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The Nanticoke River:
"Those Who Ply the Tidal Stream"

The Nanticoke River and its watershed--home to over 250 endangered plant and animal species and including the most significant wetlands of the Delmarva peninsula--is certainly one of the Chesapeake Bay watershed's special places.

The Nanticoke River gets its name from the Nanticoke Indians, who lived closely with the water and were accomplished in canoeing and fishing. Their name, which translates as "those who ply the tidal stream," illustrates their close association with the river that flows from the central portion of Delaware through the Eastern shore of Maryland to Tangier Sound and the Chesapeake Bay.

The Nanticoke River is approximately 50 miles long and has an extensive watershed, the largest one in Delaware, which occupies about one-third of Delaware's land surface. The large span of unbroken forests lining the river sets the Nanticoke apart from other Chesapeake Bay tributaries. While forests cover 38 percent of the watershed, another 22 percent is covered by freshwater wetlands, which border nearly all the major streams.

Because of its pristine, undeveloped nature, the Nanticoke River is listed on the Nationwide Rivers Inventory. Agricultural and urban runoff, however, are influencing the water quality of the river.

Runoff from urban areas

One of the problems we create by developing areas and building homes and malls is that we are decreasing the area of natural landscapes, such as forests and wetlands, that help us prevent environmental pollution.

These green areas of forest and wetlands tend to trap water and allow it to slowly filter into the ground, causing stormwater runoff to reach rivers and lakes much more gradually. Urban landscapes, such as roads and parking lots, however, impede this slow filtering process. Water now remains on the surface, accumulates, and runs off in large amounts, taking with it a variety of pollutants and contaminants. A typical city block generates nine times more runoff than a woodland area of the same size.

According to National Water Quality Inventory researchers, runoff from urban areas is the number one problem for the estuaries in their survey area and the third largest problem for the lakes they evaluated. This is something to think about, because the way the U.S. population is growing, by 2010, more than half of the U.S. population will live in coastal towns and cities and contribute to the problem of urban runoff.


Another concern for the Nanticoke River's water quality is related to agricultural activities in its watershed. Approximately 43 percent of the land in the Nanticoke's watershed is used for agriculture; there are more animal-production farms in this watershed than any other river basin in Maryland. Large numbers of livestock mean large amounts of manure, which in turn means large levels of nutrients that can reach the river.

To reduce nutrient pollution, farmers are implementing Best Management Practices (BMP), such as conservation tillage and no-till farming practices, to limit how frequently the soil is laid bare with little or no plowing.

The farmers also observe a "critical area" within 1,000 feet of the shoreline, and nearly all this land, as well as some land beyond it, is subject to nutrient management plans. These plans help farmers identify the best times, conditions, and quantities for fertilizing, planting, and harvesting. The goal is to keep the fertilizers on the land where they belong and out of the river and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay, where they don't belong.

Helping the River

To protect the river, Delaware has designated the Nanticoke River as an "exceptional recreational and ecological resource" (ERES). With this special designation, the state has made a commitment to increase the treatment of wastewater before it enters the river. The Nanticoke River Demonstration Project seeks to meet this commitment by developing comprehensive resource-management systems for poultry operations, by educating homeowners about proper septic system maintenance, and by reducing excess nutrients in the river by reducing nonpoint source pollution.

There are many things we can do around our homes or farms to improve the Nanticoke River and other rivers. Protecting a river and its watershed ultimately protects the Chesapeake Bay. Check the EPA information to learn how you can reduce nonpoint source pollutionoutside link.

References and further reading

Nanticoke Watershed Allianceoutside link. Information about the history, ecology, and development of the Nanticoke River.

EPA: Preventing Nonpoint Source Pollutionoutside link and Urban Runoffoutside link.

Nanticoke Wildlife Management Areaoutside link.