In North America, the Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary, a semi-enclosed coastal body of water with a free connection to the open sea. Fresh water from land drainage measurably dilutes seawater within the Bay. The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science conducts research on the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed. The Bay watershed provides rich habitat for an abundance of life. In addition to resident species of fish and wildlife, the Bay supports large winter populations of migratory waterfowl and provides spawning, nursery and feeding grounds for ocean fish.

Native Americans living along its shores named the Bay "Chesepiook," meaning great shellfish bay, because of its abundant crabs, oysters, and clams. Generations of watermen have made their living harvesting the bounty of the Bay, while recreational fishing, hunting, and boating attract millions of people each year and contribute significantly to Maryland's economy.

For ocean-going ships, the Bay is navigable with two outlets to the Atlantic Ocean: north through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal in Cecil County, and south through the mouth of the Bay between the Virginia capes.

Three Maryland agencies bear particular responsibility for Bay matters. The Department of Agriculture directs Chesapeake Bay Agricultural Programs. The Department of the Environment works on behalf of the Bay through its Technical and Regulatory Services Administration. The Department of Natural Resources supports the work of the Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas Commission and oversees the Regional Chesapeake Bay Program and the Chesapeake Bay and Watershed Programs.

Watershed. The rivers, creeks, and streams which flow into the Bay, the land surrounding them, and the Bay itself make up the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Main tributaries-Susquehanna River, Potomac River, James River-contribute 80% of the Bay's fresh water. Total tributaries: 419. Watershed area: 64,000 square miles in parts of six states-Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, West Virginia-and the District of Columbia. Watershed population: 16.4 million (1990).



Maryland 1,726 square miles
Virginia 1,511 square miles


195 miles


(widest near Cape Charles, Virginia) 30 miles
(narrowest at Annapolis) 4 miles


4,600 miles


average 25 feet
greatest (southeast of Annapolis) 174 feet


at Annapolis 1 foot
at head 2 feet
at mouth 3 feet


18 trillion gallons

(parts per thousand)

at mouth 30 ppt
midway to head 15 ppt
above fall line 00 ppt
surface to bottom 2-3 ppt

Maryland Department of the Environment
Maryland Department of Natural Resources
Maryland at a Glance

Maryland Manual On-Line

 Maryland Manual On-Line, 1998

July 10, 1998   
Note: In this past edition of Maryland Manual, some links are to external sites.  View the current Manual

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