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Essential Paddling Guide: Chesapeake Bay’s 64,000 Square-Mile Watershed Grapples With Water Quality


To many anglers and paddlers, the Chesapeake shoreline and its rivers and streams can appear to comprise the “world’s largest gated community.” Physical public access is limited along the nearly 12,000 miles of tidal shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including many of the 55 national parks in the Chesapeake basin. Public access sites for paddling, fishing, hiking, and swimming are on average about 15 miles apart in the region.

The National Park Service has been working closely with communities and partners to increase public access and build 300 additional public access sites by 2025 along the region’s water trails, such as the Captain John Smith Chesapeake and Star-Spangled Banner national historic trails.

Access is one thing, water quality is another. Air and water pollution from land-based activities degrades water quality and limits recreational opportunities in impaired waters in many parts of the watershed. Pollution threats include storm water containing fertilizers, chemicals, and sediments as well as municipal wastewater and industrial wastes that poison aquatic life, such as blue crabs and oysters.

Sadly, paddlers should be wary of entering waters after storms near urban centers near Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park along the Potomac River near Washington, D.C., or near Fort McHenry National Monument along the Patapsco River in Baltimore, Maryland. Following rain events, storm water pollution dumps into rivers, streams, and lakes that flow through and around national parks.

The National Parks Conservation Association is a part of a coalition that supports implementation of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. The Blueprint sets pollution limits that each of the six Bay states and the District of Columbia must meet by 2025 to achieve fishable, swimmable waters in and surrounding national parks.

Additionally, as natural gas hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) continues to expand in the gas-rich states of New York and Pennsylvania, the future of the Delaware River is increasingly uncertain. Gas companies hope to soon drill in the basin, yet the impacts of drilling to the region’s air and water quality remain unknown. Can fracking be conducted in a way that protects the environment along the Delaware River? Or will drilling further pollute air quality in the region and threaten the water quality of the Delaware – the drinking water source of roughly 15 million people?

Not all the news is worrisome. In 2009, President Obama issued Executive Order 13508 declaring the Chesapeake Bay a national treasure. The order called for a strategy for protecting and restoring the Chesapeake, including advocating land conservation and public access. New national parks have also been designated within the Chesapeake watershed that can be explored by paddlers. Fort Monroe National Monument, designated in 2011, alone added two miles of Chesapeake Bay shoreline to the National Park System.

How can you help?

Join NPCA’s “Freedom to Float” campaign, which is dedicated to promoting public access for recreation and community stewardship while protecting clean water. Download the Chesapeake Bay Explorer App to find places where you can explore the region’s beauty, history, and heritage—as well as places to paddle, fish, swim, hike, and camp.

Stay on top of the fracking issue and voice your opinion that fracking along the Delaware should not move forward until decisions can be informed by a full environmental impact study.

Coming next Monday: Everglades, Biscayne National Park’s Treasures Need More Protections

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Kurt- I am thoroughly enjoying these 'essential paddling guide' pieces. Have you done a piece on the flat water sections through Canyonlands?

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National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide