Watershed Basics

What is a Watershed?

A watershed is the area of land where all of the water that drains off of it goes into the same place - a river, stream or lake.  The smallest watersheds are the drainage areas for small streams and lakes.  Think about your local creek or river.  Where does it start?  What type of landscape does it flow through and where does it end up?  All of the area covered is a watershed.

Each small watershed is part of the more extensive watershed for a larger stream or lake in the vicinity.  These larger watersheds are, in turn, part of even larger drainage networks, and so on.  The largest-scale watershed is called a basin.  Minnesota has ten basins, some of which include portions of neighboring states or Canada.

The Pelican River Watershed is part of the Otter Tail River Watershed, which is all part of the Red River Basin.  The Red River basin includes parts of Minnesota, North Dakota, and Manitoba, Canada.


The Simplified Hydrologic Cycle

Watershed Process Diagram

When it rains, look to see where the water that runs off of your roof and driveway goes. It may be running down the street and into a storm sewer or a ditch along the road. That rainwater may eventually end 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.

We're all downstream from someone

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.

In a healthy watershed

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.

What can you do 

*Conserve water every day.  Take shorter showers, fix leaks and turn off the water when not in use.

*Don't pour toxic household chemicals down the drain; take them to a hazardous waste center.

*Use hardy plants that require little or no watering, fertilizers or pesticides in your yard.

*Do not over apply fertilizers.  Consider using organic or slow release fertilizers instead.

*Recycle yard waste in a compost pile and use a mulching mowers.

*Use surfaces like wood, brick or gravel for decks and walkways; allows rain to soak in and not run off.

*Never pour used oil or antifreeze into the storm drain or the street.

*Pick up after your dog, and dispose of the waste in the toilet or the trash.

*Direct downspouts to empty onto lawns when it rains to let water soak into the ground.

*Wash cars on lawns to let water soak into the ground.

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