create an important separation between agriculture activities and waterways. These trees begin to filter water nearly the moment they are put in the ground. (Photo courtesy of: Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

To help achieve this, in October 2020 the Forest Service signed a Shared Stewardship agreement with the bay states and the District of Columbia to strengthen how they work together to manage the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The agreement builds on a years-long history of working side-by-side on restoration efforts and underscores our commitment to provide technical assistance to help get more trees planted. We also are leveraging USDA and state conservation assistance and other programs that incentivize and support farmers and private landowners looking to convert land into streamside forests and plant trees for multiple benefits.

And we’re not just in the Chesapeake Bay. USDA works with private landowners across the country to improve water quality.

“We all fill an important role in working with these private landowners to restore streamside buffers. These plantings simply wouldn’t be possible without the assistance of the Forest Service, help from passionate employees and volunteers, funding from federal and state programs, and the willingness of private landowners to support healthy streams,” said Schnabel.

If you live in the Chesapeake Bay region and want to help restore a local stream, visit Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Chesapeake Bay Program Forestry Workgroup websites. If you are a landowner or live outside the Chesapeake Bay watershed, contact your local USDA service center, state forestry, conservation agency, or Soil & Water Conservation District office. To learn more about how the Forest -Service works with others to carry out its multiple use mission, see the Shared Stewardship website.

Related video:
Listen to  Rob Schnabel talk about the importance of trees in the Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts