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Why Watershed Protection?
Part one in a series about Watershed Protection by Tom Christopher

by Tom Christopher - American Whitewater Conservation Chair
   In this century many states, including Maine will come to grips with the increasing difficulty of providing enough high-quality water to its expanding population base. Individual communities, as well as state agencies, will be challenged to find cost-effective ways to protect existing water supplies, groundwater sources and aquatic ecosystems that will be needed in the future. Although Maine is rich in water resources, it may be difficult to achieve these goals in regions of the state where water supplies have do not meet the growing demands of increased economic activity and rapid population growth.

   A watershed is defined as “a geographic area of land in which all surface and groundwater flows downhill to a common point, such as a river, stream, pond, lake, wetland, or estuary”. Rivers are usually the focal points of attention and activity in a watershed, particularly if they become polluted or dry up, but few people fully understand how their daily activities are interconnected to waterways.

   Watershed protection is the most compelling defense for our water resources from industrial pollution, agricultural runoff and during commercial and residential development.

   In all watersheds there is a direct interrelationship that exists between human activities and their effect on water resources. For example, in the average household, each person will use approximately 150 gallons of water a day through routine activities such as running the dishwasher or washing machine, taking a shower, or flushing the toilet. That’s a lot of water!

   Protecting watersheds and managing the human activities that take place throughout its area is the easiest and most cost-effective way to protect the water supplies in the near and long term. This can be achieved in a number of ways, beginning with application of appropriate regulations that govern activities near wetlands, streams, and other bodies of water. Most importantly, is that the watershed be viewed in its entirety.

   Wetlands, for example, perform important natural functions within a watershed and serve to act as biofilters to remove pollutants from street and parking lot runoff as well as sediments from constructions sites. Low-lying areas, swamps, and marshes act as recharge areas for aquifers and also store large volumes of water during heavy rainfall to prevent flooding in downstream communities. Logging, construction projects and development that fill or destroy wetlands at higher elevations in a watershed may cause irreparable flood damage further downstream once these storage functions are lost. Base flow to rivers and streams is also enhanced as wetlands capture and store water that can be released slowly through groundwater systems, providing critical habitat for native fish species.

   Protecting open space is also critical to managing watersheds. When sprawl extending from urban areas swallows valuable open space, the watershed’s buffer zones around important aquatic resources are compromised. These buffer zones place physical limits to where and how far human-created pollutants can travel, and depending on vegetative cover, can speed the assimilative capacity of the watershed. Large expanses of open space and vegetated buffers provide a diverse habitat for birds, animals, invertebrates, and other species which contribute to a healthier ecosystem within the watershed, and also establish “core” areas and travel routes for species to move around throughout the watershed.

   Careful land-use planning in a watershed will consider open space and habitat as important values that can enhance the connection of natural resources for people who live and recreate nearby and in the region.

   Sound watershed management must also integrate consideration of the economic stresses placed on resources as people, businesses, and industry go about their daily lives. This, especially, is emphasized as the forest products industry undergoes rapid change due to the competitive global marketplace. Disrupting the economic stability of a community can limit its ability to sustain its tax base for community services in the future.

   Understanding all of the factors that influence the availability of “good” water in a watershed emphasizes the need to integrate the goals of a community with the realities of resource capacity. Fragmented actions undertaken by cities, towns, and the logging industry without consideration of the watershed as a whole, only serve to provide an inefficient water management policy, and jeopardize the future sustainability of the basin. It is essential to develop a fresh perspective and effective policies to facilitate watershed protection. Only through cooperation will it be possible to manage water systems and achieve adequate balance of riverine flows, habitat protection, improved water quality and quantity and economic stability.

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