Virginia’s Most Pristine Water Body

John Smith produced the first map showing the Piankatank River and the Dragon Run watershed (the Maltese cross indicates he personally explored the headwaters near Matchutt)
John Smith produced the first map showing the Piankatank River and the Dragon Run watershed (the Maltese cross indicates he personally explored the headwaters near Matchutt)
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606

Dragon Run, 35 miles of swamp at the headwaters of the Piankatank River, may be the most pristine water body in Virginia, affected least by the changes in the landscape over the last few centuries. The Dragon Run watershed Management Plan describes it as follows:1

The Dragon Run is a brackish water, tidal/nontidal stream which flows forty miles through the Virginia Middle Peninsula counties of Essex, King and Queen, Middlesex, and Gloucester. Fed by underground springs, surface runoff and numerous feeder swamps, the Dragon Run twists and turns, meandering through the four-county area, eventually emptying at the headwaters of the Piankatank River. The stream, along with the surrounding Dragon Run Swamp, forms an ecologically unique system.

A system of excellent water quality and numerous and diverse species of flora and fauna. It is characterized by dense stands of hardwoods with occasional upland ridges extending to the stream's edge. It supports both recreational fishing and excellent game and nongame wildlife. There is very little evidence of man's presence, essentially maintaining a primitive character throughout the entire system.

Dragon Run watershed is located in four counties - Gloucester, King and Queen, and Middlesex
Dragon Run watershed is located in four counties - Gloucester, King and Queen, and Middlesex
Source: Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission, Dragon Run Management Framework

At the end of the last Ice Age 18,000 years ago, the Piankatank River was one of many fresh-water tributaries draining into the Susquehanna River as it flowed south. Rising sea level flooded the valley of the Susquehanna River and converted a portion of it into the Chesapeake Bay, while the drowned mouth of the Piankatank River evolved into a part of Dragon Swamp.

Further upstream for 40 miles, the flat landscape had been created over millions of years. It was formed by the accumulation of eroded sediments from the Piedmont forming the Coastal Plain, by occasional transgressions of the Atlantic Ocean as far west as the Fall Line during which marine sediments were deposited, and by erosion that created a topography so flat that swamps developed. Tannins leach into the slow-moving water from decaying leaves of hardwood trees and bald cypress, creating "blackwater" swamps that send water gradually into Dragon Run.

When the Smithsonian Institution evaluated ecologically significant areas in the Chesapeake Bay area in 1974, Dragon Run was listed as the #1 site in Virginia's part of the bay.

After the Virginia General Assembly passed the Scenic Rivers Act of 1970, Dragon Run was the first stream to be studied - but local landowners objected to designation, fearing it would stimulate an unacceptable increase in use. While the area does not have many landowners asserting Kings Grant claims to submerged lands, concerns about property rights and potential trespass by boaters/anglers are a factor in the rural counties.2

Dragon Run watershed parcel boundaries
Dragon Run watershed parcel boundaries
Source: Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission, Dragon Run Management Framework

Land ownership is fragmented, but most parcels remain undeveloped. Currently there are only about 500 residences in the watershed - but in the 1990's, it was zoned for nearly 40,000 housing units. The counties on the Middle Peninsula make extensive use of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to determine how to revise existing Comprehensive Plans and zoning ordinances to protect the headwaters of the Piankatank River.3

The threat to Dragon Run is residential development, as urban residents seek to build second homes or retire to waterfront property on the Middle Peninsula. While development of one individual parcel will not wrech local ecology, the incremental cumulative impacts on wildlife, water quality, and other environmental components could transform the swamp. As noted by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality:4

Much of the Middle Peninsula serves as a bedroom community for out-commuting residents. Suburban sprawl from urban employment centers is now creeping into the region.

The Dragon Run Conservation Estate Planning Network Initiative has been effective in obtaining conservation easements from local landowners, and 23% of the watershed is now protected. In addition, The Nature Conservancy has acquired property, including over 4,000 acres transferred to the Virginia Department of Forestry for the Dragon Run State Forest.5

In 2010, The Nature Conservancy purchased over 13,000 acres from a timber company, then re-sold it to another timber company with an easement ensuring high standards for forest management and timber harvest, protection of stream buffers, and reduced potential for future home development 9eliminating 100 potential new houses).6

protected land in Dragon Run, as of 2010
protected land in Dragon Run, as of 2010
Source: Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Dragon Run SAMP FY 2008 Final Report

Links

Dragon Run topography
Dragon Run topography
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Church View 7.5x7.5 topographic quad map

References

1. "Dragon Run Watershed Management Plan," Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission, 1996, p.4, http://www.mppdc.com/dragon/docs/drmp96.pdf (last checked September 9, 2012)
2. "Dragon Run Watershed Management Plan," p.6
3. "Dragon Run Watershed Management Plan," pp.20-21
4. "Strategy: Dragon Run Special Area Management Plan," Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, http://www.deq.state.va.us/Portals/0/DEQ/CoastalZoneManagement/dragonstrat.pdf (last checked September 9, 2012)
5. "Dragon Run SAMP FY 2008 Final Report," Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, 2008, p.11, http://www.deq.state.va.us/Portals/0/DEQ/CoastalZoneManagement/task95-08.pdf (last checked September 9, 2012)
6. " Nature Conservancy Records 13,350-acre Easement in Dragon Run and Mattaponi Drainages: 20,645 acres, 23% of Watershed Protected," Friends of Dragon Run, February 3, 2010, http://www.dragonrun.org/TNC%20Conservation%20News2-10.htm (last checked September 9, 2012)

in the 1676 rebellion, Nathaniel Bacon followed the Pamunkeys into Dragon Run
in the 1676 rebellion, Nathaniel Bacon followed the Pamunkeys into Dragon Run
(map is aligned so north is to the right, not towards the top)
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia and Maryland as it is planted and inhabited this present year 1670 by Augustin Herrman


Rivers and Watersheds
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