When Captain John Smith made his Chesapeake voyages in 1608, there were about 50,000 people living in the region. Today, the Chesapeake watershed is home to nearly 17 million. Not surprisingly, this population growth has placed enormous pressures on the natural environment of Chesapeake Bay. Fortunately, modern residents of the Bay have the know-how to protect it and are working to do so.
Besides being far fewer in number, the American Indians lived in ways that minimized their impact on the land. In Smith’s time, the native peoples lived in small towns. The few structures were made of biodegradable materials. The towns were dispersed across a relatively wide area instead of being concentrated in a compact zone.
Garden plots were small in size. From time to time, the people packed up and moved to new locations, giving deserted farmlands a chance to recover. Aside from periodic controlled fires to keep the woodlands clear for hunting, the impact of the Chesapeake Bay Indians on their environment was minimal.
Today, in contrast, the Bay’s millions of residents live in large, permanent, “hard” communities of concrete, glass, and steel. Towns, cities, and suburbs are densely packed and are linked by a web of streets, highways, and railroads instead of woodland paths. The hard surfaces prevent rain from sinking into the ground. Stormwater carries pollutants into rivers and streams and ultimately into the Bay itself.
Instead of garden plots, modern farms and lawns cover much of the rest of the landscape, contributing pesticide and fertilizer runoff to the flow of industrial and automobile pollution. The destruction of forests removes buffers that once held soils in place and worked as natural filters. The impact of modern life on the Bay is heavy.
The natural beauty, diverse communities, economic and recreation opportunities, and other advantages of living near the Chesapeake have attracted settlement for hundreds of years. But the cumulative impact of centuries of population growth takes a great toll. The current rate of growth raises concerns about how the region can sustain not only humans, but all of the animals and plants that live here.
The quality of the Chesapeake Bay is directly linked to population growth. Every individual who lives in or visits the Bay watershed affects the Bay and its rivers. Scientific studies provide information to help us understand the connections between human actions and the health of the Bay.
Fortunately there are agencies and organizations working to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed. But success in saving the Chesapeake Bay for future generations is really in the hands of the nearly 17 million people who live in the watershed today. By taking simple actions at home, at work, and in their communities, people in the Bay watershed can improve water quality and create a healthier Chesapeake Bay.
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Learn More about Modern Settlement in the Chesapeake Region