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A watershed is the area of land that drains into a common body of water. You are sitting in a watershed now. Homes, farms, forests, small towns, and big cities make up watersheds. Most watersheds are composed of a mixture of uplands, wetlands, streams and lakes. The major component of most watersheds is the upland area, often covering over 99% of the total watershed area. Watersheds can cross county, state, and even international borders such as the Great Lakes Basin. Watersheds come in all shapes and sizes from millions of square miles to just a few acres. Just as creeks drain into rivers, watersheds are nearly always part of a larger watershed or basin. Every stream, river and lake has a watershed.
The next time it rains, look to see where the water that runs off of your roof and the driveway goes. You may see it running down the street and into a storm sewer or a ditch along the road. Where does the rainwater eventually go? There are many paths that water can take, but eventually it all ends up in the nearest stream, lake or wetland. Some of it soaks into the soil to become groundwater, which then slowly replenishes streams, lakes and wetlands. Runoff water (carrying pollutants) runs overland (or in storm sewers and ditches) into the nearest river, wetland or lake.
Everything we do impacts our watershed, even when the activity is not directly associated with or near a water body. Land uses from any part of the watershed -- such as polluted runoff from homes, forests and farms - - eventually affect the health of the watershed. Proper planning and adequate care in implementing projects can help ensure that one activity within a watershed does not detrimentally impact the downstream environment.
Vegetation and wetlands are present to intercept and slow the flow of water as it travels through the watershed, removing sediment and allowing large quantities of water to enter the soil and percolate into the groundwater or aquifer. Most human activities and development have the potential to adversely affect the overall health and quality of a watershed. Timber harvest on unstable slopes can cause erosion. Agricultural activities can increase levels of harmful bacteria and overload runoff with nutrients. Also, poorly planned residential and industrial growth can cause many of the same problems as farming and timber harvest.
Even seemingly harmless activities such as rural development and recreational activities along rivers, creeks and lakes can be harmful, impacting the watershed's sensitive riparian vegetation, which is important for water quality protection and wildlife habitat.