Getting to Know Your Local Watershed
A Guide for Watershed Partnerships
Let's start basic: What is a watershed?
A watershed is an area of land that drains into a lake or river. As rainwater and melting
snow run downhill, they carry sediment and other materials into our streams, lakes, wetlands and groundwater.
Why is your
We all live in a watershed. Watersheds are the places we call home, where we work and
where we play. Everyone relies on water and other natural resources to exist. What you and
others do on the land impacts the quality and quantity of water and our other natural
Healthy watersheds are vital for a healthy environment and economy. Our watersheds
provide water for drinking, irrigation and industry. Many people also enjoy lakes and
streams for their beauty and for boating, fishing and swimming. Wildlife also need healthy
watersheds for food and shelter.
Managing the water and other natural resources is an effective and efficient way to
sustain the local economy and environmental health.
Scientists and leaders now recognize the best way to protect the vital natural
resources is to understand and manage them on a watershed basis. Everything that is done
in a watershed affects the watershed's system.
Pollutants and water quality.
In the past, most water quality problems were traced to the most obvious cause ... point-source pollution. This means the problem can be traced to a
specific location such as a pipe or disposal site.
Technical and regulatory methods have been used to detect and control these problems.
Much progress has been made in preventing further water quality problems from point
However, water quality problems from nonpoint-source pollution are
more difficult to isolate and control. These sources are often hard to identify and
difficult to measure. This type of pollution results from a wide variety of activities
over a wide area.
Nonpoint-source pollutants are in the water that runs off crop or forest land. Others
include failing septic systems, parking lots, construction sites, irrigation systems and
drainage systems. It can even result from automobile exhaust getting in the atmosphere and
falling back to earth in the rain.
A partnership among all who live, work or play in the watershed can help identify
concerns, educate those involved and encourage them to take action. Watershed management
plans focus on prevention of pollution. This is easier and cheaper than trying to cleanup
a watershed after the fact.
Understanding your watershed is the first step in protecting the water and other
Understanding your watershed.
The watershed where you live is a dynamic and unique place. It is a complex web of natural
resources - soil, water, air, plants and animals. Yet, everyday activities can impact
these resources, ultimately impacting our well-being and economic livelihood.
Your watershed has many features that make it unique.
One important feature is the size of the watershed. Some (like the Mississippi River
basin) are very large and include many smaller river basins or watersheds. These smaller
watersheds can be subdivided into even smaller areas. The ideal size for a voluntary
partnership to work with is 50,000 acres or less. At this size your group will likely see
water quality improvements sooner than in larger areas. Of course, in regions of the
United States where ranchers, foresters and others manage large tracts of land, you may be
working with a much larger watershed.
Another important feature is the geographic boundary of the watershed. The boundary is
formed by a ridge or high area from which water drains either toward or away from your
The topography (terrain) is another important feature. How flat or steep the land is
impacts how fast water drains. The faster the drainage, the more potential for flooding
and increased soil erosion.
Soil type is also important. For example, sandy soils allow the ground to soak up water
faster. This reduces surface runoff, but can affect ground water. Clay soils, on the other
hand, are tighter and do not allow as much water infiltration. This can lead to more
runoff and soil erosion.
Whether your watershed drains into a stream or lake, the area nearest the water greatly
affects water quality. This is why filter/buffer strips, wildlife habitat, wetlands and riparian areas are
important aspects of your watershed.
Both filter/buffer strips and wetlands utilize nutrients and tie up sediment to help
improve water quality. Wetlands also act as natural sponges to absorb peak flows of water
and reduce flooding. Many fish and wildlife species rely on wetlands for rearing their
young, and for food and shelter.
To fully understand your watershed, you'll also need to consider how it is used.
Land uses and trends.
All activities within the watershed have an impact on its natural resources. Cities,
homes, roads and factories modify the watershed and affect its natural resources. Farming,
recreation, mining, construction and forestry can also significantly affect a watershed.
One trend you may want to note is whether or not more homes are being built in rural
areas. This can lead to conflicts over watershed issues such as livestock odor, pesticide
use or septic systems. It can also lead to significant changes in land use which can
affect water quality and property values.
Natural resource uses.
You may also find natural resources are used in many different ways in your watershed.
Water can be used by municipalities and local industries. Farms also rely on water for
irrigation and livestock. Many people enjoy water for recreational uses like fishing,
swimming and boating. So the water quality and quantity are important to the watershed's stakeholders.
Air quality, wildlife, soil quality and the other natural resources can also be
important aspects of watershed management.
To fully understand your watershed you'll also need to understand how it's used by the
people who live, work and play there. These are the stakeholders who need to be involved
in the planning and implementing process. For this reason, they'll need to be a part of
the watershed partnership.
Social trends also influence watershed management efforts.
A sound local economy is also important to everyone with a stake in the watershed. That's
why it's important to consider the local economy and ways to sustain or improve it through
successful watershed management. Ask your group how the natural resources within the
watershed can affect the local economy.
These trends can be critical. For instance, are people living in one and working in a
different watershed? Are jobs and family incomes dependent on the watershed? Do people
understand how various jobs depend on it? Is employment stable? Are jobs transient?
Most people rely on their beliefs and experiences, rather than on scientific data, to
shape their attitudes. This means that when their perceptions don't match reality, people
react to their perceptions, not reality.
Although experts disagree, most people perceive there is more risk today than in the
past. In addition, more people are striving for a risk-free world. These people often
resist making trade-offs, particularly those between the economy and the environment.
Many people are more concerned about some perceived risks than others (regardless of
the potential). For instance, involuntary risks (like secondhand smoke) often bring a
higher level of concern than voluntary risks (like smoking).
Determine size and boundaries
Identify and map critical areas
Map land uses and identify trends
Identify uses of natural resources
Determine employment trends
Study economic trends
Define attitude trends
Successful watershed management.
A study of watershed management efforts highlights some of the keys to successful
watershed management. They are:
Include all stakeholders in the local partnership
Use sound technical information
Set clear objectives and priorities
Select effective management alternatives
Develop innovative educational and assistance programs
Use strong local leadership
Use a systems approach that integrates all concerns and
You're not alone.
The good news is that you are not alone in your concern for watershed protection.
Many partnerships have been formed and are successfully managing their watersheds. In
your area, you'll find many partners ready to help when you ask.
By using a partnership approach you'll find greater local initiative, responsiveness,
and control. Partnerships can build a climate of cooperation and focus on solutions. A
plan developed by a local partnership is often more effective and efficient than other
methods such as broad sweeping regulations. The result is the improved environmental and
economic health of your watershed.
Effective watershed management planning relies on an effective partnership that includes
representatives of all stakeholders and works cooperatively toward a common goal.
As you look around your community, you'll find many people who will want to be involved
in developing a plan to protect your watershed. The guide Building Local Partnerships describes
how partners can contribute and outlines strategies for building local watershed
Successful partnerships start with partners understanding each others' current beliefs
about the issues. What people believe to be real is real in its consequences.
Understanding each others' beliefs will help your efforts.
Conflicts among partners can also influence the effectiveness and fairness of the
management plan. The Managing Conflict
guide describes how you can effectively manage conflicts and work toward consensus.
The watershed planning process.
Get to know your watershed
Determine size, boundaries, soils, terrain and other features
Understand the people, interests, and institutions
Determine how the watershed is used
Build local partnerships
Identify and contact partners/stakeholders
Divide work and responsibility
Identify and manage conflicts
Obtain local funding and other resources
Determine priorities for action
Assemble maps and data
Identify and document problems
Determine goals and objectives
Evaluate water quality
Assess land use
Select critical areas for attention
Conduct educational programs
Identify and understand target audiences
Develop specific messages
Combine communication approaches, channels and media
Provide landowners with assistance
Target technical assistance
Provide financial assistance
Build social support and recognition
Ensure implementation and follow-up
Continue with monitoring and evaluation
Provide continued local funding
Continue to inform and involve everyone
Sources of information.
To start down the road toward an effective local watershed partnership, you may want to
read some of these other guides from the Conservation Technology Information Center by
calling 765-494-9555. See our catalog
to order this online.
Leading & Communicating
Putting Together a Watershed Plan
Reflecting on Lakes
Groundwater & Surface Water: Understanding
Wetlands: A Key Link in Watershed Management
Guide to Information and Resources
Nonpoint Source Water Quality Contacts
The author acknowledges the following sources of information that
were used in developing this guide. You may also find these publications helpful. There
may be fees for these publications.
Clean Water in Your Watershed: A Citizen's Guide to Watershed Protection.
Terrene Institute Tel: 202-833-8317
Evaluation of the Experimental Rural Clean Water Program - Project Report.
North Carolina State University. Tel: 919-515-3723.
Managing Nonpoint Pollution: An Action Plan for Puget Sound Watersheds.
Puget Sound Water Quality Authority Tel: 206-464-7320
Public Perception and Communication of Risk.
North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service Tel: 919-515-1676
About this guide....
This guide is one of a series for people who want to organize a local partnership to
protect their watershed. This series will not solve all your problems. They were designed
to provide guidance for going through the process of building a voluntary partnership,
developing a watershed management plan and implementing that plan. Because the
characteristics of each watershed are unique; you may wish to select and use the portions
of this guide that are applicable to your particular situation.
Although the series is written for watershed-based planning areas, the ideas and
process can be used for developing other types of plans (such as wildlife areas) to match
the concerns of the partnership. Regardless of the area, remember a long-term, integrated
perspective-based on a systematic, scientific assessment-can be used to address more than
one concern at a time.
Special thanks to Dr. Thomas J. Hoban, Associate Professor, North Carolina State
University, who dedicated long hours to writing this guide. Without his help this guide
would not be possible.
Special thanks also go to the following professionals who carefully reviewed this
guide. Their experience and thoughtful guidance enriched it. Their time and insight is
US EPA, Region 5, Water Division
USDA SCS, Office of Public Affairs
Puget Sound Water Quality Authority
National Pork Producers Council
Planner, Swan Creek Watershed
Farmer, Indian Lake Watershed
TVA, Middle Fork Holston River Watershed
Coordinator, Eel River Watershed
US EPA, Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds
The Know Your Watershed campaign is coordinated by the Conservation
Technology Information Center (CTIC), a nonprofit public/private partnership dedicated to
the advancement of environmentally beneficial and economically viable natural resource
systems. It provides information and data about agricultural and natural resource
management systems, practices and technologies. The center was established in 1982 under
the charter of the National Association of Conservation Districts.
Wetlands: Areas that are covered with water during at least part of the year.
They have certain distinctive types of soils, plants, and
drainage. They provide habitat for fish and wildlife, help filter pollutants, and control floods.
Groundwater: Water that is trapped underground in an area of porous material. Most
wells tap ground water. This water recharges
slowly and is difficult to clean if it becomes contaminated.
Point-source pollution: This originates from the discharge of pollutants from a
single, readily identifiable source such as an
industrial or sewage discharge pipe.
Nonpoint-source pollution: This occurs from widely dispersed land areas and is
carried in runoff water from a field, forest, or
urban area into a stream, lake, or groundwater.
Filter/buffer strips: Grassy areas located at the borders of fields. They are
particularly important on the edge of lakes or
streams since they remove sediment and other types of pollution as well as provide a home for
Wildlife habitat: The area in which animals live. Includes woodland, cropland,
rangeland, wetlands etc.
Riparian area: Land and vegetation adjacent or near the banks of water (stream,
river, bayou, lake, etc.)
Stakeholders: Any individuals or groups who have an interest in or will in some way
be affected by your watershed management
efforts. They include those who will benefit from affected water quality, as well as those
who will pay for land management or other changes. Farmers, environmental organizations,
government agencies, businesses, developers, and recreational users are examples of
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