Watershed Planning

A watershed is the area of land from which water drains into a stream, river, lake or other waterbody. Watersheds are divided by high points on the land, such as ridges, mountains, and hills. Management of water resources is ideally accomplished within a watershed context. The appropriate watershed scale changes depending on the land-use questions and water resource challenges under consideration. Watershed planning units can encompass everything from a small watershed of two intermittent streams that drain an individual parcel, to the much larger Hudson River watershed.

Watersheds are key geographic units when making local land use and water resource decisions, and we use community-based conservation at the watershed scale to affect local changes.

What are we doing?

We provide technical assistance and outreach to local watershed groups, intermunicipal councils, and regional water partners to encourage watershed-based planning and management. We also provide grants to support local efforts.

Who are our partners and audience?

Watershed groups, intermunicipal councils, regional water partners, colleges and universities.

Research on these topics

Education and Outreach 

WRI-HREP supported education and outreach has engaged citizens, agency staff, municipal officials, non-profit organizations, and students.

Dr. Allred of Cornell University in collaboration with Cornell Cooperative Extension (2011) conducted a needs assessment for developing a Master Watershed Steward Program. Their surveys engaged with members of over 150 different watershed organizations and agencies. Participants expressed interest in improving their ability to acquire funding for watershed management, engaging with political structures, coordinating across agencies and organizations, improving long-term planning, building community networks and trust, and working across political boundaries.

Community engagement for monitoring the Hudson River Estuary is the focus of work by Dr. Leou (2011) of NYU. Under this citizen science outreach program, graduate students and NYC teachers organized measurements of Hudson River Estuary health. Citizen science teams measured dissolved oxygen, pH, salinity, temperature, turbidity, coliform bacteria, nitrate, and phosphate along the Hudson River Park on Manhattan’s western shore, with the goal of creating a database used by non-profit organizations that work on Hudson River conservation.

Source water protection

WRI-HREP support for source water protection research includes modeling and field measurements to assess watershed connectivity, the benefits of wetland protection, and watershed contamination by nutrients, emerging pollutants, algae and bacteria.

Modeling tools for water quality assessment

Watersheds with significant karst formations are susceptible to pollution due to fast flow paths. In 2011, Dr. Richards and Boehm of SUNY-Brockport modified the commonly applied SWAT model for application in karst regions. They found high variability in watershed connectivity across karst watersheds.

Nutrient contamination is a common source of water quality degradation. In 2011, Howarth, Swaney, and Hong developed the ReNuMa model for application in the Hudson River Watershed using atmospheric deposition and emissions data, historical and projected weather data, discharge data, and monitoring from HRECOS stations. This mass balance approach to nutrient accounting is useful for determining the source and magnitude of sediment and nutrient flows across a watershed.

Water quality monitoring and measurement in watersheds impacted by human activity

Wetlands provide important ecosystem services toward improving water quality. Inland beaches of the Great Lakes frequently have water quality that is unsuitable for recreation. In 2010, Roehm, Vermette, and Janis of Buffalo State College surveyed Woodland Beach State Park on Lake Erie to describe hydrologic dynamics and transport of pathogens such as E. coli. This research identified three distinct wetland communities. To improve beach water quality the team recommended diverting inflow through the wetland and slowing inflow to increase sedimentation in the wetland region.

Invasive algae Didymospheni gemeniata (didymo) has spread from Europe to North America, Asia, and New Zealand. Work by Richardson (2010) mapped the presence and conditions of didymo colonization in Esopus Creek in Ulster County. They determined didymo can colonize many substrates in addition to rock (perceived as their main habitat). Furthermore, water velocity did not appear to affect colonization rate. Only sites in the headwaters did not have didymo present, all sites downstream had didymo, with temperature and pH increasing linearly from upstream to downstream sites. At the headwater site without didymo water conductivity was significantly lower and nitrate significantly higher than at other sites where didymo was present. While water chemistry may influence didymo density, human introduction of didymo material is likely the primary reason for successful colonization. The authors recommend educating recreational users of the need to decontaminate equipment after use in areas with didymo present.

Beach closures are currently based on water sampling, which causes at least a 1 day delay between contamination and availability of laboratory data. A team from Clarkson University in NY and St Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Sciences in Ontario collaborated to measure and model beach health along the International Section of the St. Lawrence River. Drs. Twiss, Skufca, and Ridal mentored students who measured patterns of fecal coliform in nearshore waters. Rainfall did not appear to significantly affect total coliform or E. coli populations. The team tested linear and non-linear approaches to modeling bacteria levels and determined a non-linear approach best fit the data, with conductivity and bacteria levels in the upstream tributary and previous day rainfall being key variables for predicting beach safety.

Wastewater effluent can contain endocrine-active compounds which can be difficult to measure due to abiotic or biotic modification of the original pharmaceutical compound. In 2010, Hays and Risen of Cornell University sampled water from Hudson River HRECOS sites and from waste water effluent across NY state. They used a CALUX bioassay to establish cell culture response to water samples relative to response under known concentrations of endocrine-active compounds. They found estrogen response, androgen response, progesterone response and glucocorticoid response present in multiple samples. 

Management interventions, watershed function, and water quality

Riparian zones are promoted as BMPs for nitrate removal in agricultural watersheds. A team from SUNY-ESF led by Vidon examined reactive phosphorous, sulfate/sulfide, and FeII/FeIII in groundwater, as well as greenhouse gases (N2O, CO2, and CH4) along streams with contrasting geomorphology in Central NY. The team focused on the role of stream curvature in influencing riparian zone function with respect to N, P, S, and Fe processing and GHG flux. The project will ultimately contrast GHG tradeoffs from nitrate removal in riparian zones.

Natural channel design (NCD) restoration projects are an important component of NY watershed management. Despite their common use, there is no systematic way to assess NCD performance. A team from SUNY-ESF led by Drs. Endreny and Kroll used transient storage modeling (TSM) to quantify surface and subsurface storage parameters. The team determined NCD structures caused the formation of large eddies and surface transient storage relative to pristine reaches.