A watershed is defined as an area of land that separates waters flowing to different rivers, basins, or seas. However, an easier way to think of a watershed is by picturing it as all the land where rainfall that lands drains off of and into other streams of waters. According to the USGS Water Science School, “You’re standing, and everyone is standing, in a watershed. Watersheds can be as small as a footprint or large enough to encompass all the land that drains water into rivers that drain into Chesapeake Bay, where it enters the Atlantic Ocean.”
Watersheds may vary in size and location, but a variable that doesn’t change between one to the next is the necessity to keep them healthy. The natural water cycle depends on a viable environment to sustain the watersheds. Sadly, many watersheds are already polluted or at the risk of becoming polluted due to contaminants. The United States Environmental Protection Agency, commonly regarded as EPA, states that some of the pollution in watersheds is caused by ‘nonpoint source (NPS) pollution’ and NPS is caused when rainfall or snowmelt, moving over and through the ground, picks up and carries natural and human-made pollutants, depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters and ground waters. Essentially, rainfall lands in contaminated watersheds, or land that drains into an outlet, and carries pollutants into water sources that make up our natural water cycle.
The EPA goes on to define a healthy watershed as providing “nutrient cycling, carbon storage, erosion/sedimentation control, increased biodiversity, soil formation, wildlife movement corridors, water storage, water filtration, flood control, food, timber and recreation, as well as reduced vulnerability to invasive species, the effects of climate change and other natural disasters.” We want to strive for healthy and unpolluted watersheds because the benefits that are derived from them are diverse and range from quality of life improvements, economic benefits, and beyond. The EPA notes a range of benefits including:
- Improved water quality
- Carbon storage opportunities
- Increased resilience in the face of climate change threats
- Reduced risk for invasive species colonization
- Protecting healthy watersheds can reduce capital costs for water treatment plants and reduce damages to property and infrastructure due to flooding, thereby avoiding future costs
- Reduced drinking water treatment and infrastructure costs
- Reduced flood mitigation costs
- Increased revenues and job opportunities
- Increased property values
These positive outcomes from healthy watersheds play a large role in our life. They allow us to participate in recreational outdoor activities, decrease treatment costs, increase the value of the land, all meanwhile keeping our watersheds free of pollutants. Protecting our watershed and maintaining healthy water supplies is important to the vitality of our communities and homes. There are many ways you can participate in keeping our watersheds clean! The Nature Conservancy shares some steps that individuals can take to participate in the effort of keeping watersheds pollutant free. These include:
- Don’t pour toxic household chemicals down the drain; take them to a hazardous waste center.
- Use hardy plants that require little or no watering, fertilizers or pesticides in your yard.
- Do not over apply fertilizers. Consider using organic or slow release fertilizers instead.
- Recycle yard waste in a compost pile & use a mulching mower.
- Use surfaces like wood, brick or gravel for decks & walkways; it allows rain to soak in & not run off.
- Never pour used oil or antifreeze into the storm drain or the street.
- Pick up after your dog and dispose of the waste in the toilet or the trash.
- Drive less—walk or bike; many pollutants in our waters come from car exhaust and car leaks.
Healthy watersheds are connected to various aspects of our life and by following the tips to maintain a clean watershed, YOU can make a direct impact in your community!