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A watershed is the land from which water drains into a stream, river, lake, or other body of water. All land, and the humans and wildlife found on that land, are part of a watershed. The term watershed is commonly used in North America, and is equivalent to drainage basin, a term used in Europe. Watershed management is a process of managing an area in order to protect and rehabilitate land and water and associated aquatic and terrestrial resources through human activities (intervention). This is done while recognizing the benefits of orderly growth and development with the aim of contributing to the environmental, social, and economic health of the area for sustainable development. To manage and protect the watershed better, plans should be made based on the areas delineated by watersheds and not the political boundaries; or in other words, many water quality and ecosystem problems are best prioritized, addressed, and solved at the watershed level rather than at the municipal level or the level of a single body of water or individual discharger.
The watershed management approach requires crossing traditional boundaries and considering various uses of water when making a policy, and considering all the point as well as nonpoint sources of pollution. This is important to solve local watershed pollution problems, since all of them are interrelated and can be best dealt with using an integrated approach. This means that the watershed approach essentially coordinates a framework for environmental management that focuses efforts to address problems of ground and surface water flow within hydrologically defined geographic areas. According to the Ohio Watershed Academy, watershed management is a process for managing water resources that involves integrating sound science and social values, incorporating stakeholder involvement, and making management decisions that are appropriate for local conditions.
The watershed approach goes beyond just hydrologicaland science-based decisions to good governance involving all stakeholders in managing local watersheds. The basic concept has been extended to incorporate participatory decision making, which brings additional benefits, as informed users apply local self-regulation in relation to issues such as water conservation and watershed protection far more effectively than regulations and surveillance can achieve. The stakeholders involve public and private sectors, including all the users of water such as industry, farmers, fishermen, institutions, shopping malls, and the community. The watershed approach also requires a gender-balanced approach in planning, which means involving both women and men in decision making. Since all watersheds are unique in the sense of living and nonliving organisms present in the area, and how they interact with each other, understanding of local conditions and use of local knowledge are both important in the watershed approach. The emphasis is also on broadening decision making to take into account overall social and economic goals, including the achievement of sustainable development.
As discussed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are six phases of management to achieve watershed management goals:
1) identification of issues and data gathering; this phase should have a multiyear strategy to portray existing information on physical, chemical, biological, and habitat conditions and comprehensively monitor waters, 2) as an outcome of watershed planning processes, new or revised water quality standards for the waters within a watershed can be formulated to reflect agreements made by the stakeholders to meet the watershed goals like adopting precisely defined uses given the chemical, physical, and biological characteristics of the water body,
3) planning or/and prioritizing; the watershed approach should take into consideration findings and priorities established under pre-existing initiatives,
4) each watershed partnership should develop management options and set forth a watershed or basin management plan that should set objectives, identify indicators, and set forth milestones, 5) due to the participatory nature of watershed approaches, responsibility for implementation of watershed plans will fall to various parties relative to their particular interests, expertise, and authorities, and 6) monitoring and evaluation; the watershed management cycle should include monitoring to ascertain the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of watershed plans. Progress should be reported and results of monitoring should help guide decisions about continued implementation.
Watersheds usually cover vast amounts of land, both public and privately owned; it can be difficult to bring all the stakeholders to the table to come up with a plan to manage these huge areas. To understand the interactions among different living and nonliving organisms in a watershed can also be challenging; this is further complicated by the study of how human activities affect watershed functions. As there are so many different users in the watershed, there is always a conflict between different stakeholders and between stakeholders and management goals; resolving these conflicts can be tough, but is necessary to accomplish to achieve watershed management. Also, watershed management requires time and resources to generate interest and to build relationships between stakeholders. Funding agencies and stakeholders may grow impatient with the lack of observable outcomes.
Watershed management has evolved and become an integrated and comprehensive approach to addressing a broad range of water protection issues. This approach allows the evaluation of the important links between land and water, between surface and groundwater, between water quality and water quantity, and between watershed management and municipal planning.
- O. Akan, Urban Hydrology, Hydraulics, and Stormwater Quality: Engineering Applications and Computer Modeling (John Wiley & Sons, 2003);
- N. Brooks et al., Hydrology and the Management of Watersheds (Iowa State Press, 2002);
- W. Heathcote, Integrated Watershed Management: Principles and Practice (John Wiley & Sons, 1998).