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Watershed Oak Tree

An Introduction to Watershed Management

Making decisions about a watershed is an important responsibility; decisions must be based on a solid understanding of the characteristics of the watershed and how physical processes shape watershed conditions. This section provides basic background information on watershed functions and processes to help users understand the assessment procedure and the results of the assessment process. Watershed "processes" refer to those natural physical, chemical, and biological mechanisms that interact to form aquatic ecosystems. For example, the input and routing of water, sediments, and large wood through stream channels involve many inter-related processes occurring both in channel and upslope.

What is a Watershed?

In its historical definition, a watershed is the divide between two drainage streams or rivers separating rainfall runoff into one or the other of the basins [see example here]. In recent years, the term has been applied to mean the entirety of each of the basins, instead of just the divide between them. The Continental Divide is a watershed perspective graphic watershed according to the earlier definition, where rainfall runoff is directed toward the Gulf of Mexico or toward the Pacific Ocean. The Mississippi River basin and the Colorado River basin are watersheds under the new definition. Other parts of the world use the terms catchment, or river basin, to describe the drainage area between (historical) watersheds. It is from the earlier definition of watershed that we derive the phrase “watershed event”--an occurrence that changes the pattern of all that follows, moving the flow of events toward a different outcome.

Watersheds can be large or small. Every stream, tributary, or river has an associated watershed, and small watersheds aggregate together to become larger watersheds. It is a relatively easy task to delineate watershed boundaries using a topographical map that shows stream channels. The watershed boundaries will follow the major ridge-line around the channels and meet at the bottom where the water flows out of the watershed, commonly referred to as the mouth of the stream or river.

The connectivity of the stream system is the primary reason why aquatic assessments need to be done at the watershed level. Connectivity refers to the physical connection between tributaries and the river, between surface water and groundwater, and between wetlands and these water sources. Because the water moves downstream in a watershed, any activity that affects the water quality, quantity, or rate of movement at one location can change the characteristics of the watershed at locations downstream. For this reason, everyone living or working within a watershed needs to cooperate to ensure good watershed conditions.

California Watershed Management Policy History