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Watersheds Photo Credit: Clipart.com


To learn about local watersheds by investigating community watershed projects.


Understanding the hydrologic cycle is basic to understanding all water and is a key to the proper management of water resources. This lesson helps students to understand the role of watersheds in this cycle and to reflect on human impacts on the water cycle by taking a closer look at citizen-based efforts to clean up and protect local watersheds.

In this lesson, students will conduct research on a citizen watershed project in their area and prepare a report on the project. In addition, they will gather information on citizen’s groups in their area and prepare news articles or reports on what they are dong in their communities.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) defines a watershed as “an area of land that drains all the streams and rainfall to a common outlet such as the outflow of a reservoir, mouth of a bay, or any point along a stream channel. The word watershed is sometimes used interchangeably with drainage basin or catchment. Ridges and hills that separate two watersheds are called the drainage divide. The water resources of a watershed include surface water—lakes, streams, reservoirs, and wetlands—and all the underlying ground water.” (“Water Science Pictures: An example of a watershed.” The USGS Water Science  School. U.S. Department of the Interior. n.d. Web. 20 November 2012.)

This activity is best conducted once the class has already received instruction in the water cycle—students should know the water cycle and all of its parts before doing this lesson. (There is a 3-5 Water Cycle lesson that you can use to help your students review.) Or, for students who don’t have this background, you could have them visit The Water Cycle, from USGS, for that information.

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To get students engaged in this lesson, you can begin by having them view some videos about watersheds. Students should use their Watersheds student esheet to access these videos:

After students have viewed the videos, review the following information with the class (students can record their responses on the Watershed student sheet):

  • What is a watershed?
    (It is an area of land that drains to a body of water.)
  • What is included in a watershed?
    (It includes drainage channels through rivers, streams, and ground; natural filters in wetlands and estuaries; and sinks in lakes and oceans.)
  • What is its driving force?
    (It is the hydrologic cycle.)
  • Do you know of any watersheds in our region? If so, where are they? What are they like?
    (Answers will vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.)
  • Are these watersheds important for our region? If so, how are they important? What would happen if the watershed near you gets full of oil or other pollutants?
    (Answers will vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.)

Now that students have an understanding about what a watershed is, they should consider its hydrological and ecological functions. To do so, they should use their student esheet to go to and read Community-Based Watershed Management and read just the introduction and the section on Watershed Functions. Once students have done this, you can discuss this information with your class:

A watershed has five main functions. These functions are hydrological and ecological in nature.

Hydrological functions:

  • Collect rainfall water
  • Store water in various amounts and for different periods
  • Release water as runoff

Ecological Functions:

  • Provide conditions and sites for various bio-chemical reactions to take place
  • Provide habitat to flora and fauna of various kinds


In this part of the lesson, students will make use of the EPA’s Adopt Your Watershed site to research watersheds in their area. Before they explore their own watersheds, though, they can take a look at what citizens in Portland, Oregon, do to help protect their watershed by going to The Water Cycle in Portland: Living in a Watershed.

Once students have read this article, engage them in a class discussion with questions like these:

  • Where does the water from streets and parking lots go?
    (It funnels into the city’s storm drains and sewers and from there it goes into the Willamette River.)
  • What are some of the steps the city is taking to help protect its watershed?
    (The city is working to reduce water runoff into the river by creating bioswales; it offers incentives for citizens to disconnect their downspouts from the sewer system; it has removed the stonework embankment along part of the creek to create an area for the water to overflow the banks into a wetlands area, reducing the speed of the water and creating resting pools for fish; it encourages the use of native plants to help reduce erosion; and it protects 50 feet on either side of streams from new development.)
  • What can citizens do to help protect the watershed?
    (They can plant native plants, use biodegradable soap when washing their cars, help to remove invasive plant species, plant more trees, etc.)

Now students should go back to the Community-Based Watershed Management site and finish reading the page, focusing on the parts about watershed management. They should use this resource to help them consider how the community can help with watershed management and to answer these questions:

  • What is watershed management?
    (Watershed management consists of those coordinated human activities aimed at controlling, enhancing, or restoring watershed functions.)
  • What is community-based watershed management?
    (It is an approach to water-resource protection that enables individuals, groups, and institutions that are concerned about the watershed to participate in identifying and addressing local issues that affect or are affected by watershed functions.)
  • What are some characteristics of community-based watershed management?
    (Some characteristics include: changing roles and relationships; whole-system perspective; integration of scientific information; and adaptive management style.)
  • What are some of the challenges associated with community-based watershed management?
    (The size of the watershed can make it difficult to develop an understanding of all the ways human activities can affect watersheds; volunteers may lack the time, skills, or resources to be able to be effective at managing a watershed; resource management professionals may be reluctant to work with community groups; there could be conflicts of interest among the groups involved; people may get frustrated with the amount of time it takes for them to see any improvements in a watershed.)
  • What are some keys to success?
    (They include involving stakeholders in the watershed management process in a meaningful way; don’t get discouraged; determine an appropriate scale for addressing watershed problems; view the watershed management plan as a starting point; make management decisions based on consensus; and focus on desired outcomes.)

Now students should research watersheds where they live. Students should use their esheet to visit the Adopt Your Watershed page. Instruct them to explore the links in order to discover what kinds of activities citizens can do to help protect their watersheds. Students can use the Report of Watershed Citizen Group student sheet to take notes on their research.

Then students should go to the EPA site’s Surf Your Watershed to find information about their local watershed. Students can use the esheet to find the information on their own or you can project the site and find the information as a whole class activity. The easiest way to find their watershed is to use the zip code widget found on the right-hand corner of the page.

Once students get to the results page for their search, they should find a citizen’s watershed project for their (or a nearby) watershed. They should get a result such as this one. Students should visit the online resources and contact the projects to get water monitoring data and other information and prepare a report on the project.

If students find that they are not able to get enough information about their local watershed from the EPA site, they could supplement those results by going to the website for their local government and visiting the public works, parks, or stormwater division sections of those sites. Information on runoff issues in their community, surface water problems in their watershed, and current water monitoring efforts can be obtained by calling or visiting these websites. They should work with you or their parents to think of questions they can ask the water professionals that will help them develop a focused project.

They should then get information about what these groups are doing and prepare news articles or reports on what is going on in their communities.


You can assess student understanding of the concepts in this lesson by reviewing their news articles or reports and by having students write a short 3-5 paragraph essay explaining what they have learned about the importance of local watersheds by studying community projects.


The Science NetLinks lesson Oceans helps students obtain a better perception of earth's oceans and to understand earth's water cycle.

Great Rivers 1: The Nature of Great Rivers helps students comprehend why great rivers don’t run dry—that the water cycle supplies them more-or-less continuously.

This lesson can be used as a springboard for student science fair projects. Ideas for Science Fair Projects on Surface Water Quality Topics is a pamphlet that provides ideas for science fair projects on surface water quality topics from the EPA.

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