A watershed is a geographic area whose rainfall, snowmelt, streams and rivers all flow or drain into a common body of water, such as a reservoir, lake or bay. Ultimately, most watersheds in the U.S. drain into the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans or the Gulf of Mexico. Whether your drinking water comes from a surface supply—reservoirs, rivers or lakes—or underground sources called aquifers, everyone lives in a watershed. Water quality protection is important for all of us.
As water travels over the land or through the ground, it picks up naturally-occurring minerals as well as contaminants from animals and human activities. Thus, pollution sources are classified as point or nonpoint. A point source originates from a single location, such as a sewage treatment plant which may discharge clean, treated wastewater from a pipe into a river or stream. Nonpoint sources are diffuse—they don’t have a single point of origin and are generally carried off the land along with surface water during rain events.
Watershed protection efforts generally focus on human and animal contaminants, and they are tailored to address both the type of pollution source—point or nonpoint—as well as the way pollutants are transported across the landscape. Many scientific studies show there is a direct connection between the activities that occur within a watershed and diminished water quality. This happens when few or no management practices exist and contaminants are simply washed off the landscape or released directly into streams that flow into a water supply.
The essence of watershed management—which is the process of organizing and guiding land and natural resource use to reflect the competing needs and priorities of all stakeholders—is to prevent contaminants from reaching water resources. With careful planning and communication, water quality can be protected while still serving multiple priorities.
In the New York City water supply watersheds, key stakeholders include the nine million urban consumers of the water supply, nearly a quarter-million residents of the older and more suburbanized Croton Watershed (East of Hudson), tens of thousands of residents of the rural Catskill/Delaware Watershed (West of Hudson), and the diverse flora and fauna of the entire watershed ecosystem. This complex web of multiple stakeholders means that watershed protection requires a delicate balance between urban/rural and upstate/downstate interests.
For more than a decade, DEP has funded and implemented a comprehensive Long-Term Watershed Protection Program which focuses on both protective and corrective initiatives to ensure that the source of water for nearly half of New York State’s population remains of extraordinary high quality for current consumers and future generations.