What is a watershed, anyway?

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“Can I ask you a question? It’s probably really dumb, though. But, what exactly is a watershed?”

That, my friend, professional acquaintance, or perfect stranger, is not a dumb question. Not in the least. Here, let me try to explain:

A body of water’s watershed is the land area that drains surface run-off to that body of water. That is to say, if a drop rain falls on land and the ground is saturated, the water will run downhill until it ends up in a body of water, such as the Minnesota River. In this case, the drop of rain would have fallen within the Minnesota River Watershed: the watershed includes all the land (and other upstream surface water) that funnels rain or snow water to the Minnesota River. Because water runs downhill, topography defines the boundary of a watershed—ridges or high points in a landscape form the line between one watershed and another.

It get a little tricky, though, because watersheds nest inside each other. Look, for example, at the watershed map below. Rain falling in Marshall would run first into the Redwood River, so Marshall is within the Redwood River watershed. However, water in the Redwood River flows eventually into the Minnesota River, so Marshall is also in the Minnesota River watershed. And, because the Minnesota River flows into the Mississippi River, Marshall is in the Mississippi River watershed, too.

How many watersheds are there?

Yet each of the “watersheds” I named is in some ways arbitrarily defined. Yes, all the land in the Redwood River watershed drains into the Redwood River. But a watershed is really defined by a certain point past which water flows. The DNR (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources) Major Watershed named for the Redwood River really refers to that land area that will drain water through the point of the confluence of the Redwood River and the Minnesota River. If you look at the map of waterways in the United States, you’ll see that there are thousands of waterways, and each point on each waterway has its own watershed, in which the watershed of one point encompasses the watershed of an upstream point. Thus, if we use the scientific definition of a watershed, there are an infinite number of watersheds in the region, state, and country. I know that infinite watersheds seems overwhelming, but bear with me because others agree and have tried to clarify things.

A Map of Every River in America by Nelson Minar

To address the practical uselessness of infinite watersheds, the federal government, through the USGS (United States Geological Survey) and the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), defined Hydrologic Units based on topographic data. Each of these Hydrologic Units has a code, called the HUC, with the number of digits in the code increasing as the size of the watershed decreases. The relative size of a watershed is often referred to by the length of the HUC. For example, the watershed map above shows all the HUC-8 watersheds in the Minnesota River Watershed.

The Minnesota DNR built upon this classification to provide a more detailed look at waters in Minnesota. The MN DNR Major Watershed is equivalent to the federal HUC-8. There are 81 Major Watersheds in Minnesota, and these watersheds are the basis for most administrative watershed work, such as the Watershed Projects or Associations. Furthermore, the Board of Water and Soil Resources’ One Watershed, One Plan program encourages the development of watershed-level plans for each of the 81 Major Watersheds in the state.

”Okay, but why does an organization about ‘the River’ keep talking about watersheds?”

While the nomenclature is all very confusing, there is an important lesson to take from all this: you live in a watershed. No ifs, ands, or buts. In Minnesota, rain and snow fall on your home and the land surrounding it, and that water flows downhill and ends up in a body of water somewhere. Which watershed you live in will tell you which body of water your practices on the land affect. Thus, we use watersheds as a geographic unit—a certain defined area—to help us understand why our waterways are in the state that they are in.

Land Use, Watersheds, and Rivers

This is the key message: what happens on the land is very important for an organization concerned about water quality because the path that a drop of water takes from the place where it lands as a raindrop to the river dictates the state of the river. Does it pick up contaminants along the way? Does it move quickly, leading to erosion or flash floods almost immediately after a rain storm? Does it even travel over land to the river, or does it sink downwards, joining the groundwater reserves underground first? The answers to these questions shape the river and are shaped by the land in the watershed.

In this way, the quality of water in the river is an indicator as much as it is a goal in and of itself. If our rivers are clean and safe for drinking, swimming, and fishing, it means that the watershed is also healthy and functioning as an ecosystem should. That’s why the Minnesota River is the basis for our work, but why the landscape from Ortonville east to Shakopee and just about Fergus Falls south to Blue Earth is where we seek to make change.

MN DNR Watershed Health Assessment Framework (WHAF): This interactive site lets you look up what watershed you live in and the relative “health” of that watershed based on a number of factors. Click here to access the WHAF map.

The Jargon Disconnect

But here’s the thing: as much as it’s important that you understand a watershed, what’s more important is that many people don’t and that most of them are too embarrassed to ask the really good “dumb question.” If we do not overcome this language gap, it will not matter how well a few of us understand all the intricate workings of watersheds, water quality, and river health. As long as water professionals toss around words most people don’t know, the movement to improve water quality will never have the sort of citizen support and public backing it needs. This much I understand.

Eric Eckl, founder of the marketing and public relations firm Water Words that Work, LLC, explains this concept very well. Basically, if you start talking to someone about something he doesn’t understand, he might have the self-confidence to ask for clarification. But there’s also a good chance that he won’t want to admit ignorance and will instead seek to get out of the uncomfortable and embarrassing situation as quickly as possible.

Some think that watershed is another word for water tower. Makes sense doesn’t it? Water towers send water “downstream” to municipal water users throughout town.

So, what happens when I say, “Hello; nice to meet you. I’m the Watershed Sustainability Program Coordinator for CURE. At CURE, we ‘broadly pursues strategies to raise public awareness and engage policy makers on environmental and community issues that affect the watershed.’”? If I’m lucky, the person I’m talking to says, “Oh, yes! I live in the Watonwan River watershed, so that’s kind of downstream from your offices in Montevideo.” And if I’m really lucky, the person says, “So, I have a kind of dumb question…” But there seem to plenty of opportunities for someone to feel alienated the moment I introduce myself, and that is not conducive to building a meaningful network.

That all makes sense. I don’t have an answer for this though: What should we do?

Is there an answer?

One tactic is to simply reach out and educate as many people as possible in the clearest possible way about what a watershed is. We are working on this. It’s why I sat down to make a map of the Minnesota River Watershed—because we didn’t even have one of those on our website. It’s why I’m writing this blog.

But I also know that there is a fine line between explaining something new and interesting to a stranger I meet at a gathering and offending someone by providing a simplistic explanation of a concept she already understands. And when I meet someone, I don’t know how to decide if she needs the explanation or not.

Another answer is to stay away from exclusive, jargon-y words. This makes a certain sense for a first meeting, but, given that our state agencies and policy-makers will keep on using them, we can’t keep the public in the dark. We also can’t lose the opportunity to explain the most important lesson that comes with understanding how watersheds work—that everything you do on the land affects the river, lake, or stream close to you.

I have also heard that we can take advantage of the relative ignorance about the word “watershed” to change the language entirely. Since the word watershed implies that the ultimate goal is to “shed,” or get rid of, water, maybe we should switch to another term, like “catchment basin,” which emphasizes the ability of the land to hold water. But if watershed is the word the DNR, the EPA, the NRCS, the UMN Extension office, and so on are using, would CURE just confuse the issue by talking about catchment basins? Does “catchment basin” even make more any more intuitive sense than “watershed”?

One of the outcomes of believing that water is best “shed” is the high rates of artificial drainage in our agricultural soils.

I don’t know, guys. If you have insights I would love to hear about them in the comments section. I do know that this is a conversation watershed professionals need to have, amongst themselves and with the public. Often, after someone asks me “the dumb question,” I ask them how I could make my explanation clearer, in what context they hear the word “watershed,” whether “catchment basin” makes more sense to them… In short, I try to have a conversation about the language that I use in my everyday work. So, please, feel encouraged to ask a water professional if you don’t understand what she is saying, and then also feel encouraged to critique the explanation you are given.

All talk and no action is no fun. But you can’t have action if you can’t talk about it. Talking, especially as we work together, is a really important place to start. Please, talk with me.

Post by Ariel Herrod, CURE’s Watershed Sustainability Program Coordinator and was originally posted at cureriver.org


News Watch: May 5

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture and Farming; Climate Change; Coal; Conservation; Energy; Environmental Movement; Frac Sand Mining; Fuels; Invasive Species; Legislature and Administration; Mining; Oil; Parks and Trails; Pesiticides and Bees; Pollution and Regulation; Sustainable Development; Transportation; Wildlife; Latest from Loon Commons Blog


A Graphic View of Diversity’s Power

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A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a good infographic can be the equivalent of thousands of pounds of soil. That thought occurred to me recently while viewing the cool illustration below. Produced by scientists who are studying the effects of adding some targeted diversity to row-cropped fields in central Iowa, it tells a clear, and important, story: converting just 10 percent of a corn or soybean field to native prairie can cut the amount of eroded soil that leaves a field by over 5,000 pounds per acre—a 95 percent reduction.

As we’ve discussed in this blog before, the STRIPS team and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture have done some extremely innovative research the past half-dozen years proving you can get a pretty big bang for your conservation buck by strategic placement of patches of prairie in row-cropped fields. As this graphic, which is part of a new STRIPS publication, shows, besides reducing erosion dramatically, this targeted conservation can slash the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen that leaves the field by 90 percent and 84 percent, respectively.

Such reductions in fertilizer runoff should be of particular interest to Midwesterners who care about clean water, given recent reports of nitrogen pollution being at sky-high levels, both throughout the Mississippi River basin as well as right here in Minnesota. And as I witnessed firsthand while visiting the STRIPS research site in Iowa last summer, those prairie plants are providing critical habitat for grassland birds and pollinating insects—that latter benefit is becoming even more critical with each new media report of the demise of the honey bee.

Graphic representations of the dramatic results targeted conservation can produce are important as scientists attempt to take this innovation beyond the test plot and get it established on working farms throughout the region. One farmer in southwest Iowa is already experimenting with prairie strips, and 14 more have shown strong interest in adopting the practice.

The Land Stewardship Project is examining how prairie strips could be used by farmers we’re working with in western Minnesota’s Chippewa River watershed and in the Root River basin, in the southeastern part of the state.

I and other LSP staffers, as well as members, have visited the STRIPS site and seen firsthand just how much of a difference a little diversity in an otherwise mono-cropped field can make. It’s quite striking, especially when one considers that the fields which are part of this research are already being managed using a no-till system—a soil-friendly technique that unfortunately is starting to show signs of not always being able to withstand onslaughts of extreme climate events.

But not every conservationist, agronomist or farmer can visit the STRIPS research site. That’s why infographics like this are so key. As Gary Van Ryswyk, the farmer who is raising crops in the original research plot, told me last summer, he really didn’t think the strips would make that much difference until be saw the results firsthand.

“I was one of these guys who didn’t think we were losing that much soil. I was shocked at how much was being lost,” he said while examining a pile or eroded soil near a collection flume. “One of the big barriers is, like me, most farmers truly believe they aren’t losing as much soil as they really are.”


Demand versus need in Minnesota’s oil pipelines

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The Midwest and Great Lakes are quickly becoming a hub for transporting and refining one of the world’s dirtiest and most destructive fossil fuels on the planet: tar sands oil.

Pipelines in the area are nothing new, but over the last several years the region’s infrastructure has seen a dramatic transformation (more…)

Sand, Land & Land Stewardship

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By Johanna Rupprecht, Land Stewardship Project

For longer than I can remember, my family has taken the same route from our farm in southeast Minnesota to visit my grandparents in north-central Wisconsin. The first leg of the four-hour trip takes us across the Mississippi River and through the farmland, pastures and rolling, wooded hills of Trempealeau and Jackson Counties. The landmarks and scenery along every mile of the route have become deeply familiar to us over countless trips in all seasons.

So the sight that greeted me on a trip in the spring of 2012 was shocking and brutal in its unfamiliarity. East of the village of Blair — just a mile or two down the road from the slope on which we had once counted a flock of over 40 wild turkeys — a section of the hills was gone. The trees had been torn down, the land ripped open, and pale silica sand dug out and piled up in mounds almost as large as the hills they had once been. These piles of sand waited to be processed and shipped away to other states, to be pumped deep into the ground, along with undisclosed chemicals and massive amounts of water, in the process of hydraulic fracturing to obtain oil and gas.

This was the first frac sand mine I had ever seen in person. Since then, I’ve seen many more. Some of them were gaping wounds in landscapes I never had the privilege of seeing when they were whole, so I could only imagine, not remember, the hills or bluffs they used to be. The sense of the fundamental wrongness of this desecration of the land has never left me. I have also seen rural roads and tiny villages overrun with an endless stream of trucks hauling frac sand. I have seen sand mining, processing and shipping being done with no meaningful measures in place to protect innocent neighbors from exposure to dust that contains deadly crystalline silica.

For all these reasons and many more, people across our region have been moved to take action together to fight the frac sand industry. When southeast Minnesota first began to face the threat of a proposed onslaught of frac sand mining two and half years ago, citizens here called on the Land Stewardship Project to take a stand. As I’ve led our local organizing on this issue for the past 16 months, it’s become ever more clear to me that both our members and our mission have called LSP into the frac sand fight. The idea of destroying the land by strip-mining it for frac sand is fundamentally opposed to the stewardship ethic we seek to foster. And the frac sand industry represents precisely the kind of corporate-driven exploitation of the land, people and rural communities that our organization has stood against throughout our history. Moreover, LSP and our members understand that other ways are possible. Farmers like my own family, or like southeast Minnesotan Bob Christie — who was told by a mining company that the land he farms and loves was merely “overburden” in the way of sand — know that people can make a living on the land without destroying it.

The scale of the threat we face from this new industry means we must work to combat it on many fronts and in many ways. During the 2013 session of the Minnesota Legislature, members of LSP and other groups traveled to the capitol in Saint Paul by the busload, again and again, to fight for strong legislation to restrict the frac sand industry. On a hot summer night last July, 100 people packed into a church hall in Rushford, Minn., to focus on the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) ordered on 11 proposed mines. From the comments at that gathering, LSP compiled the People’s EIS Scoping Report, a grassroots document we have released widely to make certain that the voices of directly impacted local residents are heard as the EIS is carried out. Knowing from long experience that strong local democracy can be the best protection against harmful, corporate-backed developments, LSP is also working to combat the frac sand industry at the local government level. We have held trainings to help people understand and practice their rights, and I am working with residents in townships heavily targeted by the industry to build the power to protect their communities with local ordinances. Recently we have begun to work with members and allies in Wisconsin to fight the frac sand industry in that state as well.

Most recently, over 225 people from across our region braved a snowstorm in January to gather at LSP’s Citizens’ Frac Sand Summit in Winona, Minn. There we launched a new petition drive as part of the next phase of our state-level work to protect the land and people from frac sand mining. We also discussed the importance of fighting attempts to weaken local democracy in Wisconsin— something the frac sand industry is pushing hard for.

Working together, organized people have already had much success. But there is a long fight still ahead. The sand in our hills and bluffs is desired by Big Energy, one of the most powerful industries the world has ever seen. No matter how many front groups, middlemen or subsidiaries may be involved, frac sand mining ultimately exists for the benefit of the oil and gas industry. These extreme energy corporations haul away profits while leaving behind costs that must be paid by society for generations to come. The sand mined in the Midwest enables the hydraulic fracturing that is devastating other rural communities in places like North Dakota and Pennsylvania, all for the extraction of more and more fossil fuels, threatening all our communities through global climate change.

I am continually inspired by the dedication and commitment of the people I have come to know through these past months of organizing—people whose love for the land and their communities drives them to keep coming together again and again, building and sharing hope, courage and power. If you have not already begun to take action with us against the frac sand industry, then I urge you to join this fight today. Standing together, we can protect our communities and the land.

Organizer Johanna Rupprecht is based in LSP’s office in Lewiston, Minn., where she grew up on a crop and livestock farm. She can be reached at 507-523-3366 or jrupprecht@landstewardshipproject.org.