Watershed Wellness: An Ounce of Prevention...

We all know that the combination of a healthy diet and regular exercise prevents many health problems, and that performing routine maintenance activities such as oil changes and tune-ups keeps our cars running smoothly and prevents expensive repairs.

The same is true for watersheds – at costs sometimes exceeding $500 per foot for stream restoration, keeping our rivers and streams from becoming degraded in the first place is a lot less expensive and invasive than trying to clean them up or restore them after the fact. But what does preventative care look like for a watershed? Communities and watershed stakeholders should follow these Watershed Wellness guidelines to keep healthy rivers healthy:

  • Maintain healthy, vegetated riparian corridors. Forested streamside buffers protect the river from neighboring landowners, while also protecting those same landowners from the river. They give the river room to wiggle and adjust to changes in climate and upstream land use.
  • Protect natural floodplains and wetlands. Floodplains give the river room to spread out during storms, and - along with wetlands - store flood waters and protect streambanks, property and infrastructure located downstream. They also perform important water quality and habitat functions. Building in floodplains threatens lives and property.
  • Keep impervious cover under 10%. Center for Watershed Protection studies indicate that aquatic health begins declining once 10% of the watershed’s surface area is covered by impervious surfaces such as roads, rooftops and parking lots. The effective impervious cover of a watershed can be managed by treating stormwater with detention basins, bioretention and similar practices.
  • Maintain and expand tree canopy. Trees provide multiple watershed benefits, including intercepting rainwater before it even has a chance to become runoff, mitigating the effects of impervious cover and climate change. There is no standardized tree canopy goal like there is for impervious cover, giving communities the opportunity to establish goals based on local conditions. For instance, the City of Cleveland has established a goal of growing the City’s tree canopy from the current 19% to 30% by 2040, with a long-term goal of 40% canopy cover.
  • Control erosion from construction sites and farm fields. Earth-disturbing activities require special attention to keep sediment – the #1 pollutant of Ohio’s rivers and streams – on the land and out of the water. Silt fences, stabilized construction entrances and storm drain inlet protection are just a few of the tools used to prevent construction site erosion. Examples of practices used to control erosion from crop fields include vegetated filter strips, cover crops and mechanisms to reduce soil disturbance when planting, such as no-till/reduced tillage techniques.

Even if your community is following these Watershed Wellness guidelines, regular checkups are still needed to make sure your watershed is healthy. These checkups might include measuring water chemistry, mapping areas suffering from streambank erosion, monitoring the diversity of aquatic organisms living in the local river or creek, or any number of other parameters that might be appropriate for a given watershed.

Blog Author: Jared Bartley, Rocky River Watershed Coordinator

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