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Nanticoke River Watershed


When Captain John Smith explored the rivers of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, he discovered the gentle, meandering Nanticoke River in the heart of the Delmarva Peninsula. Smith named the river for the Native Americans who lived nearby.

The 725,000-acre Nanticoke watershed supports a wide variety of plant and animal species, including more rare plants than any other landscape on the Delmarva Peninsula.  An estimated 20 percent of the watershed has been protected though the work of the Conservancy and its partners. The Conservancy’s Nanticoke preserves in Maryland and Delaware encompass 1,695 acres alone, and our work with partners continues as we strive to protect an additional 50,000 acres by 2015.  The watershed features an especially wide range of high-quality brackish and freshwater tidal wetlands.

Diverse Habitats

The Nanticoke River, which flows from southern Delaware southwest through Maryland’s Eastern Shore, is one of the Chesapeake Bay’s most productive tributaries. When the Nanticoke Indians paddled their canoes here, hardwood forests and wetlands extended for miles in every direction.  These native people traded the bounty of the land and water, including animal pelts and beads made from oyster and clam shells. While forest cover has dwindled and the oyster population has plummeted, much of the diversity of plants and animals in the watershed remains today.

The Nanticoke River and its hundreds of miles of freshwater streams harbor commercially and ecologically important species such as rockfish, white and yellow perch, and herring. Atlantic white cedar swamps, once heavily lumbered for boat construction, are protected here, along with the delicate pitcher plants and other rare species these swamps shelter. Delmarva bays, which are non-tidal wetlands unique to the Delmarva Peninsula, have dotted this landscape for more than 16,000 years and are home to the rare carpenter frog and Eastern tiger salamander.

Ancient sand dunes support globally rare plants such as wild lupine. Many of these sandy ridges — formed 13,000 to 30,000 years ago — have already been lost to development, or sand and gravel operations. Native coastal plain forests, which help filter water draining into the river and then to the bay, are home to the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel as well as migrating songbirds such as the American redstart and the prothonotary warbler.

Human activities place a heavy burden on this remarkably pristine region. An overabundance of nutrients from sources such as septic tanks and incompatible agricultural practices threaten the health of the Nanticoke. Development has removed trees that once filtered surface and ground water, while adding hard surfaces that redirect and increase pollutant-laden flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

Conservation at Work

To preserve the Nanticoke River and all that it sustains, the Conservancy works with a variety of public and private partners, including the states of Maryland and Delaware, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nanticoke Watershed Alliance, the Conservation Fund, and local land trusts such as the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy.

  • With cosponsors, the Conservancy established the Nanticoke Rural Legacy Area in Maryland. Funding is now available to protect a greenbelt of important natural resources, forests and farms around the historic waterfront town of Vienna. The Conservancy is working to add another 1,000 acres to the more than 9,000 already permanently protected in the Nanticoke Rural Legacy greenbelt.
  • With the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Conservancy secured a conservation easement to protect a 757-acre property that harbors rare xeric sand dunes, a forest block, and a vast system of tidal wetlands adjacent to the state’s 900-acre Nanticoke Wildlife Area.
  • The Conservancy completed the first phase of a conservation-buyer project by purchasing a 190-acre farm on the Nanticoke River that will be protected with an easement and then sold to a conservation-minded buyer. Proceeds from the sale will help purchase the next important property.
  • The Conservancy hosted conservation-options and estate-planning workshops in Delaware for local landowners, including those located in and around the Nanticoke River watershed.
  • In 2009 Jeannette Rogers sold 25 acres of her family’s working century farm, adding to 150 acres she and her sister sold to the Conservancy in 1999. The property, which borders the Conservancy’s 440-acre Middleford North Preserve in Delaware, expands habitat for more than eighty species of migratory birds and other wildlife, and improves the quality and quantity of surface and ground water supplies flowing into the Nanticoke River and eventually, the Chesapeake Bay.
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