Characterize the Watershed

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Watershed Management Process
Build Partnerships
Characterize the Watershed
Set Goals and Identify Solutions
Design an Implementation Program
Implement the Watershed Plan
Measure Progress and Make Adjustments

Characterizing the watershed, its problems, and pollutant sources provides the basis for developing effective management strategies to meet watershed goals. The characterization and analysis process helps you focus your efforts on the most critical needs and targets your data collection and analyses within the watershed. The scope is defined as not only the geographic area to be addressed but also the number of issues of concern and the types (and breadth) of the goals you want to attain. If you define your scope and set preliminary goals early in the planning process, you will find it easier to work through the later steps in the process. The watershed characterization process includes the following steps:

Gather Existing Data and Create a Watershed Inventory

Data gathering and analysis helps you to characterize the existing condition of the watershed, identify pollutant sources, and estimate the pollutant loads entering the waterbodies. Data analysis is an iterative process. You will first identify what information already exists about the watershed through existing reports and datasets. Then you will create an inventory of that data.


Identify Data Gaps and Collect Additional Data

There will always be more data to collect, but you need to keep the process moving forward and determine whether you can reasonably characterize watershed conditions with the existing information you have gathered. Conduct a data review to examine data quantity and quality and identify any significant data gaps. If you determine that you need to collect additional data, develop a sampling plan.


Analyze Data

Existing data and updated information are analyzed to identify watershed pollutant sources and causes of impairment. In addition, data analysis will help you identify which sources on which to focus during the loading analysis. Through careful analysis you will obtain a better understanding of the major pollutant sources, the behavior of the sources, and their impacts on the waterbodies. An understanding of the watershed conditions and sources is also the basis for determining the appropriate method for quantifying the pollutant loads.


Identify Causes and Sources That Need to Be Controlled

Together with the input from stakeholders and their local knowledge of the watershed, analyzing your data should lead you to an understanding of where and when problems occur in your watershed and what could be causing the problems. Without knowing where the pollutants are coming from, you cannot effectively control them and restore and protect your watershed. Pollutant sources, along with associated pollutants, timing, and impact on the watershed are important information for the watershed planning process. In identifying your sources you will now begin to identify the critical areas to address with targeted management strategies.

Identify Important Habitats for Conservation

Conserving important, or critical, habitats in watersheds is just as important as controlling pollution. These habitats provide services such as flood protection and recreational activities such as hunting and fishing.

Estimate Pollutant Loads

Estimating and quantifying pollutant loads is often missing from past and current planning efforts, and filling this gap is critical to successfully controlling sources, restoring watershed health, and meeting watershed goals. The loading analysis provides a more specific numeric estimate of loads from the various sources in the watershed. It also helps you plan restoration strategies, target load reduction efforts, and project future loads under new conditions.


Results and Next Steps

At the end of this step you should have completed the following:

  • Identified existing reports and data sets that exist within your watershed
  • Created an inventory for the data
  • Identified any data gaps and determined if new data needs to be collected
  • Developed a collection plan and collected new data if necessary
  • Analyzed the data to determine the major problems in the watershed and the sources of pollutants.
  • Initiated the identification of critical areas to target your management efforts
  • Estimated the loadings of the various pollutants

Next steps

  • Based on the problems identified in the watershed you will identify targets and the load reductions that are needed to meet those targets. You will also identify what types of management strategies you will use to reduce the pollutant loads and where you will implement those strategies to control the sources.

Useful Tools

Category:Watershed Characterization Tools is an abbreviated list of tools that might be used to help with this step in the watershed management process. Each tool has a watershed central collaborative content area (where the tools can be discussed and rated) as well as links to the actual tool.