What's a Watershed and Why You Should Care

By Maureen Wise in Thinking Sustainably

If you've been working on greening your lifestyle by recycling and composting and reducing energy usage, you care about the earth and the environment. You're doing your part. But what about your backyard and your eco-neighborhood? What about your watershed?

What's a watershed, you ask? We all live in one, and what you do there affects us all!

mother and child walking on a bridge through a marsh

So What's a Watershed?

You can think of a watershed as your personal ecological neighborhood. A watershed is the land that surrounds a body of water (a river, a lake, the ocean, a wetland) that drains to that water body, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Watersheds are divided by hilltops and are not altered by political boundaries. All the land in the world is part of a watershed. You're in one right now! Watersheds are like Russian nesting dolls. Many small watersheds fit inside larger watersheds that fit inside huge watersheds that flow into the sea. In fact, all watersheds eventually drain to the ocean.

So back to your neighborhood: the rain that falls on your roof goes down the gutter, into a storm drain, and into a local pond, river, or coastal floodplain. Rain on your property may also flow into a creek in your backyard and then into a larger river and then into a lake. All watersheds are different, just like each neighborhood has its own unique qualities. What happens to the water in your lawn affects the water downstream. Asking, "Why are watersheds important?" teaches us that nature works on a bigger scale, and so should we.

Know Your Own Watershed

What and where is the closest river or creek to your home? Do you know? If it's over the next hill, it may not be in the same watershed. Check out the Surf Your Watershed Tool put together by the EPA to find out. You can also head over to the U.S. Geological Survey's Science in Your Watershed site to geek out at the water monitoring and fish studies that may be happening in your eco-neighborhood. Also search through the Clean Water Action's site to discover if your region has any major pollution concerns.

One of the biggest threats to a river anywhere is runoff. Rainwater that drains downhill carries with it everything it touches on the way by, from fertilizers and manure on farms to spilled gas and oil on roads. Anything that gets swept up and pollutes the streams it flows into is runoff, or stormwater. Even soil can be a threat if too much mud and debris flows into and chokes a waterway. Reduce Your Stormwater offers suggestions for where and how to plant trees to combat runoff in your area.

Take Action

Once you know your watershed's name and shape along with local pollution concerns, do another web search for any watershed groups active nearby. If your local river has an organization affiliated with it, reach out and see how you can get involved. The watershed association will be able to tell you how your own watershed is threatened and how you can take action. For example, I used to work for a watershed group that worked to bring fish back to a nearly lifeless stream that had been polluted by abandoned coal mines.

Not all threats are from liquid pollution. Almost every river or beach could benefit from a few hours spent picking up trash. Some watersheds, like salt marshes in highly developed beach towns, are also threatened by habitat destruction from building new houses. Find out how you can help groups like The Nature Conservancy preserve wild lands in your state or local area.

There may be ways to volunteer for a day at a time as well, like an annual river cleanup day or a few hours spent replanting native grasses on a riverbank. One of the best things you can do with your new knowledge of your watershed and its river group is to tell your neighbors and get them involved!

plastic bottle trash washed up on riverbank

Other Ways to Help

Remember how I mentioned the stormwater before? A big thing you can do to help is to disconnect the water that falls onto your roof and driveway from storm drains. Instead, direct it into your grass, where it will filter into the ground and recharge the aquifers where most of our nation's drinking water comes from. If it goes into the storm drain, it may actually cause pollution to your local waterway in the form of dirty, warm water full of road salt and oil spills that can harm aquatic life. Anything you put in your lawn or garden ultimately ends up in the ocean.

Have you noticed that many face washes, toothpastes and body scrubs contain tiny exfoliating plastic beads? Beat the Microbead outlines how these excess plastics are polluting the water and harming marine wildlife. These tiny beads make it through water treatment plants, where aside from adding to the pounds of plastic in our oceans, they make it into the bellies of fish. Pollution of any form really loves to glom on to microbeads, and any toxins stuck to the plastics leach into the bodies of fish and animals that can't digest them. Happily, no Tom's of Maine products contain microbeads.

Remember: we all live downstream of someone else. That tiny splash of used oil that is tossed into your local creek could one day end up in the ocean. Why not stop it in its greasy tracks before it leaves your backyard?

There are so many other ways to help your watershed and its local stream. How else do you help protect your own watershed? Let us know on Twitter!

Image source: Pexels | Pexels | Pixabay

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Why It’s Good

Ecological protection must happen on a watershed scale, not just city-wide or state-wide. Nature works within watersheds and we should pay attention!