Everyone lives in a watershed, and many of us live within multiple watersheds. From cities to farms and forests to plains, our whole country is made up of large and small watersheds that every one of us relies on for our living.
But what in the world is a watershed and why is it so important? Also known as a basin, a watershed is simply the land in which all the water such as rainfall, snowmelt and runoff drains to a nearby river, creek or stream. Because the water from a storm may drain to a small creek like Cobbs, and then to a large river like the Delaware, some communities can be located within more than one watershed.
There are six major river basins in Pennsylvania, with hundreds of smaller watersheds branching off and into the main rivers. Philadelphia is in the Delaware River Watershed, which connects four states — Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York — through this one water source. There are eight sub-watersheds and 216 tributary streams and creeks in this watershed alone.
Over paved roads and sidewalks, through the grass and soil underground, down sewer drains and into manmade channels, water moves. This movement or process is known as runoff, and it will eventually make it to a river, creek or stream. But along for the ride is everything else the water carries, including pollutants, salts, chemicals and debris. Since these rivers, creeks and streams are usually the sources of drinking water for the people living nearby, as well as habitats for many important animals and plants, it’s vitally important we care about the health of our watersheds.
Our daily activities — fixing the car, mowing the grass, walking the dog, taking out the trash — can greatly impact the well-being of the watershed and therefore the cleanliness of your local waterways. To keep our water clean and our aquatic ecosystems thriving, follow some of these tips below.
1. Clean up your pup’s poop.
Dog waste is considered pollution. Despite the commonly held beliefs that it’s natural or will provide nutrients back to Earth, this is actually not the case. Doggie doo contains a lot of phosphorus, nitrogen and many pathogens, such as viruses, parasites and bacteria, that will run off into our local waterways if left on the ground. This makes our creeks and streams ripe for bad algae blooms that deplete oxygen from the water and create inhospitable environments for many lifeforms. But they also make them unsafe places for aquatic recreation, such as canoeing, fishing and swimming. Bag up your pup’s waste and throw it away. Or consider whether a commercial composting or waste facility near you will accept it.
2. Build a rain garden or backyard buffer.
A natural environment that is rich in varying plant life can promote higher-quality soil, prevent erosion, filter more water than a lawn and provide a much-needed habitat for local, native birds and other wildlife. If you have property along a waterway or near a storm drain, consider planting natives to help soak up and filter stormwater. Removing a bit of lawn can go a long way, so consider a rain garden made up of plants that thrive in wet soil. Or promote a backyard buffer, a naturalized space along the edges of a water source that includes trees, grasses and wildflowers. Be sure to avoid these areas with the mower in the summertime and apply any pesticides with care!
3. Manage stormwater runoff.
As our population grows, so does the infrastructure. Pavements, rooftops, concrete and asphalt are all non-porous surfaces that cannot hold or filter water from snow and rain. This means when it rains or snows, all that water just runs directly off these surfaces, pools together and drains into the sewers or nearby bodies of water — collecting a lot of pollutants along the way. And with heavy downpours or big storms, this can easily overwhelm our natural and manmade water systems. So, consider managing stormwater on your property! Even if you live in a water-rich area, this small action can make big changes in your watershed. Install a rain barrel or a downspout planter to collect stormwater or permeable pavers to let it run into the ground below.
4. Mark a storm drain.
Remind people in your neighborhood that all drains lead to a natural creek or stream with a marker! Small, circular markers placed next to sewer drain inlets serve to remind everyone that trash, waste and chemicals should not be placed into a drain. This knowledge is especially important in areas like Philadelphia where most of our water is hidden underground and the runoff to our creeks and streams travels through the city first via sewers. Discover which is your own local watershed and consider organizing an event to mark the drains in your own neighborhood!
5. Dispose of your chemical waste properly.
Washing your car or changing the oil at home? Remember that these liquids will run down the driveway and right into the drains to the local water source unless you collect them or dispose of them properly. Consider switching to a nontoxic, chemical-free soap and use it sparingly. Wash your car and equipment on gravel or on the grass so it can be filtered through the ground. Empty the soap bucket into the sink instead of the sewers. Use a drip pan to collect the chemicals and check if your local car dealership or mechanic offers disposal for used oil and grease. This goes for lawnmowers and other household appliances, too.
6. Get involved!
While all these actions can really impact the health of your local watershed, joining forces can make a bigger splash! Check out our list of local watershed organizations to find one nearby, volunteer your time for a cleanup event, meet your local community and get involved in the environment. Not sure if your watershed is listed? Use the EPA’s site How’s my Waterway to discover your watershed, then research whether there is an organization or group managing it and do your part to make a change.