By Christine Osborne
Did you know that wherever you are, you’re standing in a watershed? We all know we’re dependent on water for our survival, but we don’t often stop to think about the role that watersheds play in making sure the water we use for drinking, irrigating crops, recreating in the great outdoors, and fueling economic growth is reliable, affordable, and accessible.
What is a watershed?
A watershed is a geographic area that drains into a common body of water such as a stream, river, lake, or wetland. Watersheds act like a funnel, channeling precipitation from the highest point in an area to the lowest point. Some of the water soaks into the soil as groundwater, while some flows into smaller tributaries or creeks that join together to form streams or rivers. These streams and rivers may then flow into larger areas to form lakes.
While some watersheds are small, others can cover thousands of acres. The Mississippi Watershed collects 1.15 million square miles of water from 31 states and two Canadian provinces! Smaller watersheds that span a single county or an inland lake may feed into larger watersheds. Ridges or hydrological divides separate watersheds; for example, precipitation that falls along one side of the Continental Divide of the Americas drains into the Pacific Ocean, while precipitation that falls along the other side drains into the Atlantic Ocean. We often think of watersheds as diverting mountain streams into low-lying valleys, but watersheds can also be relatively flat. All that’s required for an area to be considered a watershed is that the water it contains flows downhill and collects in a body of water.
Why are watersheds important?
An area’s water quality is inextricably tied to the health of its watershed. Watersheds provide a number of important ecological functions. They reduce erosion, regulate surface water and groundwater flow, prevent flooding, stabilize stream banks, filter and purify water, and provide important habitat for plants and animals. Many communities and individuals rely on healthy watersheds for clean drinking water, recreation, and agriculture.
We don’t always think about the financial value of a healthy watershed until we start comparing it with investments in new or improved infrastructure such as drinking water treatment plants and flood control measures. It is often more cost-effective to invest in watershed protection than mitigation. The natural infrastructure provided by a watershed is a valuable and overlooked resource that can save millions of dollars in engineered solutions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than $450 BILLION in food and fiber, manufactured goods, and tourism in the U.S. depend on clean water and healthy watersheds.
What are the threats to healthy watersheds?
Unfortunately, healthy watersheds are the exception rather than the rule. While the headwaters of many watersheds are relatively pristine, these waters can become contaminated by stormwater runoff and nonpoint source pollution as they move downstream. As water flows through the watershed, it picks up contaminants from runoff from urban areas, parking lots, roads, agricultural and residential areas, construction sites, and faulty septic systems. These contaminants can include chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers, oil and gasoline, E. coli from human and animal waste, pathogens, toxic materials, and sediment. Stormwater and nonpoint source runoff are the major sources of pollution to our watersheds.
What role does DEQ play in watershed protection?
Watershed monitoring is the best way to assess the condition of Utah waters. DEQ’s Division of Water Quality (DWQ) conducts water-quality monitoring on a watershed basis to evaluate water-quality conditions, collect valuable information about overall watershed health, and determine whether waterbodies are meeting their designated beneficial uses. (Utah’s waterways are assigned specific beneficial uses, including drinking water, recreation, agriculture, and cold-water fisheries, and DWQ develops criteria to protect, and if necessary, restore those uses). Waters not meeting the standards that protect for their beneficial uses are placed on the 303(d) List of Impaired Waterbodies. Once these waters are listed, DWQ conducts in-depth water quality studies to identify the possible sources of the pollutant(s) causing the impairment and create a plan called a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) to restore the waters to their beneficial use(s).
DWQ is committed to protecting and restoring the water quality in Utah watersheds. It’s an effort that will take all of us working together to accomplish. Our watersheds, and the benefits they provide, are worth it.
Visit the Utah Clean Water Partnership website to learn more about your watershed and the agencies, citizens, and organizations working to protect and restore Utah’s waters. Want to know what you can do as an individual to help protect our watersheds? Here are some tips:
Limit fertilizer use on your lawn.
Pick up after your dog.
Reduce pesticide use.
Never pour chemicals, pharmaceuticals, or oil down the drain, toilet, or storm drain.
Fix leaky septic systems.
Use a rain barrel.
Volunteer to plant trees near rivers and streams.
I am a content strategist/communication specialist at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. I have a Masters in Strategic Communication (MSC) degree from Westminster College and earned my Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). I currently teach Integrated Marketing Communication to graduate students in the MSC program at Westminster. In a previous life, I was a bassoonist with the Utah Symphony for 26 years. I love to hike, bike, camp, read, garden, geek out on all things science, and spend time with two college-age sons. I volunteer with a number of local refugee organizations and am currently a teen mentor with the 4-H New American Goat Club and Teen Leadership Club.