What is a Watershed


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    What is a Watershed


    A watershed is the land area from which surface water drains into a common stream channel, lake, reservoir, or other body of water. It is the geographical area of land that collects, stores, and transports water. A watershed can be large, like the Mississippi River watershed, or small, such as all the water that drains to a small pond. Large watersheds are often called basins, and contain many small watersheds. 

    watershed workings


    draining water

    Everything we do in a watershed affects the water quality. The water from your tap and in nearby lakes or streams is part of a much larger water system. While not everyone lives next to a pond or stream, we all live in a watershed.

    Common activities like driving your car or hiking along a river can affect water quality. By paying careful attention to how you manage activities around your home and in places you like to visit, you can protect your watershed and the water you drink.  Find out ways to help, both at home and in the community: some ways you can help.


    okA few simple things you can check to see if your watershed is in good condition are listed below. Click each one to see a more detailed descriptions of what to check.



    Vegetation along streambanks provides shade, food and shelter for aquatic macroinvertebrates and helps stabilize the banks. Steep, bare spots along a stream may have increased risk of erosion.

    Learn More.

    water temp


    Many of Utah's streams have cold-water fish, macroinvertebrates, and amphibians that require cold temperatures (maximum: 20 degrees Celsius, 68 degrees Fahrenheit) to survive. Temperatures may fluctuate across seasons, but drastic temperature changes can hinder the metabolic activity of organisms.

    Learn More



    Scattered algae indicates a healthy stream. Matted or hairy algae may indicate poor health. An algae bloom indicates excess nutrients, which may come from fertilizers, manure and leaf litter. To learn more about the effects of excess nutrients in streams click here.

    Learn More


    Clear Brown Green Oily Sheen
    Clear water is most desirable, but it doesn't necessarily mean the water is clean. Some pollutants are not colored.

    Erosion of sediments can cause streams to appear brown or cloudy. This is not necessarily a bad sign. All streams have a natural level of turbidity (how much suspended material is in the water). For example, the Colorado River is very turbid, yet its waters hold abundant life.

    Green water can be caused by excessive algae. This generally is an indicator of poor water quality. An oily or rainbow sheen on water is an indicator of poor water quality. Oil usually enters waterways from runoff of oil on roads from automobiles.




    In a stream foam can be natural or anthropogenic. Natural foam will have an earthy or fishy smell and will be white, cream-colored, or brown. It will usually be described as more "pillowy" rather than "sudsy". Pollution from detergents can create foam that may smell like soap or perfume and will be white and sudsy. 

    Riffle River


    Riffles are the shallow sections of a stream where the water breaks over cobbles, boulders and gravel. A run is the sections of a stream where water is flowing rapidly, generally downstream from riffles. Runs are deeper than riffles. Pools are the deepest and slowest moving sections of a stream. The ideal habitat for many aquatic animals is a mix riffles, runs and pools.

    riffle, run, pool


    Watersheds are everywhere and are very complex. Click on the different options below to explore and learn even more about watersheds.

    • Visit Swaner EcoCenter in Park City, Utah  to see a River Runs Through Us, our new interactive flatscreen display about East Canyon Creek and its watershed. Click here to see the display online.  (Use Chrome for best results.  You cannot view videos on the online version). 
    • View our Watershed 101 presentation. It's full of useful information and is a great way to learn about what a watershed really is.
    • Volunteer with Utah Water Watch: For a lot of people volunteering with UWW has been a great way to become involved in their watershed so why not for you?
    • Take a look at our Educator Resources page for lesson plans, trainings and workshops, and other resources. This is especially helpful if you are a teacher or other educator. 
    • Visit the Bear River Information System website for detailed information about all aspects of this river's watershed, including maps, data and contact information for hundreds of resources in the 3 state watershed.
    • To find out more about a specific stream or other water body in Utah also check out the Beneficial Uses and Water Quality Assessment Map created by the Division of Water Quality.