The Value of Watersheds

The Value of Watersheds

Part one of a three-part series. 

Watersheds are a natural infrastructure system that filters stormwater runoff, recharges groundwater, and slows erosion. Graphic courtesy of World Resources Institute.

Watersheds are a natural infrastructure system that filters stormwater runoff, recharges groundwater, and slows erosion. Graphic courtesy of World Resources Institute.

Today is Imagine a Day Without Water, a campaign by the Value of Water Coalition to raise awareness and educate Americans about the importance of reliable, affordable, and accessible water. I’d like to take this one step further and think about the importance of where our water comes from and where it goes. I don’t mean the tap in our homes or the storm grate at the end of the block, I mean the forested mountains and the rivers that in some cases might be miles away. Forests, rivers and streams, wetlands and floodplains, even the fields and farms surrounding our communities are all part of a natural infrastructure system called a watershed. Watersheds source and filter the water we use in our everyday lives making them the cornerstone of reliable, affordable, and accessible water.

Actually, a day without healthy watersheds isn’t too hard to imagine. Increased development and other human-caused impacts such as poor forest health and excess pollutants entering waterways have negatively affected and often disconnected these natural systems. Climate change has intensified these effects, contributing to events such as water scarcity in California, flooding in Louisiana, and nutrient-induced algal blooms in the Great Lakes.

The good news is that communities across the country are beginning to see the value and resiliency of healthy watersheds and are starting to make investments in them. Great examples include communities in the Puget Sound implementing floodplain restoration projects to reduce flood risks and restore salmon populations; Denver Water, a public water utility, and the U.S. Forest Service have created a partnership to invest in the Upper South Platte Watershed to reduce fire risk and protect a source of water; cities like Philadelphia, PA and Portland, OR are installing grass medians, trees, and open greenspaces to capture and infiltrate stormwater and reduce the amount of polluted runoff into nearby streams and rivers; and finally, almond growers in the Central Valley of California are allowing fields to flood in the winter months to recharge aquifers.

Communities faced with old dams and levees in need of multi-million dollar repairs, coupled with local health and environmental issues, are beginning to see the value and resiliency of investing in healthy watersheds like this one in Oregon. Photo: Staff. 

So if healthy watersheds are so important, why aren’t we investing in them more? The answer: trade-offs. Historically, watersheds have provided a variety of community and economic opportunities. From flat lands and rich soils in river floodplains to timber sources and great views in mountain uplands, the natural landscapes that make up watersheds have traditionally been seen and used as sources of inputs for economic and community growth–usually to the detriment of their ability to provide clean, reliable water. But, times are changing. As dams, levees, and stormwater systems begin to reach the end of their mechanic lifecycles, communities are faced with millions of dollars in upgrade and replacement costs. Combined with the need to address other environmental and health concerns, such as endangered species and forest fire risk, communities once again are considering the trade-offs of engineered solutions to natural resource issues and restoring, reconnecting, and enhancing natural systems. This time though investing in the natural infrastructure of watersheds is looking pretty good.

While it might be easy to envision a day without, getting to a day with healthy watersheds is not so easy. Landscapes have been significantly altered and our economic and political systems are not always set-up to make investments happen at large scales. Willamette Partnership believes that these barriers are not impossible to overcome and the trade-offs in these decisions don’t have to be so extreme. Over this series, we’ll explore communities that are using watersheds as natural solutions to their water issues; the barriers and policy solutions they’ve encountered; and the work Willamette Partnership is doing to increase the pace and scale of these types of natural infrastructure solutions so that we don’t have to imagine a day without water or watersheds.

Neil Crescenti
Neil Crescenti is a project manager for the Willamette Partnership’s Clean Water program. In this role, he focuses on development of state level water quality trading policy tools and templates, facilitation of a national conversation on innovative approaches to achieving clean water goals and conducts outreach of national best practices for water quality trading. Neil brings diverse experience to Willamette Partnership in the arenas of water quality and quantity including work in the Lake Tahoe Basin, Idaho and most recently Virginia. Neil holds a Master’s degree in Resource Economics from the University of Maine and a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration from Marist College. When not working on conserving the environment, Neil is out enjoying it by bike, skis, or fly rod.

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