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What is a Watershed?

Protecting our watersheds is critical for ensuring that our water is healthy – from streams to lakes to the groundwater that we drink.

ECS_Michigan Sea Grant with permission_e

What is a watershed?

A watershed is the total area of land that drains to a particular stream, river or lake. A watershed includes not only the water body or waterway itself but also the entire land area that drains into it, including uplands covered by farms, forests, homes and businesses that may be some distance from the water. A watershed may be very small, like the drainage formed by your driveway, or very large, like the drainage basin of the Delaware River.

Why is it important to protect watersheds?

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Plant and Animal Diversity. Many different species of plants and animals, including several endangered and threatened species, depend on a healthy watershed. 

Kayaking at Sunrise

Outdoor Recreation. People who enjoy swimming, boating, fishing, and hiking also depend on healthy watersheds. 


Prevent Erosion. Loss of vegetated buffers along stream and lake banks in a watershed contributes to soil erosion and increases the risk of flooding

Everything that happens to the land within a watershed, such as rainfall, stormwater drainage and pollution, affects the quality and quantity of the local water, including the drinking supply. 

How can we protect our watersheds?

Macroinvertebrate Assessments. SJLWT and the Americorps Watershed Ambassadors offer macroinvertebrate assessment training, which allows volunteers the opportunity to test the health levels of their watersheds by noticing the presence or absence of certain pollution-intolerant macroinvertebrates.

Plant a Rain Garden. Rain Gardens typically consist of native, drought-tolerant plants, which require less water than other plants. They are typically constructed in a depression or low-lying area, often at the supply-end of a rain gutter or downspout to capture rainwater. This allows the water to percolate through the soil into the groundwater in a natural filtration process to “recharge” an underground aquifer.

Minimize paved or “impervious” surfaces. When rain falls on a paved surface, the water cannot soak into the ground, and it creates run-off. As the stormwater run-off creates puddles on the road, it picks up any oil, dirt, grease and other pollutants and carries them with it as it enters stormwater drains. These drains ultimately wind up at the nearest stream

Reduce chemical use. The fewer chemicals that are used in agriculture, lawn care, gardening, and on home exteriors, the fewer chemical pollutants end up in the stormwater drainage after a heavy rain. Even the excess fertilizer from your lawn will wind up in the watershed after a rainstorm! In addition, pesticide and herbicide chemicals destroy beneficial insects, including butterflies. 

Pick up after your animals. If you take your dog for walks, be sure to pick up its waste. Even a light rain could wash the waste into the water system, including any parasites or bugs that could be living in there. It’s always a smart idea to pick up, bag, and throw away your animals’ waste.

Conduct a Community Cleanup. Choose an area to monitor within your watershed, and make sure that it is free of trash and debris that could harm the watershed. This would be a great ongoing project for a school club, volunteer group, or Scout troop or other extracurricular club. Check in your local area about adopting a road way or stream bank, and be sure to always wear brightly-colored clothing when picking up trash as a safety precaution!

Properly dispose of “tech waste." Some items are more difficult to recycle or dispose of than others, which can lead to them being dumped or improperly disposed of. This includes “tech waste”, or outdated TVs, DVD players, computers, gaming systems, etc. Contact your municipality to find out the best way to dispose of these items, and make sure that your family’s outdated tech items don’t leach harmful chemicals into your watershed.

If you are interested in becoming a macroinvertebrate assessment volunteer, constructing a rain garden, or conducting a Community Cleanup in your area, please contact us today!

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