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What is a Watershed?
A watershed is the area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off of it goes into the same river system. As explorer, John Wesley Powell expressed, a watershed is: "that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community."
What this means is that drop by drop, all water, from streams, creeks, groundwater, or channeled from the soil, eventually makes its way to a larger river, in our case the Sassafras River. Water is a universal solvent, and is affected by everything that comes into contact with it. The important thing to remember is that even if you aren't living on the water, you are living in a watershed and everything that is done on land affects the water quality in its given watershed.
What is the Sassafras Watershed?
The Sassafras River rises in western Delaware and flows westerly to the Chesapeake Bay forming the natural boundary between Cecil and Kent Counties in Maryland. The Sassafras is approximately 20 miles long and the entire watershed, including water surface, equals 97 square miles. There are three municipalities within the Sassafras Watershed: Betterton (population 376), Galena (population 428) and Cecilton (population 474). However, the majority of Cecilton lies within the watershed of the Bohemia River.
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* These percentages are from 2007 Maryland and Delaware Departments of Planning
Special Qualities of the Watershed
The Sassafras Watershed, aside from its 12,000 year history as an early home to paleo-Indian, archaic and woodland period inhabitants, serves as habitat to many rare, threatened and endangered species. The Puritan Tiger Beetle, Eastern Tiger Salamander and Bald Eagle are only a few examples of threatened and endangered species who call the Sassafras Watershed their home.
The Section 303(d) of the federal Water Pollution Control Act (Clean Water Act) of 1972 requires that all States develop a priority list of water bodies that are unable to meet water quality standards that are defined by specific State water quality criteria and/or serve their State-defined designated use e.g., swimming, fishing, etc. This listing of impaired waters is updated every two years as part of the State's Integrated Report of Surface Water Quality (S.305(b)/S.303(d)/S.314) and is available online:
The Sassafras River is listed on Maryland's 303 (d) list for excessive levels of nutrients, sediment and PCB's (toxics), as well as impairment of biological life. To address these problems, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) required State Environmental Agencies (MDE in Maryland) to determine the maximum amount of pollution its impaired waters could handle and still support life, based on the pollution that already existed. These were called Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL). A TMDL was written for the Sassafras to address the problem with nutrients. After the study was conducted, it was determined that the nutrient that most impaired the Sassafras was Phosphorus, therefore the TMDL for Phosphorus was established for the Sassafras. This document tells us how many pounds of phosphorus the Sassafras can have loaded into its system and still serve its designated uses of "water contact recreation, fishing and protection of aquatic life and wildlife."
Average Annual TMDL for Phosphorus: 13,875 lb/year
Current Average Annual Total Phosphorus: 20,318 lb/year
Nuisance vegetation also serves as an issue for the Sassafras. An invasive aquatic vegetation, Water Chestnut, has been acknowledged by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as a problem on the Sassafras, and many efforts by DNR staff and volunteers of the Sassafras River Association (SRA) have been made to eradicate the nuisance species. Water Chestnuts originate from the Asian species of Water Chestnut and outcompete our native water lilies. Their spiky seeds drop off the blooms at the end of summer, wash up on shore and can pose a painful threat to people walking along the beach. Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB's) are another issue on the Sassafras River that has been recognized by DNR and MDE. High water temperatures in the summer coupled with a lack of water mobility can create high pH levels in which algae thrives. Phosphorus, which has been recognized as an excessive nutrient of the Sassafras is also taken up by algae, allowing it to grow and bloom. Harmful algae such as Microcystis, can cause serious skin irritation and allergic reaction when one comes into contact with it.
Point source pollution refers to any direct discharge of a pollutant into the Sassafras or one of its tributaries. Point Source pollution in our watershed comes from two Waste Water Treatment Plants (WWTP): Galena WWTP and Betterton WWTP.
Nonpoint source pollution refers to any pollutant whose exact source location cannot be clearly defined. Sources of nonpoint pollution include different types of runoff, whether from impervious surfaces such as roads and parking lots, farm fields or lawns. This type of pollution can also come from recreational activities on the water such as boat traffic, waste discharge and fuel leaks. Polluted groundwater from degraded septic systems is also a problem in the Sassafras, which cannot be clearly located. This polluted groundwater seeps into the river system of the Sassafras serving as yet another source of nonpoint pollution. The steep eroding banks that are characteristic of the Sassafras are another source of nonpoint sediment pollution. After storm events, the bare clay soils of the Sassafras cliffs wear away even more, having nowhere else to drop but into the river and its creeks. Because nonpoint source pollution come from all of these different land types and uses it is the most difficult type of pollution to address and fix.
The Sassafras is especially unique in its relationship with the rest of the Chesapeake Bay. The Kent County shore line at the mouth of the river juts out serving as a catch basin for all that flows down from the upper bay. If a storm event prompts the operators of the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River to open the flood gates, the Sassafras River almost always gets dumped on. The river becomes littered with large debris and trash for a few days as it flows up into the Sassafras and then back out. This external nonsource pollution of the Chesapeake Bay itself serves as another issue facing the Sassafras.