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A river runs through it

May 14, 2011

Three years ago I moved to Maryland, and I chose an unusual way to get acquainted with my new terrain: I found out what watershed I live in. And every time I take I-70 east, returning from visiting the District of Columbia or the Beltway, as I leave Howard County, I cheer because I’ve crossed the Patapsco River, which means I’m back in my home watershed.

What is a watershed? A watershed is “an extent or an area of land where surface water from rain and melting snow or ice converges to a single point, usually the exit of the basin, where the waters join another waterbody.” Colloquially, it can be as small as a creekbed, or as large as the Mississippi River or the Gulf of Mexico. But if you’re using USGS’s hydrologic unit code system, known as HUC, a watershed is the currently-smallest cataloging unit. HUC categorizes 21 water systems in United States’ territories into 4 nested groupings: regions have 2 digits; subregions have 4; accounting units have 6; watersheds have 8. Here in Maryland and the District of Columbia, we are part of region 02, the Mid-Atlantic, which discharges to the Atlantic Ocean, and includes all of Delaware, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia, as well as parts of Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia.

For many of my classmates, their subregion is likely the Potomac River basin, 0207, which drains 14,600 square miles. My subregion, 0206, the Upper Chesapeake, only has one accounting unit, also named Upper Chesapeake, 020600, which drains an area of 8980 square miles. Finally, my home watershed is 02060003, the Gunpowder-Patapsco watershed.

Why does any of this matter? Chesapeake Bay is the largest of 130 estuaries in the United States, with 50 major tributaries, draining 64,000 square miles. Watersheds of all sizes in the Chesapeake Bay basin are impaired, mostly through human-caused pollution. Yet almost all of the water we use — and Americans use an average of 176 gallons per day — comes from our local watershed. Wetlands provide all sorts of ecosystem services, like habitation for food species, regulation of water flow, prevention of erosion, and filtration of sediment and wastes for anyone living amongst them, but only up to a point. Concentrated groups of human beings, living in permanent settlements, need wastewater treatment plants with varying levels of treatments to mitigate human effects on the rest of our ecosystems. We humans expect a lot from our watersheds, but in return, they need a lot of care from us. And they often don’t receive that care, which is why the health of so many of our watersheds is imperiled.

Throughout my life, as I explore new surroundings there have been two constants: what trees grow here? And where’s the nearest water body that I can develop a relationship with?

I was 10 when my family moved to Naperville (a western suburb of Chicago, Illinois). My favorite pastime was exploring the forest surrounding a more southern portion of the West Branch of the DuPage River, creeping softly through the trees so the wildlife wouldn’t notice me, wading in the water, and collecting shells of snails and mussels along an island’s sandy shore. Later on, most of the forest became housing subdivisions, but a portion following the river became Pioneer Park Forest Preserve, and I was a regular visitor there too. One of my cherished framed photographs is of the bridge across the DuPage River where I often sat, watching things float or swim by underneath. Usually it was leaves and branches, the occasional fish, but once it was a muskrat or beaver, and once it was a snake.

Daylong summer trips with extended family to the Indiana dunes, or the Warren dunes in Michigan, taught me to think of myself as a denizen of the Great Lakes. Clambering up the tower of burning sand was a certain kind of enjoyable, but I far preferred ambling slowly along a deserted stretch of beach, looking for shells or pretty rocks. Once I dug a hole in the sand, and found a crab, who quickly burrowed back down out of my reach.

Ironically, while living in Chicagoland and thinking of myself as a Great Lake girl, I was part of the Des Plaines watershed [07120004], of the Upper Mississippi region [07]. I’ve only very briefly lived within the Great Lakes region — the 10 weeks my newlywed self lived in Fairport, New York [Irondequoit-Ninemile, 04140101]. I didn’t see much of Lake Ontario, as it was cold and snowy wintertime.  From there I moved to Indianapolis, where my watershed [Upper White River, 05120201] was within the Ohio River region [05]. My long drives to and from West Lafayette to attend Purdue University alleviated my homesickness when I crossed the Wabash [Middle Wabash-Little Vermilion River, 05120108] which flows through both Indiana and Illinois.

I currently live 10 miles south of Gunpowder Falls State Park, and I frequently hike and photograph there. Within even closer reach, though, is a creek that runs through a wooded area in my neighborhood. I walk its trails 2 to 3 times a week. And I always spend time at the creek bed, looking for water critters, and trying to capture the enchantment of moving water with static pixels.

Recently, Spouse and I visited Chincoteague Island and Assateague Island [02060010] for the first time. I’ve been fascinated by marshes ever since I first learned about them when I worked at Indiana’s Department of Nature Preserves many years ago, but this is the first time I’ve seen an extensive salt marsh system in person. It’s odd how quiet marshes are: outside of water birds creeling as they fly by, and occasional splashes, the air is still. The sky was grey with low-hanging clouds, but it only rained inland. We saw countless herons, egrets, gulls, terns, and many other water birds. Something black and ibis-looking* especially caught our eyes. A volunteer at the visitor center told me her favorite thing about Assateague is piping plovers, whose nesting season is late spring (so, now), but we didn’t see any.

What are your favorite memories of water?

[Edited 5.16.2011 to add photos]

* bird was identified by NPS ranger as glossy ibis

10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 15, 2011 10:01

    Last summer, we were invited to a wedding in California. My wife decided that it would be wrong for my daughter to experience the Pacific Ocean before she had experienced the Atlantic (being that we live driving distance from the Atlantic, and have since she was born), so for Memorial Day weekend – or possibly the weekend before Memorial Day? Must have been the weekend before, because the rates go up on Memorial Day. Anyway, we drove out to Montauk, on Long Island, and camped for the weekend. It was utterly miserable, it rained and it was windy, and we slept in the car because the tent blew down. But, when the sun came out, we walked along the beach and dabbled in the ocean (which was cold!) and it was amazing. It’s been a long time since I made it to a beach, and I didn’t know how much I missed it.

    • May 15, 2011 20:21

      That sounds kind of horrible and wonderful, both at once.

      I seem to make it to the Atlantic once every 9 years. And the time before this one was Long Island (visiting family), and it was cold & windy even in August, but I always find the ocean captivating. We went back one last time tonight, and it was bitterly cold and windy (storms approaching), but I didn’t want to leave. I won’t wait another 9 years for my next visit!

    • May 16, 2011 05:51

      Did your daughter enjoy the ocean(s)?

      • May 16, 2011 15:02

        Yes, she had a great time on both coasts. In Montauk she did beach combing with her mom and made sand castles and chased sea gulls. On the West Coast, there was less beach – everywhere there were these horrible warning signs saying “if you put your feet in the water, the ocean will kill you dead!11!!”, but the views were amazing. We saw whales.

        So many of our vacations are wonder, horrible things. And water seems to feature a lot. There was the time we didn’t die in a canoe, for instance. (

  2. Kathy permalink
    May 17, 2011 08:15

    Interesting.  Now that I think about it, I’ve never lived more than a mile from water.  I’ve never lived near the ocean – although I’ve visited/at least stuck my feet in the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Mediterranean – but I’ve always lived close to a lake, pond, river, or creek.  I’ve spent the majority of my time in the Irondequoit watershed, home of – before the last ice age – the second-largest river in North America.  I’ve also lived near the Racquette and the Hudson.  All of my not-to-visit-family vacations have been to/near water as well. 

    I love water, and water-related wildlife.

    I wish I lived on a body of water (even just a lake) large enough to have waves…  but, alas, I can’t afford that sort of waterfront property. 

    • May 18, 2011 11:14

      I did not know that about you, and neither did Spouse. I wish I could say the same, but I’m pretty sure I can’t.

      I could watch waves roll in all day; Spouse, not so much. In fact, as I said goodbye to the ocean Sunday night, he stayed in the car.

      • Kathy permalink
        May 18, 2011 21:16

        I guess I’m fortunate, then, in that SO likes water at least as much as I do.

        I didn’t know it about myself, honestly, until I started thinking about it response to your post. I kept thinking “there muat be some exception”… but, no.

    • Kathy permalink
      May 20, 2011 10:50

      Good grief, I cannot proofread on this tiny little screen. “Racquette”… “muat”… The worst part is that, once what I’m typing scrolls up out of view, I can’t scroll back up and review it.

      I investigated; I’ve lived (the longest, and I live currently) in 04140101 (which you mentioned above). I’ve also lived in 04150305 (the Raquette… I *can* spell, really, I can) and 02020006.


      • May 20, 2011 21:19

        What did you like about the Raquette and the Middle Hudson? Did you do anything special on either? Do you miss them? Or are you happiest with the Irondequoit-Ninemile?

      • Kathy permalink
        May 22, 2011 21:20

        The Raquette runs through the town where I attended the majority of college. I often walked over or along it and enjoyed its presence, but didn’t actually spend any time IN it. It just wasn’t something anyone did. I’m honestly not sure that part of it is navigable, even for small boats/kayaks, but watersports weren’t popular then like they are today.

        By contrast, the Hudson is big really the defining feature of its part of the state. It’s big enough to provide arresting views and lots of shipping activity. When I lived in its vicinity, though, it was really the Wallkill with which I interacted regularly.

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