The Big Business of Water

Practices & Techniques for Watershed Protection

In a recent H2Bid article, Rivers Under Stress, it was noted that watershed protection and management was critical in reducing river stress and cultivating more sustainable freshwater resources. In a follow-up to that October, 2010, article, today’s piece will shed light on current practices and techniques for watershed protection.
When discussing watershed protection many ideas are voiced, but one theme which runs throughout virtually all conversations is coordination. Without coordinated, organized efforts, the successful practices tend to be localized and have little if any impact in the larger freshwater system. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are charged at the national level with watershed protection; the US EPA works with the Department of the Interior and numerous state and local agencies to implement a coordinated day-to-day watershed management approach in the United States and the NRCS plans and maintains the long term vision for US watersheds.

The US EPA advocates the following model for an integrated watershed approach:
The watershed approach is hydrologically defined

  • geographically focused
  • includes all stressors (air and water)
  • The plan involves all stakeholders
  • includes public (federal, state, local) and private sector
  • is community based
  • includes a coordinating framework
  • The plan strategically addresses priority water resource goals (e.g. water quality, habitat)
  • integrates multiple programs (regulatory and voluntary)
  • based on sound science
  • aided by strategic watershed plans
  • uses adaptive management

Following this coordinated model, the EPA, states, and communities have been able to make significant gains in many US watersheds. One regulatory tool in the preservation and rehabilitation of watersheds is the US Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act, first enacted into law in 1972 was focused on reducing or eliminating point sources of water pollution. These point sources included factory discharge, wastewater discharge and untreated sewage overflow and other “obvious” forms of pollution. Limits were established for concentrations of substances in the rivers and lakes and the EPA was tasked with enforcing the law.
In an update to the law in 1987, the thresholds for pollutants were updated based on the latest science and nonpoint source reductions were also targeted. Nonpoint source pollution represents a significant threat to rivers and lakes not only in the US but around the world. Agricultural and urban runoff had been determined to be significant contributors to water quality problems, the amended Clean Water Act was an attempt to regulate and remediate those issues. Of particular concern were the organic and other chemicals that concentrate in soils and are prone to being carried with the soil into nearby streams and rivers when heavy rainfall occurs.
One low-tech approach to nonpoint pollution that has been extremely successful is the use of buffer zones. In agricultural land, these buffers are simply uncultivated areas or strips of land where the farmland abuts a stream or river. These buffer zones effectively slow the erosion process and offer a place for solids to settle prior to reaching the water. In urban settings these buffers may include silt fences or areas of grass that are left intentionally higher at property perimeters. Both of these methods catch soil and other solids before they enter a city’s storm sewer system. The US EPA has been able to incentivize the creation and maintenance of these buffers through the Clean Water Act legislation; this is but one example of how regulators (the EPA), land owners and the water community have been able to take a coordinated approach to watershed protection.
Going forward, the EPA and the water community are constantly looking for more ways to work more cohesively. The US EPA has established Watershed Central (located on the web at ) in an attempt to educate and provide technical resources to watershed planners and managers. This is an excellent resource that ties together the planning, regulatory, testing, incentive programs and day to day management that it takes to pull off a comprehensive watershed protection program. There is still more work to be done, to be sure, but the Clean Water Act, the US EPA and the US water conservation community are making headway in tackling the challenges of reducing the environmental stresses in watersheds they manage.