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Spring/Summer 2002, Volume 19.3


read-ing [from ME reden, to explain, hence to read] _ vt. 1 to get the meaning of; 2 to understand the nature, significance, or thinking of; 3 to interpret or understand; 4 to apply oneself to; study.


John Wesley Powell and the "Watershed Approach"

No matter where you live, you live in a watershed. A watershed is the land area that drains to a single body of water such as a stream, lake, wetland, or estuary. Physical boundaries define the movement of water and delineate the watershed.

A "watershed approach" uses hydrologically defined areas (watersheds) to coordinate the management of water resources. The approach is advantageous because it considers all activities within a landscape that affect watershed health. Ideally, a watershed approach will integrate biology, chemistry, economics, and social considerations into decision-making. It considers local stakeholder input and national and state goals and regulations. A watershed approach recognizes needs for water supply, water quality, flood control, navigation, hydropower generation, fisheries, biodiversity, habitat preservation, and recreation; and it recognizes that these needs often compete.

In 1890, John Wesley Powell, second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, suggested that the federal government organize the western United States into watershed units. These watershed units were to be governing bodies and would facilitate an integrated approach to natural resource management. Although the government did not implement his plan, many concerned with water management in the West now are reconsidering watersheds as the unit in which to coordinate the management of water resources.

In his 1998 essay, "John Wesley Powell's Watershed Commonwealths: Mapping a West that might have been," Alex Philp summarizes Powell's hopes:

When Major John Wesley Powell confidently marched into the committee room on February 27, 1890, he placed before the United States Senate Select Committee on Irrigation and Reclamation of Arid Lands, Washington D.C., and the people of the expanding United States his vision for the future of the arid West. This stunning image of his revolutionary perspective was contained in a beautiful, almost seductively colorful map that Powell had been preparing for many years.

On this map, Powell had drawn what he saw as an answer to the resource dilemmas that increasingly gathered in the West like the dust storms that periodically beset most of the country beyond the hundredth meridian. Once beyond this invisible, yet real, boundary of the West, the landscape was dominated by one constant, common denominator: aridity. Between the eastern and western thresholds of the arid lands, Powell had highlighted twenty-four distinct river basins totaling roughly 1,340,000 square miles. Subdivided within these major river basins were 152-158 individual hydrographic units or "watersheds." Each one represented, as Powell stated, a region of the country that must be considered as a unit, and collectively, as ecosystemic pieces of a grand landscape puzzle.

Powell intended each drainage basin district to be analogous to a county and function as natural, self-governing body politic, cooperatively and prudently using the watershed's resources. Further still, he believed that his watershed framework could support an alternative, more sustainable relationship between the people and places of the arid West. The map represented his insight into the arid region's environmental complexity and framed the architecture for a new political landscape. Powell's insight was grounded in the distinct geography of the American West.

(Source: Casadia Planet,

To learn more on the Internet about the watershed approach, see the following:

bulletThe Environmental Protection Agency maintains a Web site in which it is possible to "Locate Your Watershed":
bulletThe EPA is also leading efforts to "Adopt Your Watershed" by creating an on-line database, which, as of April 2002, contains 3500 groups involved in protecting and restoring watersheds throughout the country:
bulletThe EPA's Office of Wetlands, Oceans & Watersheds has several published reports and guides on protecting and restoring watersheds:
bulletThe Girl Scouts have created a Water Drop Patch Program:
bulletThe first National Watershed Forum was a gathering, in Arlington, Virginia, June 2001, of 480 watershed representatives. The event was designed to forge a stronger partnership between government and its citizens, to empower community residents to continue their progress in improving the health of their watersheds, and to inspire government agencies to support the efforts of the growing watershed movement:
bulletThe Watershed Management Council was formed in 1986, and for several years its sphere of influence focused on California. Since that time, the Council has expanded to include members from 28 states and 3 countries. The Watershed Management Council is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to the advancement of the art and science of watershed management:
bulletOctober 18, 2002 is the 30th Anniversary of the enactment of the Clean Water Act. This date marks a milestone in the efforts to protect our nation's water resources: 


Water in the West

"Water in the West" is a Web-based project of Cascadia Times, a news service founded in 1995 to report on critical environmental issues in the western United States and Canada. ( The news service was commissioned in 1999 by the William C. Kenney Watershed Protection Foundation ( to produce a summary of the 3,000 pages of reports produced in 1997 by the Federal Western Water Policy Advisory Commission. The Commission warned that as the West adds a projected 30 million people over the next 20 years its leaders must decide whether or not to allow continued unrestrained growth in usage and out-of-stream consumption, with the resulting depletion and degradation of nearly-exhausted supplies around the West. Chapter six of the summary concerns "Governing Watersheds and River Basins":

All kinds of local watershed initiatives, watershed councils, basin trusts, citizen advisory groups, and collaborative government partnerships are springing up around the West. Their task: address the critical problems of water supply, quality of life concerns, and compliance with interrelated federal, state and local laws.

The Commission said these initiatives 'hold much promise' for meeting the growing challenges of western water management. To accept local participation is not simply to engage in a democratic exercise, but to recognize the growing need for:

bulletsustainable, local economies and energetic stakeholder consensus to replace frustration and dissension;
bulletalternative sources of revenue to supplement federal appropriations;
bulletcoordinated and clarified regulatory requirements to reduce governmental gridlock; and
bulletpolicy-relevant science to better inform program and budget decisions.

The Commission noted three case studies of local watershed initiatives: The Henry's Fork Watershed in eastern Idaho, the Deschutes River Basin Resources Conservancy in Oregon, and the Cal-Fed Bay-Delta region of California.



Henry's Fork Watershed Council

John Keys, Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, spoke last November at the Eighth Annual Henry's Fork Watershed Conference. He spoke of goals for the Bureau:

Goals for reclamation on national, regional and local levels include using water more than once from the time it is put into the reservoir until it reaches the oceanfor electrical generation, recreation, water quality, fish management, etc. Supplying water for salmon has had some benefits in that we have been able to use it more than once on its way to the ocean.

Our next goal is to leverage resourcesget together with folks who have common goals but perhaps different authorities. A watershed council approach could work well here.

Another thing we are trying to do is focus on contingency planning. There are two specific areas here; the first is in drought. We are doing a lot of work in the western United States and with Mexico to prepare for the periods of drought that seem to be coming more often lately. The second place we are doing contingency planning is with endangered species. That law is not going to change, and where flexibility comes in is being innovative in ways to meet that law.

Another goal is to work with other federal agencies to meet all laws and requirementsNEPA is not going away, ESA is not going away, the Clean Water Act is not going awaywe have to work with all of these, and there are ways to get it done.

The next goal is to work with states and the water allocations in western rivers.

Another goal is recycling. People ask, "Where is the next river we can develop?" The next river to be developed is our waste-water—our industrial waste-water, our irrigation waste-water and our municipal waste-water. There are many uses for these streams that do not require the drinking water standards that we now use.

Our final goal is to maintain the expertise we have developed over the yearsscientific and engineering. Some challenges we face here are an aging infrastructure and public safety and security.

A final word about watershed councils. It helps all of us when we can get away from our jobs and into an environment where we can do some outside-of-the-box thinking. The reservoir system in this basin gives us all kinds of opportunities and flexibility that other folks may not have. The other thing the watershed council does is bring together federal state and local agencies and other outside organizations. I cannot stress enough how important participation is and how important consensus recommendations are when you give them to a federal agency. Reclamation is fairly unique in its organization in that the local area managers can exercise some autonomy in their stewardship of basin water resources.



Western Drought

In response to the 1996 drought, The Western Governor's Association issued a Drought Response Action Plan ( The next year the Association formed the Western Drought Coordination Council as an intergovernmental forum to focus on drought preparedness. The Council has been on hiatus since 1999. However, the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln maintains a rich Web site with links to the WDCC.

bulletOne link includes information on the National Drought Preparedness Act recently introduced in Congress:
bulletThe Drought Monitor issues the "Palmer Drought Severity Index," updated weekly by the Climate Prediction Center. It is based on rainfall, temperature and historic data, and is computed based on a complex formula devised by W.C. Palmer in 1965. Although The Palmer is the main drought index used by the U.S. government, it is slow to detect fast-emerging droughts, and it does not reflect snowpack, an important component of water supply in the western United States.


Colorado's Rivers

"Water and Growth in Colorado: A Review of Legal and Policy Issues" was recently issued by the Natural Resources Law Center, University of Colorado. Based on interviews with approximately 70 key Colorado water leaders, as well as an extensive review of recent water studies and legal documents, the report describes existing water problems and potential solutions. A summary is available on-line:

In January of this year Trout Unlimited produced a parallel report, "A Dry Legacy—The Challenge for Colorado's Rivers," intended to detail for the citizens of Colorado the impacts of expanding water use on the state's rivers and streams—impacts that, in turn, have far reaching effects on aquatic life, water quality, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities:

Using ten cases studiesa small subset of the total number of rivers and streams adversely affected in the state by expanding water usethe report showed serious impacts on waters ranging from the state's namesake, the Colorado River, to Bear Creek. It found that Colorado's rivers and streams are beginning to show clear signs of stress due to overuse of the state's limited water supply, a problem that the report says will only get worse as the population continues to grow.

…Colorado is an arid state, meaning that we have a limited amount of rainfall and snowfall. Unfortunately, our population and development have outpaced the amount of moisture we receive each year. Irrigation, power generation, municipal consumption and even recreational uses like snow-making have all served to greatly reduce natural stream flow, which, in turn, has far-reaching impacts on wildlife, water quality and aesthetics. Colorado's 19th century system of water laws also has not evolved to meet the challenges of the state's rapid growth and that growth's ever-expanding impacts on rivers and streams. In addition, the State of Colorado has been reluctant to use aggressively the limited authority available under the current system to protect stream flows.

…Degraded water quality, reduced wildlife habitat and diminished recreational opportunitiesimpacts caused by reduced stream flowshave far-reaching economic, social, and quality of life impacts. Economically speaking, Colorado currently has $1.3 billion fishing industry and $122 million commercial rafting industry—both of which will be affected by less water in our rivers and streams.

Trout Unlimited does support responsible irrigation practices and smart growth that takes into consideration our limited water supply and the importance of healthy streams and rivers to the environment, wildlife, water quality and aesthetics.



River Running Crisis

The Associated Press recently reported that river runners in Utah are facing a crisis in this fourth year of drought:

In a year when Utah's snowpack and the economy are down, rafting companies and guides are searching for ways to make the best of a bad situation.

"Northern Utah's streams and rivers are running 50 percent of normal while runoff in southern Utah is less than 30 percent of average," said Brian McInerney, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service.

"We have the lowest forecasted runoff numbers in some places in recorded history," he said of the 2002 river-running season. The water is so low on part of the San Juan River in Utah's southeast corner that some outfitters are leaving it for other rivers where dams help ensure navigable flows.

McInerney said a number of factors have combined to depress rivers to historic levels: "This is the fourth year of a drought, so groundwater tables are low and dry soils soak up runoff before it can reach rivers. And alternating cold and hot weather this spring left runoff sporadic, resulting in high losses to evaporation and soil percolation."

News of the drought has some clients calling river running companies worried their trips might be canceled, something that outfitters are working hard to avoid. Instead, Western River Expeditions will use smaller rafts and encourage the use of inflatable kayaks. The company's Brian Merrill points out that reduced flows make for warmer water and more enjoyable swimming. A lack of moisture also means fewer pesky bugs on rivers.…

Source: Associated Press, "River raft firms face double blow of drought, weak economy," May 13, 2002.
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