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What is a Watershed?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A watershed is an area which acts as a funnel, collecting water and shunting it into the ocean or into inland lakes and seas. Watersheds are also sometimes called catchment areas or drainage basins, and they are a very important part of the world's ecology. Because they cross regional and national boundaries, watershed management can be extremely challenging, especially when neighboring nations have differing views about the best way to manage the natural environment.

A watershed can be relatively small, or quite large, and in all cases, watersheds are interconnected systems. They collect rain, snow melt, springwater, and groundwater in the form of tributaries, streams, and rivers which eventually join up in a single large river or body of water. Because everything in a watershed is interconnected, small acts in one area of a watershed can have a profound impact on the entire region that the watershed covers.

Often, a watershed is visible from overhead, in the form of an extensive valley. Hills and mountains tend to make natural boundaries between watersheds, because their sloping sides act as literal funnels to divide water systems. As water passes to the sea or an inland body through the watershed, it may meander through a range of environments, from heavily forested regions to deserts, and it also frequently comes into contact with areas inhabited by humans.

One major issue in watershed management is pollution; a polluter far upstream can cause damage to a huge section of the watershed, and to the body of water the watershed eventually drains into. Many nations have strict laws about pollution which take the entirety of a watershed into account, setting a maximum pollution level which covers the entire area. Watersheds are also affected by things like logging, fishing, and harvesting of other natural resources, so before people embark upon such projects, they must demonstrate the steps they will take to protect the watershed.

Many people are involved in the study of watersheds, from a wide variety of perspectives. Biologists like to look at the diversity of animal and plant life in such areas, sometimes identifying populations which are unique to a specific watershed. Foresters and others who are interested in resource utilization look at watershed ecology to understand the potential impact of their own work, while environmental activists often focus on specific watersheds to lobby for protection for various plant and animal species.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a watershed?

A watershed, also known as a drainage basin, is a land area that channels rainfall and snowmelt to creeks, streams, and rivers, and eventually to outflow points such as reservoirs, bays, and the ocean. It's a crucial ecological concept, as watersheds are the catchment areas that supply our freshwater.

Why are watersheds important to the environment?

Watersheds are vital for maintaining ecosystem health. They filter pollutants, provide habitats for diverse wildlife, and support aquatic ecosystems. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, watersheds are essential for about 60% of the flow in rivers and streams, making them critical for both human and environmental water needs.

How do human activities impact watersheds?

Human activities can significantly impact watersheds through urban development, agriculture, and industry. These activities can lead to pollution, habitat destruction, and altered water flow. The U.S. Geological Survey notes that land use changes can affect the quantity and quality of water in watersheds, influencing the health of ecosystems and water availability for human use.

Can watersheds affect water quality?

Yes, watersheds have a direct impact on water quality. Runoff from agriculture, urban areas, and industrial sites can carry pollutants into water bodies. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that nonpoint source pollution, which is diffuse pollution from overland flow, is a leading cause of water quality issues in rivers and lakes within watersheds.

What can be done to protect and manage watersheds?

Protecting watersheds involves managing land use, reducing pollution, restoring vegetation, and engaging in conservation practices. Agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency advocate for integrated watershed management approaches that involve stakeholders in planning and decision-making to ensure sustainable water resources and healthy ecosystems.

How does climate change affect watersheds?

Climate change affects watersheds by altering precipitation patterns, increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, and changing snowmelt timing. These changes can lead to more severe floods and droughts, impacting water availability and quality. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has highlighted the need for adaptive management strategies to address these challenges in watersheds worldwide.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon349825 — On Sep 29, 2013

Thanks for answering some of my questions.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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