Kids & Nature Connections: What on Earth is a Watershed?

Submitted on Mon, 03/25/2019 - 09:39

This article originally ran in The Wenatchee World in February 2018.

A couple of months ago, in the column about exploring lakes and ponds, we talked about a lake’s watershed. Now, if you read that and your first thought was “is that a building that stores water?” –you’re not alone.

A watershed is all the land that drains water to a central location, such as a river, lake, or ocean. It’s important to know about our local watersheds, because what happens in one part of a watershed can affect all of us downstream.

So, this month, we’re learning about watersheds and discovering ways to explore them with kids.

What is a watershed?

Imagine that a drop of water lands on the ground right where you’re standing or sitting (or on your roof if you’re inside) and, instead of soaking into the soil, flows downhill. Where would it flow?

For example, from where I’m sitting right now, a drop would land on our roof at the Land Trust office in downtown Wenatchee, then drain into the storm drain. Then, it would make its way to the Columbia River – so I know I’m in the Columbia River Watershed.

A watershed, also called a drainage or catchment basin, is the land where every drop of water eventually makes its way to one specific waterway. It includes all the water both on the ground and below the ground. It’s bounded by high points on all sides, like mountains or ridgelines.

Watersheds can be huge, or tiny. The Columbia River Watershed reaches up into Canada, down into Oregon, and east to the Rocky Mountains. On the other hand, you might have a pond in your backyard that has its own small watershed.

Large watersheds can be made up of many smaller ones. For example, if you live in Chelan, you are in the Lake Chelan Watershed, the Chelan River Watershed, and the Columbia River Watershed.

It’s important to care for the land in a watershed, because what happens in one location affects everything downstream. Healthy land, with plenty of trees and other plants, leads to clean, clear water downstream. On the other hand, unhealthy land in a watershed means less water, dirty water, or pollution downstream for everyone – humans, fish and wildlife alike.

You can make a model watershed in your home to explore how they work. (You may want to do this outside, or in a bathtub!) Have your children arrange some cups, boxes, cans, and bottles. Cover them with a large sheet of plastic, like a shower curtain or large trash bag. Push the plastic down in between the bottles and cups to form a landscape. Have the kids point out the highest point, and the lowest point (they can even name them!) What do they think would happen when it rains? Using a spray bottle, spray your landscape to simulate rain. Where did the water go?

As an extension, you can put confetti (paper circles from a hole punch work great) or food coloring in the model to represent trash or pollution. What happens when it rains now?

Now that you’ve explored a model watershed, it’s time to explore your own. Get out a map and take a look at the closest waterway. You can also use the EPA’s How’s My Waterway ( to list your local streams. Can you tell where the edges of the watershed are? Now, can you find where the stream or river starts?

Next, make a field trip to the waterway. What is it like? Does it seem healthy to you? Are there plenty of plants nearby? Can you see signs of life? Can you see the edge of the watershed from where you are? Who lives downstream from where you are?

Exploring watersheds is one way to help children become more connected to the land they depend on for a healthy, full life.