mountains overlooking valley and stream

Watershed. It’s a common enough word, but are you familiar with yours? No matter where you live, your home is in a watershed. And the health of that watershed affects you, your community, and the rest of the planet.

Our choices and actions can impact the land a world away. We write on paper that was made from trees cut down a thousand miles from our homes. The veggies we eat may have grown in a different country. Even the electricity you’re using to read this article was generated in a power plant that’s probably not right next door. But what about our actions that affect the land directly under our feet? You can make a lot of positive impact on your watershed, which you can think of as your local eco-neighborhood.

What Is a Watershed?

A watershed is the land that drains into a body of water — land that’s hydrologically connected. All bodies of water — rivers, lakes, bays, wetlands — have an associated watershed. Hills divide one watershed from the next, rarely obeying man-made political boundaries. All land in the world is part of a watershed. You are definitely in a watershed right now whether you know it or not.

Watersheds are connected. They’re a bit like Russian nesting dolls; large watersheds contain medium watersheds, which hold many small watersheds. This is because smaller rivers drain into larger rivers and then into huge rivers like the Mississippi or the Nile. The largest rivers (which have the largest watersheds) drain into the ocean. And so the water in your watershed (no matter its size or location) eventually makes it into the ocean.

Find Your Watershed

Which river or lake is closest to your home? If it’s on the other side of a large hill, you may not live in its watershed. If you live in the United States, you can discover your watershed with the EPA’s How’s My Waterway tool. Click on the map and enter your address to be directed to a map of your watershed. You’ll also find information on restoration projects, monitoring stations, and pollution concerns.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) also has a watershed mapping tool: Science in Your Watershed site. Select your region, and click through the “Russian nesting dolls” of watersheds to get closer and closer to your local watershed. Once you’re as close as you can get, click the “Additional Information for this Watershed” link and you’ll see publications, projects, and other USGS resources.

Stormwater and Polluted Watersheds

Human influence changes the way water cycles work. You’ll have a hard time finding a watershed that isn’t polluted in some way. One way you can help the health of your watershed is by reducing your contribution to stormwater.

Stormwater is the rain that drains off of hard surfaces like your roof, driveway, and sidewalk. This water is heated by these surfaces in the summer and picks up pollutants such as road salt, oil, shingle flecks, and more. Then the water goes down the storm drain. This water doesn’t go through a water treatment plant, so all the pollutants and litter get channeled to a water body, harming wildlife, and eventually affecting the health of connected watersheds. The sudden addition of warmer water into a water body makes it harder for the water to retain oxygen, reducing available oxygen for aquatic life.

You can reduce your stormwater by installing a rain barrel, a rain garden, or simply letting your downspouts drain into a low spot in your yard.

Stormwater runoff flowing through metal drainage culvert after heavy rain
Stormwater runoff after heavy rains channels pollutants and litter from streets and sidewalks into water bodies.

Who Is Keeping Your Watershed Clean?

If you’d like to get involved in protecting your watershed, there may be a citizen action group associated with your region. Such groups may hold community meetings, conduct environmental education, monitor water quality, and implement restoration projects. They often have volunteer opportunities such as removing invasive plant species, water quality monitoring, litter cleanups, and other events.

A web search should help you locate your local group. You’re on the hunt for what’s happening in your watershed to restore it and who is doing this work. Search on “watershed” and your town’s name, the name of your local water body, or the name of your state. In addition, you can check with your local soil and water conservation district or your local EPA office for information on any watershed-related projects you can participate in.

Even if there is no organized group working to clean up your watershed, you can do your part. What happens on your property does affect the water quality of your local water body — and ultimately, the ocean.

More Ways You Can Help

Here are just a few additional ways you can help keep your watershed and its water body clean:

  • Pick up litter: Rain will wash trash into storm drains, which lead to rivers or lakes.
  • Collect and throw away dog waste: Pet waste is not a soil fertilizer and it can cause harmful algae blooms.
  • Properly maintain your septic system: Septic systems that don’t do their job well can result in human waste getting into your river or lake!
  • Wash your car on the grass: This prevents soapy water from running down the storm drain; surfactants in the soap can harm aquatic life. Better yet, use a car wash with an environmentally responsible washing system.
  • Avoid road salt or use it very sparingly: Salt is very toxic to aquatic life; consider more sustainable de-icing methods.
  • Maintain a green buffer zone along stream banks: Trees and other plants growing alongside riparian zones will keep your stream’s aquatic life healthier, reduce erosion, and reduce flooding.
  • Don’t mow directly adjacent to water bodies: Mowing too close to the water can result in erosion.
  • Reduce fertilizer and pesticide use: Fertilizer runoff can cause algae blooms and pesticides can poison aquatic life, wildlife, and pets.
  • Keep your storm drain clear: Remove fallen leaves, branches, litter, and other obstructions to reduce road flooding.
  • Join your local watershed group: Take part in events or financially contribute.

By Maureen Wise

Maureen Wise is a freelance writer for a number of green-leaning companies. She also works in higher education sustainability and previously in watershed restoration. Wise serves on the board of two environmental nonprofits, is a solar owner, and is a certified master recycler.