Trees for Maryland's Watersheds

Trees for Maryland's Watersheds

[A bird patrolling the shoreline] You are part of a watershed. The health of your watershed affects your life everyday. Whether you live in the mountains, or on the Eastern Shore, city or country, you need clean water for drinking, cooking, bathing, washing and many other uses.

Water can be a friend if you enjoy fishing, crabbing, boating, swimming or its scenic beauty. Unmanaged, it can also be an enemy. Dams can only help control floods. Polluted water kills fish, crabs and other life we depend on. Sediment from erosion clogs streams and smothers plant and aquatic life that is so important to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. People living above you in a watershed affect your water. You have a responsibility to people living below you in a watershed too.

Managing forests and trees can help. Some cities in Maryland already recognize the benefits of forests on water supply. They own large tracts of timberland around their reservoirs and manage the forests for many purposes. Lumber products, pulpwood used in paper, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and a quality water supply - all come from a healthy, managed forest.

Foresters from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service are available throughout the State to provide technical assistance to landowners who are interested in managing their forest lands. Proper management of trees in a watershed can significantly improve the quality of Maryland’s water.

Maryland's Watersheds [A tree lined river in western Maryland] A watershed is an area where all the water, whether stream flow or ground water, flows to a common point. Water usually runs into ditches, streams, marshes or lakes, and the land from which the water drains to any of these collection points is called a watershed. Watersheds can be a few acres or as large as several thousand acres. Large watersheds are actually made up of many smaller ones. Everyone lives in a watershed.

Healthy, managed forests contribute to the quality of water produced in a watershed. Trees take up great amounts of water through their roots and evaporate it into the air. This usage and retention of water reduces flooding. Forest soils act as high reservoirs for ground water, releasing it slowly, even during periods of low rainfall, The forest floor acts as a natural sponge because of the large soil pore spaces, thus keeping soils or contaminants from entering streams. When soil filled water reaches the forest, water is quickly absorbed and the soil particles are deposited there. This effective infiltration system reduces overland flow leaving little chance of erosion.

Maryland has six major watersheds. A small percentage of water in the western most part of the State flows to the Ohio River, through the Mississippi and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. Another small percentage in the East flows directly to the Atlantic Ocean. The remaining water, approximately 90%, drains into the Chesapeake Bay. It is obvious if we are to restore the waters of the Bay, we must direct our attention further upstream as well.

Forest History [A comparison of Maryland forest coverage in 1986 and in 1634, in 1634 the entire state was forested in 1986 it is sporatic and most forests are in the western portion of the state.] When Lord Calvert first landed on Maryland’s shores in 1634, the State was nearly 95% forested. There was a gentle balance between rain and earth. Forests acted as a protector for the fragile soil. Erosion was not a problem.

Tree buffered the rain. Tree crowns broke the force of the falling raindrop (rain falls an average of 30 feet/second - enough force to break bonds between unprotected soil particles). Roots fastened themselves to the earth, securing it in place. And, the litter layer of fallen leaves and branches acted like a sponge, absorbing rain, slowing it, allowing it to soak into the ground. Water was clean; marine and aquatic life and forest wildlife flourished.

As the colonists settled in Maryland, forests were cleared for cropland and the wood used for houses, lumber and firewood. As more people moved into Maryland, more forest land was lost. More homes were built, more land was converted for crops and more unprotected soil was exposed.

This conversion was most dramatic in the central part of the State with its well drained, rolling hills. The mountainous west was often too steep and rocky for fields. The lower Eastern Shore was too wet to be plowed.

Awareness of land conservation and forest management began in Maryland in the early 1900’s. Today, Maryland is about 40% forested. Areas in Central Maryland average less than 30%. Competition for our forest land for conversion to farming, development, strip mining and highways is increasing. We know that with less forest land, our water quality has declined. While much forest land has been permanently lost, we can manage what remains, replant where we can and improve future water quality with forest buffers.