Watershed Management Is Key to Improving America's Water Resources

Journal of Environmental Health, May 1999 | Go to article overview

Watershed Management Is Key to Improving America's Water Resources


Although effective in protecting drinking water, the current patchwork of federal, state, and local regulations does not consider the full range of benefits provided by watersheds in an integrated way, according to a new report of the National Research Council (NRC).

The quality of the nation's most polluted waters has improved enormously over the past 20 years, largely as a result of strong action taken to control pollution from sources such as municipal wastewater treatment plants and industrial discharges. Ironically, however, some of the cleanest waters have continued to degrade because pollution from other, more diffuse sources, such as urban and agricultural runoff, is harder to control. The recent emergence of toxic organisms, like Pfiesteria in streams flowing to the Chesapeake Bay and Cryptosporidium in Milwaukee's water supply, underscores the fact that many lakes, rivers, wetlands, and coastal areas across America fail to meet federal water quality standards. Some bodies of water have experienced loss of biodiversity, decline of fisheries, and curtailment in commercial and recreational activities. The NRC committee believes that the more systems-oriented perspective offered by watershed-scale management would improve water resources that have been degraded by pollution.

Reauthorization of the Clean Water Act offers the nation an important opportunity to strengthen its attention to watersheds and the many human activities that affect or are affected by water. The committee has recommended that the reauthorized Clean Water Act be designed to conserve and enhance the natural ability of an ecosystem to detoxify water; to empower local and regional watershed managers to increase efficiency and improve cost-effectiveness; and to encourage partnerships between the management agencies and the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds related scientific research.

By managing on the scale of entire watersheds - which include drainage areas and the water, soils, vegetation, animals, land use, and human activities associated with them - policy makers can find long-term solutions to many natural-resource problems. Watershed-scale management can be difficult because it requires cooperation and information sharing across jurisdictions and agencies. It does, however, address diverse resource management problems in an integrated way by drawing together concepts from the physical, biological, social, and economic sciences.

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