The Potomac River has its source in the mountains of Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia, and ultimately flows through one of the most populated regions in the country. The lower part of the river provides drinking water to parts of Virginia and Maryland, and to the District of Columbia. The lower river has suffered all of the tribulations typical of a big river system - pollution from sewage plants and industrial sources; increasing urbanization and associated polluted run-off; and even interstate disputes over water supply.
In the Upper Potomac (including the North Branch, South Branch, and their tributaries), one can find every typical ailment of a mountain headwater river system, including degraded riparian habitat, river channels straightened by bulldozing for flood control (see Flood Response Threat), polluted run-off from agriculture and livestock operations, breakneck speed development in areas close to Washington, acid mine drainage from old coal mines (see AMD Threat), and acid deposition (see Acid Deposition Threat) derived largely from coal burning power plants.
The upper Potomac watershed is the site of one of Trout Unlimited's Home River programs and provides a tremendous opportunity to protect existing high quality stream habitat, and to restore degraded habitat in order to connect and extend high quality reaches. The potential benefits to the river's fisheries, upstream communities, and downstream water users are huge. In order to achieve the goals, TU is engaging in a number of activities focused on a series of shorter term goals.
While the Upper Potomac faces a variety of threats, it also includes an amazing variety of high quality trout habitat. Many of the tributaries, particularly of the South Branch, are on federal lands. These tributaries include a great deal of pristine habitat, much of it populated by brook trout, the region's only native trout. Downstream, on private land, the streams face more difficulties, including degraded riparian habitat and generations of channel manipulation aimed at reducing flood damage. As you move even further downstream, many sections of the South Branch itself are affected by nutrient run-off, a great deal of it generated by the extensive poultry farming in the watershed. Some tributaries, including the Cacapon, Lost River, and lower portions of the South Branch, are now within commuting distance of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, and are experiencing unprecedented growth.
TU's Bryan Moore at a future project site on a degraded headwater spring
Restored spring two years after livestock exclusion fencing
Throughout the Potomac headwaters, threats include:
Riparian habitat degradation and resulting increase in stream water temperatures, increased bank erosion and sedimentation, and loss of aquatic habitat;
Sedimentation and loss of habitat from stream channel manipulation and degradation as a result of flood response and flood protection work;
Sedimentation from poorly designed or poorly maintained gravel/dirt roads;
Nutrient loading, primarily from agricultural activities;
The geographic focus of the Potomac headwaters project initially is the North Fork and the South Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. The overall objective of the program is to improve water quality and habitat in the Upper Potomac watershed, to increase the amount of habitat that can sustain wild trout populations, particularly those of native brook trout, and to protect the existing high quality trout habitat in the watershed. As community goals, the initiative seeks to strengthen TU's West Virginia Council and other volunteer organizations in the watershed, to improve awareness and implementation of land use practices that promote water quality among landowners and local communities, and to complete a series of stream and riparian restoration projects that can be used as models throughout the watershed.
A long-term goal of the project is to educate local citizens and governments about alternative methods of reducing flood damage to properties and infrastructure than traditional channelization, berming and gravel removal activities (see TU's Restoring Streams to Reduce Flood Loss) that are cost-effective and protect stream stability and the overall health of local streams.
Map of the Potomac Headwaters Project Area
Dominion Power, Trout Unlimited National, West Virginia Council of Trout Unlimited, Virginia Department of Game&Inland Fish, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources
Major Funders and Supporters:
National Fish & Wildlife Foundation
National Fish Habitat Initative
National Resource Conservation Service Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
US Department of Agriculture Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP)
US Department of Agriculture Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP)
US Forest Service
Farm Service Agency
Accomplishments to Date:
Planting and protecting 5,000 trees
Installation of fence protecting over 10 miles of streams, springs and wetlands from livestock
Participation of 11 landowners in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP)