What is a watershed and why is it Important?

A watershed definition from a dictionary

1 an area or ridge of land that separates waters flowing to different rivers, basins, or seas. • an area or region drained by a river, river system, or other body of water.

2 a geographic area through a which water seeks a common outlet.


We can’t think of this first definition as a starting point from which to analyze, change or otherwise modify a river. As you can see from the definition below, a River is more complex than just high points in landscape which forced the water by gravity to rivers. The land, the weather, human activity and many other factors create a complex interrelated system whose outcome is a river, lake, stream or ocean.


Patrick Lindemann’s Definition:  1996

“A watershed is a system of many complex and interrelated sets of an ecosystem (layers) that are interdependent on a common flow of energy, material transport (waste removal), and nutrient input and output as a result of water collection, storage and movement.”


If you’re going to have a workshop based upon a watershed approach, then you must consider understanding what a watershed actually is. The concept of watershed management doesn’t deal with just managing water. It has more to do with managing the land. After all, a river is a mirror image of the land from which the water flows from and into the it.

You can modify a river, but because the river will modify your modifications based on the changes to the land in the watershed, there will be no permanent positive change.

Taking out one weir, rebuilding the bank or modifying the confines of the rivers flow will never stay consistent unless the land activity stays consistently with in a pattern of land-use change and land-use.

Almost all of the rivers and tributaries to those rivers have been influenced by heavy human activity.  Whatever the river was before it is not the same today, because it has been modified by human behavior and activity. For example, the tributaries going into the Red Cedar River are not natural. In fact, the red Cedar itself is not the same river that was here when the first settlers arrived. The Red Cedar River from the city of Williamston to its headwaters is all man-made in the 1800’s. The creeks and streams that drain into the red Cedar River have all been dug and created after 1880 to about the year 1930. They two are all man-made.

We cannot assume any positive results in just changing a river or modify a rivers landscape. This includes removing weirs, dams or other obstructions. There are positive impacts in removing structures and stabilizing banks, but none of those activities’ are long-lasting and seek the results that I believe people expect. Thinking from a watershed perspective, or Systems approach to river management means that we must take into consideration all of the activity on the land in relationship to the outcome we desire.

Because, all of our human activity has changed all the natural river systems and added to those river systems discharges that are not natural we cannot assume the river will behave like the Image of a natural river we have in our heads. In fact, the outcome may be just the opposite. The term “natural river” conjures up different images/Ideas in the heads of different people. To make a difference in river behavior and have long lasting effects that make it economically feasible to control the outcomes of river change that we desire, we must holistically approach modifications to fluvial systems like rivers with a Systematic Approach or Systems Approach. This means we must start to think “Systemically”.