Watershed Management - Overview

What is a Watershed?
Every body of water (e.g., rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, and estuaries) has a watershed. The watershed is the area of land that drains or sheds water into a specific receiving waterbody, such as a lake or a river. As rainwater or melted snow runs downhill in the watershed, it collects and transports sediment and other materials and deposits them into the receiving waterbody.
What is Watershed Management?

Watershed management is a term used to describe the process of implementing land use practices and water management practices to protect and improve the quality of the water and other natural resources within a watershed by managing the use of those land and water resources in a comprehensive manner.

What is Watershed Management Planning?

Watershed management planning is a process that results in a plan or a blueprint of how to best protect and improve the water quality and other natural resources in a watershed. Very often, watershed boundaries extend over political boundaries into adjacent municipalities and/or states. That is why a comprehensive planning process that involves all affected municipalities located in the watershed is essential to successful watershed management.

Why is watershed management important?

Runoff from rainwater or snowmelt can contribute significant amounts of pollution into the lake or river. Watershed management helps to control pollution of the water and other natural resources in the watershed by identifying the different kinds of pollution present in the watershed and how those pollutants are transported, and recommending ways to reduce or eliminate those pollution sources.

All activities that occur within a watershed will somehow affect that watershed’s natural resources and water quality. New land development, runoff from already-developed areas, agricultural activities, and household activities such as gardening/lawn care, septic system use/maintenance, water diversion and car maintenance all can affect the quality of the resources within a watershed. Watershed management planning comprehensively identifies those activities that affect the health of the watershed and makes recommendations to properly address them so that adverse impacts from pollution are reduced.

Watershed management is also important because the planning process results in a partnership among all affected parties in the watershed. That partnership is essential to the successful management of the land and water resources in the watershed since all partners have a stake in the health of the watershed. It is also an efficient way to prioritize the implementation of watershed management plans in times when resources may be limited.

Because watershed boundaries do not coincide with political boundaries, the actions of adjacent municipalities upstream can have as much of an impact on the downstream municipality’s land and water resources as those actions carried out locally. Impacts from upstream sources can sometimes undermine the efforts of downstream municipalities to control pollution. Comprehensive planning for the resources within the entire watershed, with participation and commitment from all municipalities in the watershed, is critical to protecting the health of the watershed’s resources.

What are some key steps in watershed management?

Familiarize Yourself with Your Watershed

Comprehensive watershed plans should first identify the characteristics of the watershed and inventory the watershed’s natural resources. It is important to establish a baseline of the overall nature and quality of the watershed in order to plan properly for the improvement of the resources in the watershed and to actually measure those improvements.

The first steps in watershed management planning are to:

  • Delineate and map the watershed’s boundaries and the smaller drainage basins within the watershed;
  • Inventory and map the resources in the watershed;
  • Inventory and map the natural and manmade drainage systems in the watershed;
  • Inventory and map land use and land cover;
  • Inventory and map soils;
  • Identify areas of erosion, including stream banks and construction sites;
  • Identify the quality of water resources in the watershed as a baseline; and
  • Inventory and map pollution sources, both point sources (such as industrial discharge pipes) and nonpoint sources (such as municipal stormwater systems, failing septic systems, illicit discharges).

Much of this information may already be compiled and available through CT DEEP, the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and municipal offices such as planning and zoning, inland wetlands, and public works. Additional information specific to the watershed can be gathered during volunteer stream walks which allow for on the ground study of the general conditions of the receiving waters and the adjacent watershed areas. Learn more about CT DEEP's role in watershed management.

Build Local Partnerships

Watershed planning should also identify and include the partners, or "stakeholders," in the watershed. Development of local partnerships can also lead to greater awareness and support from the general public. Once individuals become aware of and interested in their watershed, they often become more involved in decision-making as well as hands-on protection and restoration efforts. Through such involvement, watershed management builds a sense of community, helps reduce conflicts, increases commitment to the actions necessary to meet environmental goals, and ultimately, improves the likelihood of success for the watershed based plan.

Local partnerships can include:

  • Residents;
  • Landowners;
  • Federal, state, and municipal government officials;
  • Watershed associations and other environmental and civic groups;
  • Local business and industry leaders;
  • Agricultural users;
  • Developers;
  • Teachers; and
  • Recreational users.

Determine Priorities for Action

Watershed management planning should also determine what the opportunities are to reduce pollution or address other pressing environmental issues, prioritize those opportunities, and identify a time frame for accomplishing pollution reduction and resource and habitat improvements. Those issues that pose the greatest risk to human health or particular resources, or to desired uses of resources (i.e., swimming beaches), might be given highest priority for control and reduction. Watershed plans should establish clear goals, visions, and actions to be taken.

Examples of opportunities to reduce pollution and address other wide-ranging environmental issues include:

  • Infrastructure improvements. More frequent maintenance of municipal stormwater systems or improving or replacing inadequate stormwater treatment systems, identifying and eliminating illicit (i.e., non-stormwater) connections to municipal stormwater systems;
  • Reducing paved areas and other impervious cover, especially adjacent to waterbodies and wetlands. Zoning and subdivision regulations can be revised to address issues such as reducing lot coverage/impervious cover, reducing roadway widths, encouraging cluster and low impact development, limiting land disturbance such as grading and clearing, and increasing development setbacks from resources;
  • Identifying appropriate areas for open space acquisition, greenways planning, and the establishment of vegetated buffers along waterbodies and wetland areas;
  • Establishing sewer avoidance areas to limit development;
  • Increasing inspections and maintenance of existing septic system and encouraging repairs to failing systems;
  • Identifying other appropriate housekeeping practices for homeowners and landowners (encouraging the use of vegetated buffers adjacent to waterbodies and wetlands, reducing lawn areas and the amount of fertilizers and chemicals applied to them, recommending washing cars over lawns instead of driveways so rinse water can drain into the lawn and not run-off into storm drains, etc.);
  • Identifying resource and wildlife habitat restoration priorities;
  • Increasing and promoting public access and greenways and identifying areas where it is appropriate to do so; and
  • Identifying and evaluating opportunities for nonstructural flood protection efforts;
  • Improving waste management, pollution prevention, and recycling efforts at municipal facilities and businesses within the watershed.

Conduct Educational Programs

The degree of public education and participation in the planning process can greatly influence the success of watershed management. There are many ways to involve and educate the public in watershed management. The formation of citizen review groups and advisory committees can gain public support from the watershed and are an essential component to a successful, community-based, and locally led effort. These community-based groups and committees can also provide the means to keep the project going once the plan has been finalized to make sure that recommended actions are taken. It might also be helpful to identify a watershed coordinator to help in this effort.

  • Outreach and education efforts can include:
  • Periodic informational meetings;
  • Stream walk assessments;
  • Organized storm drain stenciling projects;
  • Watershed clean-up days and riparian planting/habitat restoration days;
  • Coordination with school systems within the watershed;
  • Information kiosks and websites;
  • Videos; and
  • Newsletters and other printed materials to provide status and progress reports.

Ensure Implementation and Follow-up

It is important to establish a schedule with milestones and some sort of committee to ensure that projects proceed in a timely manner. A monitoring program should also be established to measure success through data gathering. It is also important to identify ways in which landowners can be assisted with undertaking necessary improvements, such as low interest loans or technical outreach information. Finally, it is important to ensure that the recommendations contained in the watershed plan, especially design standards, are integrated into municipal land use regulations (zoning, subdivision, inland wetlands).


Content last updated September 21, 2023