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The USGS Water Science School

What is a watershed?

When looking at the location of rivers and the amount of streamflow in rivers, the key concept is the river's "watershed". What is a watershed? Easy, if you are standing on ground right now, just look down. You're standing, and everyone is standing, in a watershed. A watershed is the area of land where all of the water that falls in it and drains off of it goes to a common outlet. Watersheds can be as small as a footprint or large enough to encompass all the land that drains water into rivers that drain into Chesapeake Bay, where it enters the Atlantic Ocean. This map shows one set of watershed boundaries in the continental United States; these are known as National 8-digit hydrologic units (watersheds).

A watershed is 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 watershed consists of surface water--lakes, streams, reservoirs, and wetlands--and all the underlying ground water. Larger watersheds contain many smaller watersheds. It all depends on the outflow point; all of the land that drains water to the outflow point is the watershed for that outflow location. Watersheds are important because the streamflow and the water quality of a river are affected by things, human-induced or not, happening in the land area "above" the river-outflow point.

A watershed is a precipitation collector

Map of the northeastern United States showing an outline of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which drains into the Atlantic Ocean.Most of the precipitation that falls within the drainage area of a stream's monitoring site collects in the stream and eventually flows by the monitoring site. Many factors, some listed below, determine how much of the streamflow will flow by the monitoring site. Imagine that the whole basin is covered with a big (and strong) plastic sheet. Then if it rained one inch, all of that rain would fall on the plastic, run downslope into gulleys and small creeks and then drain into main stream. Ignoring evaporation and any other losses, and using a 1-square mile example watershed, then all of the approximately 17,378,560 gallons of water that fell (you can use our interactive rainfall calculator to find out how many gallons of water fall during a storm) as rainfall would eventually flow by the watershed-outflow point.

Not all precipitation that falls in a watershed flows out

To picture a watershed as a plastic-covered area of land that collects precipitation is overly simplistic and not at all like a real-world watershed. A career could be built on trying to model a watershed water budget (correlating water coming into a watershed to water leaving a watershed). There are many factors that determine how much water flows in a stream (these factors are universal in nature and not particular to a single stream):

Sources and more information

Related topics:

Impervious surfaces  Rivers and sediment  Rain

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