What is a Watershed?

Everywhere on earth, water that falls onto the ground as rain, snow or in any other form eventually either drains from the surface of the land or filters into the ground to become ground water. Surface water ultimately finds its way into a wetland, pond, stream, river, lake, or ocean where it is taken up through evaporation to start again in the never ending water cycle.

Most simply put, a watershed is area of land that drains into a particular water body.

The shape and size of a watershed is determined by the landforms of that area. High ground (such as hills, slopes or mountains) forms the boundaries between watersheds, and the characteristics of the land also effect the direction and flow of waters within the watershed.

Watersheds can be very modest in size, or they can be immense. The term “drainage basin” is used for a larger watershed containing the watersheds of several other smaller rivers and streams. Even within these smaller “sub” watersheds, there are many even smaller ones. This idea of “nested” watersheds is very helpful when thinking in terms of environmental planning and action.

The continental United States has 18 major drainage basins, and New York State has 17 major drainage basins with 54 distinct watersheds. One of these major New York basins is that of the Genesee River, of which the Oatka Creek Watershed is part.

What is a Watershed Community?

The term “Watershed Community” owes much to the work and philosophy of the teacher, explorer, and scientist Major John Wesley Powell (1834-1902). Powell wanted to organize settlements in the expanding American West around water and watersheds. He argued that an area’s precious water resources would be more easily protected and more properly used by encouraging cooperative use. One of his most popular quotes describes a watershed as an area:

“… within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where as humans settled simple logic demanded that they became part of a community.”

Everyone lives in a watershed. And everyone in the Oatka Creek Watershed is linked together as part of the Oatka Watershed Community. Even wildlife is a part of this same Community.

We influence what happens in our watershed by our everyday activities. Everything we do and everything each individual watershed community member does adds up: both positive and negative actions, both past and present. We should not think that individual actions do not have influence in the larger picture of our watershed.

Healthy watersheds are important for a healthy environment and economy. The Oatka Creek Watershed Committee is working to help our watershed community learn what we need to do to improve and protect the quality of our water, and through that, the quality of our lives. What happens to the Oatka on its journey to the Genesee River tells the story of our watershed community. We want the story the Oatka tells to be the story of a community that cares.

More about Watersheds

Here are some links that you may find useful for helping to better understand what watersheds are and how they work:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

What is a Watershed – USDA brochure PDF

The Watershed Atlas of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers

Model My Watershed from the Stroud Water Research Center

Also recommended is the book “Watersheds : A Practical Handbook for Healthy Water” by Clive Dobson and Gregor Gilpin Beck published by Firefly Books.

Watersheds and Your Community