“Watershed resiliency” sounds less like a hot societal topic and more like a term is thrown around by ecological researchers, but it’s one we should all know. In the wake of disastrous floods and fires across the world, the health of our watershed areas is being thrust into the limelight.
But what exactly are watersheds? And how do they impact our environment and quality of life?
Get ready to dive into this crucial part of our ecology and find out why it’s important to improve watershed resiliency if we want to live in a stable, sustainable environment.
What is a watershed?
A watershed is an area of land that drains or empties rainwater or other water sources into a larger body of water such as a lake, stream, or ocean. Typically, these are hilly areas that direct the flow of water directly into lower areas to collect and form rivers that link into our global water system.
What happens when water enters a watershed area?
To better understand how watersheds affect our environment, we first need to understand how watersheds work. When water falls into a watershed, it will be directed towards the main body of water one of two ways: by soaking into the ground and entering the groundwater or running off the surface and directly towards the main body of water.
When water soaks into the ground and enters the groundwater, it gets filtered through the soil, which does a great job of removing many pollutants like oil or chemicals and even large particles like trash.
When water can’t soak into the ground due to pavement or other structures, it moves with gravity towards the lowest point it can reach. This method is called “runoff.” This can become much more harmful than the groundwater route because not only is the water not benefitting from the natural filtration of soil, but in its journey towards larger water sources, it can pick up all kinds of pollutants along the way, from microscopic chemicals to large pieces of plastic waste. These pollutants now join with larger water sources and, at scale, can end up polluting key sources of freshwater for surrounding communities.
Runoff has another devastating effect. If too much water enters the watershed all at once and there are not enough porous surfaces to absorb it, massive amounts of runoff can occur and cause flooding. Heavy rainfalls in dense areas without anywhere for water to absorb have caused devastating floods that destroy property and even cause loss of life.
This is why investing in the health and resiliency of our watershed areas is crucial not only for the health of our environment but also for the health and safety of our communities.
So, what can we do to reduce dangerous runoff and improve watershed resiliency?
5 Ways to Improve Watershed Resiliency
There are five key ways we can improve the resiliency of our watershed areas, reduce runoff, and create a more sustainable watershed system that protects both our communities and our waterways.
1: Minimize development in floodplains
Floodplains are areas where large quantities of water tend to collect, and the natural slope of the land makes them prone to flooding. Developing in these areas reduces the areas where water can be absorbed and creates dangerous flooding zones when rainwater has nowhere else to go but rapidly downhill.
2: Limit the use of impervious surfaces in new development
We need places to live and surfaces to travel on, so new development is inevitable. However, we have a choice when it comes to what materials we use when we build new infrastructure. Porous alternatives to traditional concrete and asphalt should be considered when building in watershed areas to allow for more water to soak into the ground instead of running off.
3: Utilize “green infrastructure” in watershed areas near streams and rivers
Investing in plants that help maintain soil integrity in watershed areas near streams and rivers can reduce erosion and help maintain the stability of the exposed areas.
4: Maintain as much natural landcover as possible
While development is sometimes necessary for watershed areas, the less we develop in these areas, the better. By preserving and maintaining the natural land cover in watershed areas, we maintain the natural water-absorbing qualities of these areas and naturally reduce runoff.
5: Eliminate the release of pollutants into watershed areas
Anything that enters a watershed can enter our lakes, rivers, and oceans, ensuring that pollutants stay out of watershed areas is crucial. This can be things like fertilizers, chemical runoffs, and even plastic waste. Watershed areas should be kept free of any and all pollutants to help us keep our water systems clean and sustainable.
With careful urban planning and a strong focus on ecological sustainability, we can build the resiliency of our watershed areas and reduce the risk of devastating floods and pollution of crucial freshwater resources, leading to a more sustainable future for all of us.