Who cares about Watersheds? 5 Ways to Reconnect

Kids: Really Dad?
Me: Yes, really. We just passed the Eastern Continental Divide
Kids: So?
Me: This divide is the mother of all watershed boundaries.
Kids: What is a watershed?

I thought everyone knew what a watershed was. I was wrong this past weekend with my kids. Apparently, kids aren’t the only ones confused about watersheds.

Eric Eckl with the company Water Words That Work pointed me to this survey for residents in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. 52% of the respondents did not know what a watershed was.

Do you know what a watershed is?

Can you really blame the public? We are combining “water” with the word “shed”. When most folks think of the word “shed”, they think of what sits in the backyard, not the English meaning “to part”.

The word “watershed” originated in Germany as Wasserscheide, or ‘water-divide.’ German miners were thought to have introduced this word to England where it was mangled or adjusted to just watershed–depending on your point of view. Watershed still meant a water divide between two rivers. No one is quite sure how the watershed term changed as it crossed the Atlantic to mean the land area that drains into a particular river.

For most of us in the extended water community, watersheds give the limits. They are the 140 character limit in Twitter. They are the canvases for which our actions, the environment, and water cycle play out in real-time. Without a public understanding of the canvas, how can we paint? Each watershed is unique and there are no paint-by-numbers in our world. Sustainable watersheds depend on an informed public.

Watershed is “that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.” – John Wesley Powell

If one NHL team can call the Carolina’s home, there is hope in educating more about watersheds. Here are 5 impossible ideas I had this morning.

  1. Replace ZIP codes with Watershed Names. The more dense the area the smaller the watershed used.
  2. Watershed App : Built like foursquare, but you mark what watersheds you have been to. You can add a gamification element to include badges, etc. It could flash a notification when you have entered a new watershed.
  3. Public Urinal signs. Sign would welcome your waste and state what basin your waste was entering.
  4. Adjust our State Boundaries to match watershed boundaries. Here is what the US would look like if it was based on watershed boundaries.
  5. Watershed level planning. Involve basin stakeholders and work on water quantity and water quality issues.

Maybe it is time to just scratch the watershed term and use a different term. Could they just be river basins? How about a brand new term, like rain-router?

Eric suggested when communicating with the public just avoid the word “watershed.” Eric noted that “for all practical purposes, adults don’t learn new words unless they’re going to use them in their jobs or to raise their kids.” So forget the word and the semantics. The same survey that documented most did not know what watersheds were also documented that near 100% of respondents were interested in helping to improve water quality and 86% of respondents were very or somewhat likely to get more involved if they felt they could make a difference.  This is encouraging.


More about Eric and his Company:
Water Words That Work LLC is a for-profit company with a mission to protect nature and control pollution. They help non-profit organizations, government agencies, and charitable foundations develop modern and professional communication programs. Learn more here.