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How Watersheds Work
by Tiffany Connors

Every land mass eventually feeds into a body of water.
Joe Sohm/Visions of America

How Watersheds Work
Surely you've spent time cooped up at home during a rainstorm. Hours later, the land, streets and buildings
outside look completely dry. Have you ever wondered where all that rain goes? We know that much of the water
gets absorbed by the ground and by plants, but where does the rest of it end up? It eventually drains into the
surrounding lakes and rivers, but it must get there via watersheds.
Where are these watersheds? Here's a hint: You're sitting in a watershed right now. The Environmental Protection
Agency defines a watershed as any body of land that flows downhill into a waterway. Basically, "watershed" is a
broad term used to describe how water flows across land to feed streams, rivers and lakes [source:
Environmental Protection Agency]. All of these watersheds fit together like puzzle pieces to form our land masses.
All land masses feed into a body of water, whether it feeds into the Mississippi River or your backyard pond.
Obviously, water cannot travel uphill, so all watersheds are determined by topography. That means if you live on
one side of a ridge and your neighbor is on the other side, you live in different watersheds. That also means that
watersheds vary greatly in size, depending on the highest points surrounding it.

A watershed can be thousands of square miles, or it can be a few acres draining into a pond [source:
Environmental Protection Agency]. There are millions of watersheds in the world - 2,100 small ones in the United
States alone [source: NatureServe]. However, a watershed is more than just a piece of land that collects the
rainwater and dumps it into the river. Anything that ends up in a watershed ends up in a body of water, including

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pollutants like discarded motor oil or paint, or sediments from trees cut down due to construction. These and other
pollutants can contaminate a water supply, erode the land surrounding the body of water and disrupt aquatic
habitats.
Maintaining the health of our watersheds is vital to our ecology, but how does this affect you? Why should you
care about watersheds? In this article, we'll explore watersheds and what they mean to you.

A group of subwatersheds form a watershed.

What Is a Watershed?
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A watershed is an area of land that feeds all the water running under it and draining off of it into a body of water. It
combines with other watersheds to form a network of rivers and streams that progressively drain into larger water
areas.
Topography determines where and how water flows. Ridge tops surrounding a body of water determine the
boundary of a watershed. Imagine turning an open umbrella upside down in the rain. Rain that hits anywhere
within the umbrella's surface area would go to the bottom at the center of the umbrella. Any rain that didn't hit the
umbrella would fall to the ground. The umbrella is like a watershed; it collects everything that falls into it.
Waterways within the watershed all feed into that main body of water, which could be a river, lake, or stream. The
beginnings of a water source are called headwaters. The spot where headwaters progressively join other water
sources is called the confluence, and the endpoint of the waterways that open into the main body of water is
called the mouth (source: Environmental Protection Agency).
To return to the umbrella example, imagine now that there are three groups of umbrellas. One group of large
umbrellas (the basin) sits on the ground, while another group of smaller umbrellas (watersheds) floats above
them, with a hole in the bottom of each. Yet another group of even smaller umbrellas (catchments) floats above
those, also with a hole in the bottom of each. If the rain was caught in the top level of umbrellas, it would drain into
the larger umbrellas below, which would drain into the largest umbrellas below them.
Of course, this is a simple model. Water does not simply hit the land and roll off it into a stream. Rainwater (and
everything else) is lost through absorption by plants, evaporation and consumption by humans. These factors also
depend on the area; the clay-like soil of Georgia will not absorb as much water as the loose soil of Kansas.

Where's My Watershed?
To find out which watershed you live in, take a look at the EPA's Surf Your Watershed. For a map of U.S.
watersheds, see the United States Watershed Map. The Water Resources eAtlas provides maps and biodiversity
statistics on watersheds around the world.

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Pollution of a watershed can destroy an entire aquatic ecosystem, including its inhabitants.
Doug Menuez/Getty Images

Why Watersheds Matter
Now that you know what watersheds are, why should their health matter to you? Watersheds directly affect water
quality, whether it's for drinking or recreation. For example, algae blooms from fertilizer runoff draining into water
harm watershed health, as do mercury and lead seeping into the water supply due to pollution. As states and
cities try to find new sources of uncontaminated drinking water, keeping watersheds healthy becomes
increasingly vital to finding clean water [source: Environmental Protection Agency].
Unhealthy watersheds affect wildlife. The polluted water supply that results can become harmful to humans.
Aquatic life quickly suffers the effects of watershed pollution, while new pollutants introduced into ecosystems
alter wildlife habitats. This reduces biodiversity by eliminating some species and introducing new, invasive ones
that destroy the native species. That, in turn, can affect the food chain, from microbial organisms that feed birds
and animals to fish that feed humans.
According to the EPA paper "Sustaining Healthy Freshwater Ecosystems," one freshwater ecosystem can be
greatly affected by another: "Far from being isolated bodies or conduits, freshwater ecosystems are tightly linked
to the watersheds or catchments of which each is a part, and they are greatly influenced by human uses or
modifications of land as well as water" [source: Environmental Protection Agency].
The threat of erosion also exists. Water flowing to a stream picks up dirt along the way. If the water picks up
enough soil over time, the land along that stream will become unstable and eventually erode away. If you live
along a river bank, this could mean losing your backyard. For wildlife that lives in this area, it means a loss of their
habitat.
The sharp increase in development around the world may contribute to some of the problems affecting
watersheds today. Development in the Amazon Basin has threatened the Amazon river dolphin with extinction
[source: Water Resources eAtlas]. Urban development often involves removing plants, artificially changing the
surface topography and altering naturally formed drainage networks. All of these factors affect an area's
watershed. In addition, manmade land covers, such as asphalt roads or buildings, act as what the United States
Geological Survey calls a "fast lane" for rainfall. Rainwater that would have been absorbed by soil and plants

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instead is sent directly into streams. These fast lanes increase the chances for flooding because more water
pools in that area than a stream can hold [source: U.S. Geological Survey].

World Water Monitoring Day
The EPA co-sponsors World Water Monitoring Day on Sept. 18. Between July and October, people in the U.S.
can order a water testing kit, then register your site and data, and help to clean up your watershed. The
monitoring period lasts until Oct. 18.

Cities like La Jolla, Calif., help protect their watersheds and water supply by reminding citizens not to dump refuse into the
storm drain.
Tyrone Turner/National Geographic

Protecting Watersheds
Now that you know how important watersheds are, how can help protect them? Several laws exist to protect
watersheds. The first was the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act in 1954, helped coordinate federal
and state flood prevention efforts. The Act was amended in 1972 to add conservation efforts. In 1996, terms were
changed regarding loans for groups carrying out watershed preservation and cleanup projects [source: U.S. Fish
& Wildlife Service]. The World Bank, the United Nations and other world organizations have spent years
implementing watershed protection programs around the globe [source: United Nations].
The Environmental Protection Agency also developed a program to help watersheds in 1996. The watershed
approach is an environmental management program designed to address the declining watershed health by
combining public and private efforts to address the worst contamination issues. Groups in specific watersheds are
encouraged to work together within the community to balance preventing pollution and improving the environment
with the community's economic development. These watershed teams, as they're called, monitor the watershed
and participate in cleanup and restoration projects [source: Environmental Protection Agency].
You don't need the government's assistance to get involved. You can help protect watersheds all by yourself. The
fewer pollutants that seep into the soil, the cleaner your watershed and water supply will be. For example, you
can recycle your used antifreeze and motor oil instead of dumping them. Trash and dog poop that ends up in
storm drains are just as likely to disturb your waterways, so when you take Fido for that walk, bring along a bag.
Source: http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/conservation/issues/watershed.htm/printable

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How Watersheds Work

DIRECTIONS: Read the article and answer the questions below.
1. “Watershed” is a broad term used to describe what?
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2. Since water cannot flow uphill, what determines all watersheds? What does this word mean?
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3. Watersheds vary in size, due to what features?
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4. What is the range of size that watersheds can be?
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5. What happens to pollutants that end up in watersheds? What effects can these have?
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6. What is the definition of a watershed that the article gives?
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7. What determines the boundary of a watershed?
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8. What do the following terms mean: headwaters, confluence, mouth?
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9. Why should we be concerned about the health of watersheds? Give some examples from the
article.
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10.

Unhealthy watersheds affect wildlife. Show the chain of events that the article mentions when
new pollutants are introduced into a watershed.
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11.

Explain how erosion can affect humans and wildlife.
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12. How does the sharp increase in development around the world affect watersheds? Give at
least two examples from the article.
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13.

What act was passed to protect watersheds? What was added to it in 1972?
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14.

Explain the watershed approach developed by the Environmental Protection agency.
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15.

What can you do to protect your watershed?
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