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Watershed and River Health

Healthy forests, streams and rivers are critical to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Protecting forests will protect clean air and water, while lowering nutrient and sediment pollution in rivers will lower nutrient and sediment pollution entering the Bay. The Chesapeake Bay Program uses monitoring data to assess the health of forests and freshwater streams, as well as pollution levels in rivers.


Forests protect clean air and water: forests absorb air pollution and filter drinking water for 75 percent of watershed residents. Forests also provide habitat to wildlife, store carbon, control floods and support the region’s economy. When forests are destroyed by development, their ecological services and economic benefits are also lost.

  • Forest Cover: In the 1600s, forests covered 95 percent of the watershed. In 2011, just 55 percent of the watershed was forested. Estimates show that we lose 70 acres of forest land to development every day.

Freshwater Streams

The health of our freshwater streams directly affects the health of the tidal Bay. Freshwater streams in forested areas tend to be in good or excellent health, while those in urban and agricultural areas tend to be in poor to fair health.

  • Health of Freshwater Streams: Between 2000 and 2010, 43 percent of sampled stream sites were in fair, good or excellent condition. Fifty-seven percent were in very poor or poor condition.

Flow-adjusted Pollution Trends

Rain and snowfall can have a big impact on river flow. In turn, river flow can have a big impact on the concentration of pollutants in waterways. For this reason, scientists calculate flow-adjusted trends in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment levels to better determine whether pollution has changed over time.

River Health Report Cards

Many local watershed groups release report cards that detail the health of the rivers that flow to the Bay. Below is a list of river health report cards from around the region. If we’ve missed one, please contact us so we can add it to the list.

Additionally, Chesapeake EcoCheck develops and releases many river report cards.

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