Have you ever noticed how straight some of the rivers and streams are on Maryland's Eastern Shore? Take for instance the Pocomoke River where it intersects with Route 50, just east of Salisbury. You will notice that the river is unnaturally straight. It lacks the meanders and bends that you might expect.

Aerial view of restoration site along Marshyhope Creek in Caroline County.You might ask yourself why that is, and the answer is really quite simple. Many of the streams and water courses on the Eastern Shore have been channelized, also referred to as ditched, drained, or straightened.

The practice of channelizing streams and rivers dates back to colonial days and was done primarily to improve drainage on the newly cleared agricultural lands. This was a common practice on the Delmarva Peninsula, particularly in locations where the soils tended to be waterlogged for extended periods of time.

The Federalsburg Channelization Project
Some of this channelization was done to reduce flooding. Towns such as Federalsburg, located along Marshyhope Creek in Caroline County just west of the Delaware line, were subjected to devastating floods during big storms. The town suffered a particularly bad flood in September of 1935 when the Marshyhope rose 17 feet, resulting in considerable damage. Later, when the Town Hall on Main Street was rebuilt, a beige brick was inlaid about four feet above the sidewalk on the corner of the building to mark the height of the floodwaters.

The Alder Mystery
Here's a riddle for you. What plant can only be found in the tidewater region of the Delmarva Peninsula and Oklahoma? Give up? Well, there's only one answer. It's seaside alder (Alnus maritima) and it occurs in only two places- along tidal streams and rivers on the Delmarva Peninsula and in eastern Oklahoma. Hmmm. Bit of mystery, isn't it?

Here in Maryland, seaside alder grows in the low salinity and fresh tidal waters along streams and rivers on the Eastern Shore (primarily in the Nanticoke River watershed).

Only growing to a height of 20 - 30 feet, it is best identified by the small round cones, called catkins, which droop from the end of its branches. These cones, about the size of a small cherry, are green into late summer, then turn brown when the cones are ripe in early autumn.

If you break these cones apart, you will find many small seeds a bit larger than the head of a pin. These cones were collected as part of the Federalsburg restoration project and the seeds were germinated at DNR's nursery in Preston. From there the small seedlings were potted into containers and grown out for another year by students at Federalsburg Elementary School. Finally, with the help of many volunteers, the alders were planted at the restoration site in Federalsburg.

So, why only on the Delmarva Peninsula and Oklahoma? There is one plausible explanation: In the mid-1800s many of the Native American tribes from the tidewater region were sent to reservations established in the southwest. It is believed these tribes gathered seeds from local plants and took them on their cross-country journey so they could continue to grow these species for food, religious or medicinal purposes.
Mystery solved!

Because of its susceptibility to flooding, the Town of the Federalsburg, helped by the U.S. Soil Conservation Service (now the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service), embarked upon a major project in 1968 to channelize Marshyhope Creek to reduce the occurrence of such events. This project extended from the northern to the southern end of town, for a total of one-and-a-half miles. What was once a slow, lazy and meandering river, bordered in some areas by shallow marshes and swamp forest, would be straightened and widened to hasten the flow of water downstream.

Although the channelization project helped to alleviate flooding problems in town, the environmental impacts were considerable. In 1968, we did not have the environmental regulations that we do today and part of the project required filling the swamp forest and the marshes that existed adjacent to the river. Based on records available today, this forest consisted of large sycamores, pumpkin ash, red maple, alder and black gum trees.

In essence, the channelization project required excavating a whole new channel nearly 160 feet wide and eight to ten feet deep (the original river was only two-thirds the width of the new channel). All of the soil excavated was used to fill in the old channel and the floodplain, marshes and swamps adjacent to the old river course. The end result was a straighter, deeper and wider channel bordered by upland grassy fields from the northern to the southern end of town.

Environmental and Economic Opportunity
For 30 years, these grassy fields sat idle, used sporadically, mostly by catfishermen, who would sit on the banks and while away the hours waiting for a tug on the end of their line. By and large, the area was little used by people or critters at least until the summer of 1996. By that year the Town of Federalsburg had already started planning for a greenway along the grassy fields that bordered the river. The town knew it had a valuable commodity in its riverfront location and wanted to provide recreational opportunities for residents and visitors, and to beautify the area with landscaping. This vision provided the ideal opportunity for specialists to work with the town to restore the filled swamps and marshes and incorporate them into its greenway plan.

The Restoration Plan
In 1997, a team of restoration and construction specialists was assembled to begin the process of developing a plan to restore the filled marshes and swamps. The final plan called for creating a series of tidally connected marshes to be traversed by trails and boardwalks. In all, approximately 35 acres of floodplain along the Marshyhope would be restored. Once re-connected to the river, these shallow marshes would provide spawning habitat for anadromous fish such as herring and alewife, as well as a refuge for fry and fingerlings.

Excavating fill to restore tidal wetlands.Why go to all this trouble? Our wetlands -marshes and swamps- are the lifeblood of the Chesapeake Bay. Most of the fish, shellfish, mammals and waterfowl that are so important to the Bay's ecosystem and economy depend on healthy wetlands for some part of their life cycles. Many young fish use wetlands as refuge during the early stages of their lives. Waterfowl are dependent upon the plants and insects that inhabit these areas. Possibly most important, wetlands are the great filters that cleanse our water by removing nutrients and sediments. Without them, the multitude of plants and animals that have come to represent the Bay itself would simply not exist.

Opportunity Is Where You Find It
This restoration project was no small task, and in order to get it done, a great many organizations and agencies lent their resources. Particularly helpful was the Maryland National Guard, graciously lending time, expertise and sweat to this restoration project. The Guard scheduled its two-week summer training exercises for two consecutive years at the Federalsburg site.

During these brief yet intense periods, a phalanx of soldiers from the 68th Engineering Battalion descended on the town, setting up command posts, a medical tent, a commissary, and even an equipment-repair facility. But most importantly the Guard moved dirt - lots of it: 50,000 cubic yards to be exact.

The heat was intense, the dust was thick, and there was barely a cloud in the sky to provide any relief during the two summers the Guard spent at Federalsburg. Nevertheless, these soldiers worked from sunup to sundown, scraping soil, dumping dirt and repairing equipment. It was truly organized chaos. The dozers roared, the dump trucks rolled and little by little the site was transformed from a high and dry grassland to a wet tidal swamp.

Roughly 4 feet of earthen fill, mostly sand and gravel, was removed from the restoration area and placed in an abandoned sand mine adjacent to the site. The fill was removed down to the elevation of the old marsh that existed prior to the channelization project. Some of the old logs and stumps that had been buried for 30 years were excavated and later placed back in the marsh when the grading was finished.

The Greening of Federalsburg
The National Guard did a great job of removing the old fill and restoring the site to its original
elevations; however, the finished project resembled a moonscape. Nary a blade of grass or a sprig of sedge was to be found. Then came the job of vegetating the site, and, thankfully, DNR had many partners who provided their green thumbs to accomplish this task.

The planting plan for the site was based on observations made during a number of excursions to pristine sites elsewhere along Marshyhope Creek. On these trips, plant species and their locations in relation to tidal flows and elevations were recorded. Also recorded were Footpath over the restored tidal wetland.the types of plants that lived together; for example, pumpkin ash seemed to occur with seaside alder, the alder preferring a slightly lower landscape than the ash. These and other communal associations were used to develop the planting plan for the site.

Volunteers from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, students from Federalsburg Elementary School, members of the Maryland Conservation Corps, and the Boy Scouts helped to gather seed and grow out trees and shrubs. We had great fun canoeing into marshes filled with alder and ash, gathering seed much like the Native Americans did so many years ago.

In September, when the wild rice seeds mature, we ventured out during high tide and floated into the wild rice marshes. From the canoe you could grab a cane of the wild rice plant, bend it over the boat, beat the seed heads with sticks, and let the rice seed fall into the boat.

Back at the landing, all the seed was gathered from the bottoms of the canoes and stored for later use. Alder and pumpkin ash seeds were propagated at DNR's John S. Ayton Tree Nursery in Preston and grown out at the elementary school in Federalsburg.

With the help of local Girl Scouts, an Eagle Scout, and volunteers from the Rotary Club among others, we began the laborious task of installing the plantings throughout the site. More than 30 acres were planted over a period of two years. The hard work paid off, and what was once a fairly desolate vista is now green with trees, shrubs and hundreds of species of grasses, sedges and other plants.

When I am fortunate enough to make my way down to Federalsburg these days, I always take a few moments to visit the site to see how things are progressing. I watch as the site matures. But it is really not in our hands anymore. We gave it its start but, make no mistake, Mother Nature is the one really in charge.

Magic Returned
I remember standing here with a colleague in 1996. As we looked out over the sterile, dry, sandy field and talked about what possibilities the site might hold, I wondered what we could do to bring back some of the magic that this area once rendered?

Now I see braids of blue water interspersed with islands of pickeralweed, cardinal flower, alder and spatterdock. I see small fish darting in and out of shallow water channels or resting under stands of bullrush. I see turtles sunning on logs unearthed from their premature graves. I see grandparents with their grandchildren walking the trails and boardwalks. But most gratifying for me anyway, is the catfisherman: still there, sitting on his white bucket, always patient, waiting for that slight tug on the end of the line.

Was the channelization of Marshyhope Creek a good thing? Did it reduce flooding in the town? Most likely, but it did have an environmental cost that was not calculated as part of the original project in 1968.

It would be an overstatement to say that the environmental impacts associated with the channelization have been rectified by the restoration project. Certainly some of that cost has been alleviated and that is what restoration is really about. We cannot return to the days when Captain John Smith sailed up the Chesapeake, but we can work to reclaim some of those things that made the Chesapeake Bay region so wonderful in the first place. Restoration projects like this one are a step in that direction.

Kevin Smith...
is a restoration biologist with DNR's Watershed Services.


Natural Resource Home
DNR Home