What is a Watershed?
A watershed is the drainage area of a landscape where water from rain or melting snow and ice drains downhill into a body of water such as a river, lake, reservoir, pond, estuary, wetland, aquifer, sea, or ocean. Watersheds include the streams, lakes, and shallow aquifers that store and convey the water as well as the land surfaces from which water drains and the aquatic ecosystems that they support. Topography and geology determine where the water flows, and thus are used to separate adjacent drainage basins into a hierarchical structure in which small watersheds drain into progressively larger ones.
||Figure: Watersheds near the Klamath Basin, CA & OR
Water is one of the most important natural resources flowing from forests. The Forest Service manages the largest single source of water in the U.S., with about 18% originating from 193 million acres of land. A network of water and watershed resource specialists support stewardship efforts at all levels of the organization to promote healthy, sustainable watersheds fundamental to ecosystems and people.
Forest Service 'Watershed' includes the areas of Watershed Restoration, Water Rights, Water Quality, Hydrology, Ground Water, Riparian, and Wetlands.
Each watershed area has a program leader assisting field scientists in attaining the Chief's watershed priorities and managing resources from a healthy ecosystem perspective.
The Forest Service Washington Office (WO) Watershed Team leads core Agency programs in Watershed Restoration, Water Rights & Uses, Surface Water, Groundwater, and Riparian & Wetlands. The broader Watershed Team includes fisheries biologists, aquatic ecologists, geologists, and soil scientists who lead complimentary programs within the staff group. Program leaders support regional and field scientists and managers as well as line officers with technical guidance to conserve, protect, and restore the soil, riparian, water and aquatic resources of the national forests and grasslands.
Below, you will find links, tools, downloadable documents, and educational information for watersheds. If you wish to go to a specific section, please click on the provided links below:
Focus Areas and Initiatives
Watershed Condition Framework
The Watershed Condition Framework establishes a new consistent, comparable, and credible process for improving the health of watersheds on national forests and grasslands.
The management of the National Forest System’s substantial groundwater ensures proper use of and continued benefits from this important resource.
National Best Management Practices (BMP) Program
The Forest Service rolled out the National BMP Program to help ensure effective implementation, monitoring and documentation of appropriate BMPs to protect water quality from adverse effects of land and resource management activities on NFS lands.
BAER & LaSER
The Forest Service Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) program addresses situations with the goal of protecting life, property, water quality, and deteriorated ecosystems from further damage after the fire is out.
Riparian & Wetlands
Streams and adjacent uplands are managed to ensure continued benefits to dependent resources - fisheries, wildlife, and water - while providing a broad range of services, including recreation, forest products, and grazing.
The Soil Program focuses on the role of soils in contributing to ecological integrity and the sustainable management of National Forests and Grasslands. The Soil program is now located with the Range and Vegetation Ecology staff.
National Stream and Aquatic Ecology Center
New name for the union of two historical units leading the way in technology transfer. We reference the 'old' pages until a new site for NSAEC is posted.
- Stream Team
The Stream Systems Technology Center, or "STREAM TEAM," is a national technical center chartered to improve knowledge of stream systems and watershed hydrology, develop operational tools and technology, provide training and technical support, and identify research needs for the purpose of coordinating development of needed technology to secure favorable conditions of water flows.
- Fish and Aquatic Ecology Unit
The mission of the Forest Service Fish and Aquatic Ecology Unit is to identify emerging aquatic resource issues, develop technology to help address these issues, and transfer this technology to field biologists.
Watershed Condition is the primary indicator of soil and water health. Properly functioning watersheds support important ecological and societal services such as productive soils, biological diversity, threatened and endangered species habitats, spawning and rearing habitat for sport and commercial fish species, and flood control benefits. Acres of soil improved and miles of stream restored are indicators of improving health of forest ecosystems.
Water Uses & Water Rights
Water Uses affect watershed condition and Water Rights are the primary method used to legally be able to use water for human and social needs. How and where water is used both on and off a National Forest impacts watershed condition and aquatic resources in positive and not positive ways. Managing the many uses of water is a primary responsibility of the FS as defined by Congress in the 1897 Organic Administration Act, stating that the forests reserves (now NFS Lands) were established “to secure favorable conditions of water flows”.
Surface Water Hydrology
Quality water is the most important resource produced on NFS lands. National Forests and Grasslands supply some of the highest quality surface waters in the country, yielding some of the best drinking water and industrial process water sources. The Surface Water Program ensures continued protection and proper management of this vital resource through many tools and strategies, including the use of best management practices to protect water quality.
Brochures and Briefing Papers
- Water, Climate Change and Forests: Watershed Stewardship for a Changing Climate - - Document
PNW-GTR-812 June 2010
Abstract: Water from forested watersheds provides irreplaceable habitat for aquatic and riparian species and supports our homes, farms, industries, and energy production. Secure, high-quality water from forests is fundamental to our prosperity and our stewardship responsibility. Yet population pressures, land uses, and rapid climate change combine to seriously threaten these waters and the resilience of watersheds in most places. Forest land managers are expected to anticipate and respond to these threats and steward forested watersheds to ensure the sustained protection and provision of water and the services it provides.
- Climate Change and Water -- Brochure
The brochure, "In Brief - Climate Change; Perspectives from the Forest Service", highlights some key concepts important to forested watersheds that are emerging through a growing body of literature. Our Watershed staffs (agency wide) helped in the development of this brochure. Read the brochure (PDF), share the information, and discuss the ideas with others. In addition to the brochure, Forest Service scientists and managers are collaborating on a report that exploring how climate change may impact water resources and associated management on national forests and grasslands.
More information - climate change, water, kids...
- Abundant Clean Water Briefing: PDF (160 KB)
This document is a briefing paper that discusses the Forest Service’s role in ensuring abundant, clean drinking water on National Forest Systems Lands.
- US Forest Service and Water - PDF (96 KB)
This is a one page informational document about the benefits of water for communities as well as the many uses of water.
- Watershed Publications - view WFW watershed publications. Through this link, you will have access to all watershed-related publications.
You can find a sample of some relevant publications below.
Results of the Forest Service’s Watershed Condition Classification are online through a new interactive mapping Web site. The maps are the first products in the agency’s Watershed Condition Framework, which is the first national assessment of watershed conditions across all 193 million acres of National Forest System lands.
NEMI - National Environmental Methods Index
The National Environmental Methods Index (www.nemi.gov) is a free, searchable clearinghouse of methods and procedures for monitoring water, sediment, air, and tissues. It is sponsored by the EPA and USGS. The tool can be used to compare and contrast performance, costs, and methodologies as well as verify field and laboratory protocols or procedures. Now, it can also be used to gauge a method's "greenness" profile. The profile is summarized by a four quadrant circle that is colored green if it meets criteria for being environmentally friendly with respect to hazardous waste; PBT-persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic; corrosive; and waste amount.
Example of water analysis
- EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency): Teaching Center
- Streamkeeper Academy (The Adopt-A-Stream Foundation at the Northwest Stream Center, WA; Independent)
- NASA - Water Cycle Diagram and Additional Information (for Children)
- USGS Water Cycle Diagram - Provided by USGS, a kid-friendly diagram of the water cycle.
Go to USGS Water Cycle website to get downloadable files and placemats!