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Water: Healthy Watersheds

Concept, Approach, and Benefits

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Healthy Watersheds Concept

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The Healthy Watersheds concept is based on a holistic systems approach to watershed protection and conservation. Maintenance of aquatic ecological integrity requires that we understand, not only the biological, chemical, and physical condition of waterbodies, but also critical watershed functional attributes, such as hydroecology, geomorphology, and natural disturbance patterns.

The Science Advisory Board (SAB) has developed a "Framework for Assessing and Reporting on Ecological Condition" (U.S. EPA, 2002). This framework was developed as an organizational tool for reporting on information about the health of ecosystems through an assessment of essential ecological attributes. The Healthy Watersheds concept views watersheds as integrated systems that can be understood through the dynamics of essential ecological attributes.

Healthy Watersheds Approach

The Healthy Watersheds approach is: 1) identifying healthy watersheds on a state-wide basis and healthy components of other watersheds; and 2) conserving healthy watersheds and protecting healthy components of other watersheds. It is an approach that will protect the remaining healthy watersheds and prevent impacts to aquatic ecosystems (and, thus, water quality impairments) from land use changes and other perturbations (e.g., invasive species) in other watersheds.

Healthy Watersheds Benefits

The benefits and services provided by healthy watersheds are numerous and include reduced vulnerability to invasive species, climate change, and future land use changes. Healthy watersheds with natural land cover and soil resources also provide vast carbon storage capabilities, offsetting greenhouse gas emissions. Healthy watersheds also provide habitat for fish, amphibians, birds, and insects and stream corridors which provide a key connection across the landscape for animals and birds. Aside from the reduced costs of restoring impaired waters, there are many other economic benefits to protecting and conserving healthy watersheds. Healthy watersheds preserve recreation opportunities such as fishing and water-related recreation (e.g. boating) and contribute to tourism (e.g., hiking and birding). Vulnerability to floods, fires, and other natural disasters is minimized, thereby reducing costs to communities. Similarly, by protecting aquifer recharge zones and surface water sources, costs of drinking water treatment may be reduced. A survey of 27 drinking water utilities' treatment costs and watershed characteristics finds that for every 10% increase in forest cover of the source area, chemical and treatment costs decrease by 20% (Ernst et al., 2004).

Percent of Watershed Forested Average Annual Treatment Costs
60% $297,110
50% $369,380
40% $465,740
30% $586,190
20% $746,790
10% $923,450

Source: Adapted from Ernst et al., 2004

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