Do you know your watershed address? I’m not talking about the long string of numbers that scientists use to number each major watershed and call the Hydrologic Unit Code (HUC). I’m talking about the name of the nearest stream to where you live or work- where any water that falls where you’re standing will eventually drain to. Around Cleveland, that can be a tough call- for nearly half the city (mostly the eastern half) has put its streams into underground pipes, so you rarely look down from your car to see an actual flowing stream. Even where streams are above ground most people live more than a few blocks from one, so it can be hard to see what your house or neighborhood has to do with the cleanliness of the stream. That’s why it's worth looking up which watershed you live or spend time in- doing so can tell you more about where you live, inspire you to go take a look at that stream, and help you feel more connected with the natural world around us (even in a city).
Unless you’re in a steep mountain valley, the idea of a watershed can be hard to visualize. In a place like Cuyahoga County, with its many rolling hills and tall trees, its tough to know which direction water will flow if it falls where you’re standing. Most folks know that that here all water eventually flows to Lake Erie, but how does it get there? Streams have twists and turns and join up with other streams, and many river systems have their own unique characteristics. So water might first flow away from the lake to join a nearby stream or river. Think of a watershed address as a large, unevenly shaped area that covers all the land that drains into a particular river, lake, or stream.
Next time it rains, take a minute to think about where all that water goes- after it leaves your lawn, street, or driveway, where is it headed? You might think it just sinks into your lawn or goes into the drain, but water usually doesn’t stop moving for a long, long time. Water can move through the ground and come out at a lower point farther away. And all water ends up in one of two places- the ocean or an underground aquifer (which is like a very large soggy section of ground very deep below us- sometimes called an underground lake). And when it flows it usually carries bits of whatever it passes with it- be that fertilizer, motor oil, wash water, chemicals, waste or trash.
Small streams or tributaries are often the first filters of pollution, but that also means they can compile the effects of that pollution over years. If there’s trash laying around your neighborhood, it’s important to pick it up, even if you don’t see a stream immediately nearby- because many sewers or drainage areas connect into a nearby stream. Keeping those smaller streams and rivers healthy and clean not only protects downstream Lake Erie (which is where Cleveland gets its drinking water) but also provides crucial buffers from storms and floods. So no matter where you live it's worth looking up where your nearest stream system is and what it’s called. Sites like How’s My Waterway can help you look up not only what watershed you live in but also local environmental topics that might interest you. Want to quiz yourself on all the major Ohio watersheds? Check out this Sporcle Ohio Watersheds Quiz!
I personally have had major change in my own watershed address- a month ago I was living in the Santa Fe River watershed in New Mexico, and now I live in the Doan Brook Watershed here in Ohio and get to work with a great group of dedicated conservationists! Environmental issues here tend to be much different, but it’s still a universal truth that water is one resource that everyone needs. How we care for the land around us reflects our values as a community. Here in Ohio we may be blessed with plenty of water compared to the scarcity in New Mexico, but with more water tends to come larger cities and larger cities mean more pollution, trash, and stormwater runoff. We can share our passion for a healthy environment with others by raising awareness of the importance of knowing your watershed address!
Blog author: Meg Hennessey, Watershed Coordinator