A man stands in the wheel house of a crab boat.
Chesapeake Bay The bay is a natural engine that powers our region’s economy and ecology. © Jason Houston

Chesapeake Bay

Chesapeake Bay Highlights

Ten ways we’re working to secure clean water and protect critical habitats in our nation’s largest estuary.

The bay's health and its ability to meet our needs depend on clean water.  That's why so much of our work focuses on using nature and natural filters like forests and wetlands to help reduce pollution in the streams and rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay. 

Our team collaborates across six states - 64,000 square miles of streams and rivers, forests, farms and cities — to protect and restore the bay.  Your support will mean cleaner water, healthier habitat and more abundant life in the Chesapeake Bay.

Learn more about how we work with these ten highlights from our bay work to date.

1. RECONNECTING THE POCOMOKE RIVER TO ITS FLOODPLAIN WETLANDS

Freeing a Trapped River Reversing a legacy of ditching and draining to reconnect the Pocomoke River to its floodplain wetlands.

Restoring natural processes that once cleaned the water flowing into the Chesapeake Bay is a vital part of our work, and one of the most ambitious examples of this is the reconnection of floodplains along the channelized portions of the Pocomoke River in Maryland.

Our scientific analysis revealed that the Pocomoke River represented a tremendous opportunity to improve water quality and habitat by creating breaches in earthen berms formed during the 1940s when the river was dredged and channelized.  This allows water to move back and forth as nature originally intended, especially after heavy rains, and lets the neighboring swamps filter out sediment and pollutants that would otherwise rush downstream.

Working with partners, we embarked on one of the largest restoration efforts in Maryland history.  The Natural Resource Conservation Service and Maryland Department of Natural Resources provided project funding.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service provided technical support, including project planning and design.  The Conservancy led the landowner outreach including providing new and innovative options to engage landowners and monitoring to measure the benefits of restoration.

After securing commitments for restoration of more than 3,000 acres and 8 miles of floodplain habitat along the Pocomoke River, we have completed restoration of nearly 2,000 acres to date!

2.  WORKING COLLABORATIVELY WITH DELMARVA FARMERS AND LANDOWNERS

Caroline County, MD farm
Working with Farmers We’re collaborating with farmers and landowners to implement conservation practices that keep nutrients on fields and out of waterways. © Amy Jacobs / TNC

What’s one effective way to keep cleaner water flowing into the Bay?  Getting to it at the source; right when it first hits the ground as rainfall. 

That’s why we’re collaborating with farmers and landowners on the Delmarva peninsula to implement conservation practices that increase the amount of nutrients used by crops to grow food and reduce the amount of nutrients running off of fields into our waterways.

We’ve been able to amplify our efforts through outreach to local farm groups, and by bringing together the agricultural industry, public agencies, conservation organizations and academia through the formation of the Delmarva Conservation Partnership and the Chesapeake 4R Alliance.  We’ve shared resources on nutrient stewardship and best practices with over 2,600 Delmarva farmers. 

Working in partnership with the National Resources Conservation Service and the Delmarva Conservation Partnership, over 8,000 acres have been enrolled in conservation programs in just two years.  Along with an additional 1,500 acres enrolled in conservation by other partners, the conservation and restoration efforts being implemented on this land will keep huge quantities of nutrients and pollutants from flowing into our watershed and increase the amount of wetland and forest habitat for wildlife.

Another practical, low-cost method to improve water quality? Roadside ditches!  Contoured ditches and natural plantings slow, filter and gradually absorb rainwater, helping to prevent soil and nutrients from being flushed into bay waterways while maintaining their function of providing drainage for farmfields and roads.

3. BRINGING BACK AN ICON

A cluster of oysters (Crassostrea virginica)
Iconic Oyster Oysters grow in clusters to form great reefs, protecting themselves from predators and providing habitat for other species. © Erika Nortemann / TNC

In 2015, we were part of a coalition of partners that completed the world’s largest-ever oyster restoration project in Harris Creek, a tributary of Maryland's Choptank River.  This remarkable project saw over 2 billion oysters planted over 350 acres.  Recent reports from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and NOAA showed that Harris and other sanctuaries are already showing positive results.

In partnership with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and University of Maryland, we have also launched an effort to measure the pollution reduction ability of the oyster reefs as they grow over the next two years.  Demonstrating the vital function of cleaning water and providing habitat will help us champion further large-scale restoration efforts in the future, with Harris Creek serving as a roadmap for additional projects. 

In Virginia’s Piankatank River we’re building on the success of three sanctuary reefs totaling 50 acres that were constructed in 2014, 2015, and 2017.  In 2018 we completed construction on an additional 10 acres of reef.

Working with partners, including The Army Corps of Engineers, Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), and NOAA, we’re steadily moving closer to a goal of 428 acres of oyster restoration in the Piankatank by 2025.

What does that number represent?  An area of reef bigger than the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and representing the largest oyster restoration project in the world.  

4.  IMPROVING FISH POPULATIONS: SUSQUEHANNA FISH PASSAGE AGREEMENT

Upstream view of the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River.
Conowingo Dam Looking upstream towards the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River, the largest tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. © Jane Thomas / IAN, UMCES

Every minute, almost 19 million gallons of freshwater flows into the Chesapeake Bay via its largest tributary, the Susquehanna River.  The river is one of the region’s most important sources of energy production.  It also plays a crucial role as a nursery for huge numbers of migratory fish.

During the dam’s recent relicensing, we worked directly with both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Exelon Corporation to ensure a new settlement agreement would significantly improve the number of fish migrating over the dam to and from spawning grounds and reflect the goal of restoring self-sustaining populations of millions of shad, river herring and American eel to the Susquehanna River.   

5.  PROTECTING LAND TO SECURE HABITAT, CLEAN WATER AND OUR INVESTMENTS IN RESTORATION

View of the Rappahannock River.
Rappahannock River TNC co-holds an easement which conserves more than 32 miles of riverfront along the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers. © Mary Porter

Did you know that nearly 60% of the Chesapeake Bay’s watershed is forested?  These forests deliver clean water downstream to the bay, but they’re not all protected. 

Thanks to partnerships with Federal and state agencies and other non-profits, we helped secure over 3,000 acres of habitat in Maryland over the past few years.  That number includes 1,000 acres of wetland protection on the Eastern Shore, 650 acres added to Pocomoke River State Forest and 300 acres protected by a conservation easement in the Nanticoke Rural Legacy Area.

In Virginia, we helped create and direct funding to a pilot project in the Rappahannock River basin showing the economic benefits of conservation.  The results were striking: nearly 3 million pounds of new pollution could be avoided and over $120 million could be saved in the study area alone if additional provisions to protect forests are put in place.

The project, led by the Virginia Department of Forestry, is now in its second phase and is working directly with local government officials to develop tools they can use to more effectively conserve forests.  It has also built a collaboration with Pennsylvania, where work is underway to evaluate the benefits of forest retention in a watershed in the central part of the state.

6. ACCELERATING WETLAND RESTORATION

View of restored wetlands at Taylor Farm, MD.
Restoring Wetlands Restoration efforts at Maryland's Taylor Farm will reverse the impacts from extensive drainage, grazing, and crop production. © Matt Kane / TNC

Wetlands are terrific filters that improve water quality, and quite simply, we need more of them. 

That's why we’re working both on the ground to accelerate wetland restoration, as well as developing and implementing policy solutions to help meet needs for wildlife and clean water.

In Maryland, we created a living laboratory at the former Taylor Farm, where restoration of nearly 350-acres of marginal farmland back to forested wetlands and an enhancement of an additional 350-acres of existing forest will reduce the level of pollution runoff into Nassawango Creek and the Chesapeake Bay.  The Conservancy’s Nassawango Creek Preserve is the largest private nature preserve in Maryland.

In Pennsylvania, a Growing Greener grant from the Department of Environmental Protection will help restore the natural channel and stream flow of a half-mile segment of Tom's Run, improving water quality, fish habitat and recreation opportunities in this High Quality trout stream. 

7. PROTECTING CLEAN WATER BY SECURING FUNDING FOR THE BAY

View of the Susquehanna River at Harrisburg, PA
Susquehanna River The Chesapeake Bay's largest tributary flows past a park in Harrisburg, PA. © George C. Gress / TNC

Working with partners through Virginiaforever, a coalition the Conservancy helped to establish, we secured $140 million in Virginia’s budget for clean water.  This funding will be used to upgrade wastewater treatment plants, build stormwater infrastructure and implement agricultural best management practices (BMP) to reduce runoff, control erosion and prevent flooding.

The Bay got an additional boost in when the Chesapeake Executive Council announced that $28 million dollars of new funds would be directed to the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania to implement conservation practices to reduce nutrient and sediment runoff from farms. 

8. REDUCING STORMWATER RUNOFF AND POLLUTION IN WASHINGTON, D.C.

Construction of a stormwater retention project at Mt. Olivet cemetery.
Mount Olivet Construction in progress during a first-of-its-kind stormwater retention project at Washington, DC's historic Mount Olivet cemetery. © Matt Kane / TNC

Stormwater run-off is the fastest growing source of water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, making it a top priority for us.  We have been a leading proponent behind an innovative new approach to reducing stormwater pollution in the District, one that engages the open market to build stormwater-capturing green infrastructure projects around the city.

Thanks to DC’s Stormwater Retention Credit Trading Program, developers can meet their city mandated requirements for capturing stormwater by paying for credits generated by offsite projects like rain gardens, green roofs, and permeable pavement that are helping reduce the amount of stormwater runoff in the District. Now, thanks to an investment from Prudential Financial, we will be able to spearhead just such a project on an even bigger scale. 

9. USING NATURE TO HELP PROTECT COASTAL COMMUNITIES FROM EROSION AND FLOODING

Aerial view of Watchapreague, VA
Virginia Coast Reserve Town of Watchapreague, VA as seen during an aerial survey flight. © Peter Frank Edwards for The Nature Conservancy

In Virginia, The Nature Conservancy and a consortium of partners - including the Accomack-Northampton Planning Commission, University of Virginia, and NASA-Wallops Flight Facility – released the first iteration of the Coastal Resilience online mapping tool for Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

The Coastal Resilience tool will help coastal communities of the Eastern Shore examine different flooding scenarios from sea level rise and storm surge, analyze the potential impacts on communities, natural resources and critical infrastructure, and inform a range of potential risk reduction and mitigation actions.

Maryland has over 7,000 miles of shoreline, found mostly along the Chesapeake Bay, its network of tidal rivers, and the Atlantic coast. This extensive shoreline makes the state particularly susceptible to flooding and erosion brought on by tides, storms, and increasingly, sea level rise.

We partnered with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to conduct a Statewide Coastal Resiliency Assessment, focused on the role of natural habitats in buffering coastal communities from erosion and flooding. The assessment examines where the habitats, hazards, and people are located along Maryland’s coastlines, and how they intersect. It examines where nature can help our communities become more resilient, healthier and happier places to live.

10. SECURING CLEAN WATER THROUGH CUTTING-EDGE SCIENCE

Sunrise over coastal Maryland.
Coastal Maryland Coastal wetlands play a crucial role as a first line of defense from storm surges. © Kent Mason

Our conservation work is driven by pragmatic, solution-oriented science.  We have developed a number of tools to help guide Federal, state and local stakeholders in making decisions that will have the best conservation outcomes.

Restoration of critical habitats, like tidal wetlands, are not always coordinated or conducted as effectively as it could be.  In partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), we completed a bay-wide habitat tool to inform regulatory decisions and restoration investments and improve coordination and implementation of future projects.