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The Potomac River ( ) flows into the Chesapeake Bay, located along the mid-Atlanticmarker coast of the United Statesmarker. The river is approximately 383 statute miles (616 km) long, with a drainage area of about 14,700 square miles (38,000 km²). In terms of area, this makes the Potomac River the fourth largest river along the Atlantic coast of the USA and the 21st largest in the USA. Over 5 million people live within the Potomac watershed, where precipitation provides the equivalent of over 8 m³ (more than 2,100 US gallons) of water per person per year.

Geography

The river forms part of the borders between Marylandmarker and Washington, D.C.marker on the left descending bank and West Virginiamarker and Virginiamarker on the river's right descending bank. The entire lower Potomac River is part of the State of Maryland, with the exception of a small tidal portion within the District of Columbia. Except for a small portion of its headwaters in West Virginia, the North Branch Potomac River is considered part of Maryland to the low water mark on the opposite bank. The South Branch Potomac River lies completely within the state of West Virginia except for its headwaters, which lie in Virginia.

The Potomac River runs from the Fairfax Stonemarker in West Virginia to Point Lookoutmarker, Maryland and drains . The average flow is 10,800 ft³/s (306 m³/s). The largest flow ever recorded on the Potomac at Washington, D.C. was in March 1936 when it reached 425,000 ft³/s (12,000 m³/s). The lowest flow ever recorded at the same location was 600 ft³/s (17 m³/s) in September 1966.

An average of approximately 486 million gallons of water per day (21 m³/s) is withdrawn daily in the Washington area for water supply.

The river has two sources. The source of the North Branch is at the Fairfax Stone located at the junction of Grantmarker, Tuckermarker, Prestonmarker counties in West Virginiamarker. The source of the South Branch is located near Hightownmarker in northern Highland Countymarker, Virginia. The river's two branches converge just east of Green Springmarker in Hampshire Countymarker, West Virginia to form the Potomac.

Once the Potomac drops from the Piedmont to the Coastal Plain, tides further influence the river as it passes through Washington, D.C. and beyond. Salinity in the Potomac River Estuary increases thereafter with distance downstream. The estuary also widens, reaching 11 statute miles (17 km) wide at its mouth, between Point Lookout, Maryland and Smith Point, Virginia before flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.

History

"Potomac" is a European spelling of an Algonquian name for a tribe subject to the Powhatan confederacy, that inhabited the upper reaches of the Northern Neck in the vicinity of Fredericksburg, Virginiamarker. Some accounts say the name means "place where people trade" or "the place to which tribute is brought". The natives called the river above the falls Cohongarooton, translated as "river of geese", and that area was renowned in early years for an abundance of both geese and swans. The spelling of the name has been simplified over the years from "Patawomeke" (as on Captain John Smith's map) to "Patowmack" in the 18th century and now "Potomac". Some scholars have also suggested it is rooted in the ancient Greek for river, "potamos", blended with the Powhatan name "Patawomeke". The river's name was officially decided upon as Potomac by the Board on Geographic Names in 1931.

The Potomac River brings together a variety of cultures throughout the watershed from the coal miners of upstream West Virginia to the urban residents of the nation's capital and, along the lower Potomac, the watermen of Virginia's Northern Neck.

Being situated in an area rich in American history and American heritage has led to the Potomac being nicknamed "the Nation's River." George Washington, the first President of the United States, was born in, surveyed, and spent most of his life within the Potomac basin. All of Washington, D.C., the nation's capital city, also lies within the watershed. The 1859 siege of Harper's Ferrymarker at the river's confluence with the Shenandoahmarker was a precursor to numerous epic battles of the American Civil War in and around the Potomac and its tributaries. General Robert E. Lee crossed the river, thereby invading the North and threatening Washington, D.C. twice in campaigns climaxing in the battles of Antietammarker and Gettysburgmarker.

The Patowmack Canalmarker was intended by George Washington to connect the Tidewater near Georgetownmarker with Cumberlandmarker, Maryland. Started in 1785, it was not completed until 1802. Financial troubles closed the canal in 1830. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal operated along the banks of the Potomac in Maryland from 1850 to 1924 and also connected Cumberland to Washington, D.C. This allowed freight to be transported around the rapids known as the Great Falls of the Potomac Rivermarker, as well as many other, smaller rapids.

With increasing mining and agriculture upstream and urban sewage and runoff downstream, the water quality of the Potomac River deteriorated. This created conditions of severe eutrophication. It is said that President Abraham Lincoln used to escape to the highlands on summer nights to escape the river's stench. In the 1960s, with dense green algal blooms covering the river's surface, President Lyndon Johnson declared the river "a national disgrace" and set in motion a long-term effort to reduce sewage pollution and restore the beauty and ecology of this historic river. By the end of the 20th century, there was notable success, as massive algal blooms vanished and recreational fishing and boating rebounded. Still, the aquatic habitat of the Potomac River and its tributaries remain vulnerable to eutrophication, heavy metals, pesticides and other toxic chemicals, over-fishing, alien species, and pathogens associated with fecal coliform bacteria and shellfish diseases. On November 13, 2007, environmental group the Potomac Conservancy issued the river a grade of "D-plus", citing high levels of pollution and reports of "intersex" fish.

The Potomac was designated as one of the American Heritage Rivers in 1997.

Legal issues

Map of land use in the watershed
For 400 years Maryland and Virginia have disputed control of the Potomac and its North Branch, since both states' original colonial charters grant the entire river rather than half of it as is normally the case with boundary rivers. In its first state constitution adopted in 1776, Virginia ceded its claim to the entire river but reserved free use of it, an act disputed by Maryland. Both states acceded to the Compact of 1785 and the 1877 Black-Jenkins Award which grants Maryland the river bank-to-bank from the low water mark on the Virginia side, while permitting Virginia full riparian rights short of obstructing navigation.

From 1957 to 1996, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) routinely issued permits applied for by Virginia entities concerning use of the Potomac. However, in 1996 the MDE denied a permit applied for by the Fairfax Countymarker Water Authority to build a water intake valve 725 feet (220 m) offshore, citing potential harm to Maryland's interests by an increase in Virginia sprawl caused by the project. After years of failed appeals within the Maryland government's appeal processes, in 2000 Virginia took the case to the Supreme Court of the United Statesmarker, which exercises original jurisdiction in cases between two states. Maryland claimed Virginia lost its riparian rights by acquiescing to MDE's permit process for 63 years (MDE began its permit process in 1933). A Special Master appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate recommended the case be settled in favor of Virginia, citing the language in the 1785 Compact and the 1877 Award. On December 9, 2003, the Court agreed in a 7-2 decision.

The original charters are silent as to which branch from the upper Potomac serves as the boundary, but this was settled by the 1785 Compact. When West Virginia seceded from Virginia in 1863, the question of West Virginia's succession in title to the lands between the branches of the river was raised, as well as title to the river itself. Claims by Maryland to West Virginia land north of the South Branch (all of Mineralmarker and Grantmarker Counties and parts of Hampshiremarker, Hardymarker, Tuckermarker and Pendletonmarker Counties) and by West Virginia to the Potomac's high water mark were rejected by the Supreme Court in two separate decisions in 1910. State of Md. v. State of W.Va., 217 U.S. 1 State of Md. v. State of W.Va., 217 U.S. 577


Conservation

As a result of the damaging floods of 1936 and 1937, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a series of dams that were intended to regulate the river and to provide a more reliable water supply. One dam was to be built at Little Falls, backing its pool up to Great Falls. Just above Great Falls, a much larger dam was proposed whose reservoir would extend to Harpers Ferry. Several other dams were proposed on the Potomac and its tributaries. When detailed studies were issued by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s, they met sustained opposition, led by US Supreme Courtmarker Chief Justice William O. Douglas, resulting in the plans' abandonment. The only project that did get built was Jennings Randolph Lakemarker on the North Branch.

North Branch Potomac River

The source of the North Branch Potomac River is at the Fairfax Stonemarker located at the junction of Grantmarker, Tuckermarker and Prestonmarker counties in West Virginia.

From the Fairfax Stone, the North Branch Potomac River flows to the man-made Jennings Randolph Lakemarker, an impoundment designed for flood control. Below the dam, the North Branch cuts a serpentine path through the eastern Allegheny Mountains. First, it flows northeast by the communities of Bloomingtonmarker, Lukemarker, and Westernportmarker in Maryland and then on by Keysermarker, West Virginia to Cumberlandmarker, Maryland. At Cumberland, the river turns southeast. It is joined by the South Branch between Green Springmarker and South Branch Depotmarker, West Virginia from whence it flows past Hancockmarker, Maryland and turns southeast once more on its way toward Washington, D.C.marker, and the Chesapeake Bay.

The following are tributaries of the North Branch Potomac River, listed in order from the source to its mouth.

South Branch Potomac River

The South Branch Potomac River has its headwaters in northwestern Highland Countymarker, Virginia near Hightownmarker along the eastern edge of the Allegheny Front. The mouth of the South Branch lies east of Green Springmarker in Hampshire Countymarker, West Virginia where it meets the North Branch Potomac River to form the Potomac. A topographic map of the confluence of the North and South Branches can be viewed here.

South Branch nomenclature

Early pioneer sources claim that the indigenous Native Americans of the region referred to the South Branch Potomac River as the Wappatomaka. Other variants of this name throughout the river's history were South Branch of Potowmac River, South Branch of the Potowmac River, South Fork Potomac River, Wapacomo River, Wapocomo River, Wappacoma River, Wappatomaka River, and Wappatomica River.

Places settled in the South Branch valley bearing variants of "Wappatomaka" include Wappacoma plantation built in 1773 and the unincorporated hamlet of Wappocomomarker (sometimes spelled Wapocomo) at Hanging Rocks, both north of Romneymarker on West Virginia Route 28.

South Branch headwaters and course

The exact location of the South Branch's source is northwest of Hightown along Parkersburg Pike (U.S. Route 250) on the eastern side of Lantz Mountain (3,934 ft) in Highland County. From Hightown, the South Branch is a small meandering stream that flows northeast along Crab Bottom Road through the communities of New Hampdenmarker and Crab Bottom. At Forks of Waters, the South Branch joins with Strait Creek and flows north across the Virginia/West Virginia border into Pendleton Countymarker. The river then travels on a northeastern course along the western side of Jack Mountain (4,045 ft), followed by Sandy Ridge (2,297 ft) along U.S. Route 220. North of the confluence of the South Branch with Smith Creek, the river flows along Town Mountain (2,848 ft) around Franklinmarker at the junction of U.S. Route 220 and U.S. Route 33. After Franklin, the South Branch continues north through the Monongahela National Forestmarker to Upper Tractmarker where it joins with three sizeable streams: Reeds Creek, Mill Run, and Deer Run. Between Big Mountain (2,582 ft) and Cave Mountain (2,821 ft), the South Branch bends around the Eagle Rock (1,483 ft) outcrop and continues its flow northward into Grant Countymarker. Into Grant, the South Branch follows the western side of Cave Mountain through the long Smoke Hole Canyonmarker, until its confluence with the North Fork at Cabinsmarker, where it flows east to Petersburgmarker. At Petersburg, the South Branch is joined with the South Branch Valley Railroad, which it parallels until its mouth at Green Springmarker.

In its eastern course from Petersburg into Hardy Countymarker, the South Branch becomes more navigable allowing for canoes and smaller river vessels. The river splits and forms a series of large islands while it heads northeast to Moorefieldmarker. At Moorefield, the South Branch is joined by the South Fork South Branch Potomac River and runs north to Old Fieldsmarker where it is fed by Anderson Run and Stony Run. At McNeillmarker, the South Branch flows into the Trough where it is bound to its west by Mill Creek Mountainmarker (2,119 ft) and to its east by Sawmill Ridge (1,644 ft). This area is the habitat to endangered bald eagles. The Trough passes into Hampshire Countymarker and ends at its confluence with Sawmill Run south of Glebemarker and Sectormarker. The South Branch continues north parallel to South Branch River Road (County Route 8) toward Romneymarker with a number of historic plantation farms adjoining it. En route to Romney, the river is fed by Buffalo Run, Mill Run, McDowell Run, and Mill Creek at Vanderlipmarker. The South Branch is traversed by the Northwestern Turnpike (U.S. Route 50) and joined by Sulphur Spring Run where it forms Valley View Islandmarker to the west of town. Flowing north of Romney, the river still follows the eastern side of Mill Creek Mountain until it creates a horseshoe bend at Wappocomomarker's Hanging Rocks around the George W. Washington plantation, Ridgedalemarker. To the west of Three Churchesmarker on the western side of South Branch Mountainmarker, 3,028 feet (923 m), the South Branch creates a series of bends and flows to the northeast by Springfieldmarker through Blue's Ford. After another horseshoe bend, the South Branch flows under the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad mainline between Green Springmarker and South Branch Depotmarker, and joins the North Branch to form the Potomac.

South Branch tributaries



North Fork South Branch Potomac River

The North Fork South Branch Potomac River forms just north of the Virginia/West Virginia border in Pendleton Countymarker at the confluence of the Laurel Fork and Straight Fork along Big Mountain (3,881 ft). From Circlevillemarker, the North Fork flows northeast through Pendleton County between the Fore Knobs (2,949 ft) to its west and the River Knobsmarker, 2,490 feet (759 m) to its east. At Seneca Rocksmarker, the North Fork is met by Seneca Creek. From Seneca Rocks, the North Fork continues to flow northeast along the western edge of North Fork Mountain 3,389 feet (1033 m) into Grant Countymarker. Flowing east through North Fork Gap, the North Fork joins the South Branch Potomac at the town of Cabinsmarker, west of Petersburgmarker.

South Fork South Branch Potomac River

The South Fork South Branch Potomac River forms just north of U.S. Route 250 in Highland Countymarker, Virginiamarker near Head Watersmarker and flows 55 miles (89 km) north-northeastward to the South Branch Potomac River at Moorefieldmarker in Hardy Countymarker, West Virginiamarker. From 1896 to 1929, it was named the Moorefield River by the Board on Geographic Names to avoid confusion with the South Branch.

Upper Potomac River

This stretch encompasses the stretch of the Potomac River from the confluence of the North and South Branches to the Great Falls of the Potomac Rivermarker at Great Fallsmarker, Virginia.

Upper Potomac tributaries



Tidal Potomac River

The Tidal or Lower Potomac River lies below the fall line. This stretch encompasses the Potomac from about one mile (2 km) below the Washington, DCmarker - Montgomery County, MDmarker line, just below the Little Falls of the Potomac River where the tidal river begins, to the Chesapeake Bay.

Tidal Potomac tributaries



See also



Notes

  1. cf. Ojibwe: Baadimaag-ziibi, from biidimaw "bring something to somebody" Freelang Ojibwe Dictionary
  2. Legends of Loudoun: An account of the history and homes of a border county of Virginia's Northern Neck, Harrison Williams, p. 26.
  3. cf. Odawa: ikagookaanitoo-ziibi "river that is abundant with geese" Freelang Ojibwe Dictionary
  4. http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/cgi-bin/getcase.pl?court=US&navby=case&vol=000&invol=129ORIG Virginia v. Maryland, 124 S.Ct. 598.


References



External links






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