Watersheds, regulations and rights: How it all flows and our duty to promote, protect these resources
Just two weeks into taking the Riverkeeper position, armed with a plastic EnviroScape model of a watershed, I spoke with a number of homeschool families at a small library in the western reaches of our region.
The discussion included an overview of what makes a watershed, and I explained it was like a series of funnels that collect rainwater, runoff and springs from underground aquifers and channel them into bigger and bigger bodies of water that all flow along the path of least resistance toward the Chesapeake Bay and, ultimately, the Atlantic Ocean.
As the kids quietly contemplated that concept, a parent’s raised hand led to an unexpected question: “How do those funnels get there? Are there people that bury them in the ground?”
It was apparent that I needed to develop a better way of explaining how a watershed works … at least as a preview before the EnviroScape model demonstrates the process a little more clearly than my funnel-filled flop of an illustration.
According to Merriam-Webster, a “watershed” is a “dividing ridge between drainage areas.” It also is the “region or area bounded peripherally by a divide and draining ultimately to a particular watercourse or of body of water.”
While the dictionary’s definition is technically accurate, it doesn’t provide much of a visual. So, instead, let’s visit your bathroom.
For a moment, let’s imagine the ceiling begins to rainwater evenly across the bathroom. What happens to that water as it falls onto the features below?
Much of it will wind up on the floor, and as the rain continues, the water level on the floor increases and starts to move in the direction of least resistance. Perhaps that is into your hallway carpet under the bathroom door, perhaps it begins to flow into an HVAC vent and down into that system.
Meanwhile, rain that falls over your bathtub begins to collect in there. If there happens to be a stopper in the drain, the bathtub continues to fill as the rain falls. The same process is happening at your bathroom sink … again, if plugged, it collects the water in a mini pond or lake formation. If the drain is clear, the water flows down the pipes.
The bathtub, the sink, the floor all function as their own mini watersheds within the greater drainage basin once known as your bathroom. Where does that water all go from there? The sink and bathtub (and toilet if someone had left the seat open) all eventually drain into the septic tank or public water system. Over time, that water seeps into groundwater or is treated in facilities (ideally) before entering the river.
The overall concept is that this water is constantly moving, transitioning and impacting others further down the flow. Some of it evaporates back into the atmosphere and eventually precipitates back to the ground as rain, snow, hail or sleet. Some of it transpires from plants that absorb it from the ground and give it off as water vapor … again, it later precipitates back to the ground.
Now, imagine back in your rainforest of a bathroom that a bottle of toxic chemicals sitting on the edge of your bathtub gets inadvertently bumped off the ledge and spills into the tub full of water. The “lake” of water in your tub is instantly contaminated, but again, that water isn’t isolated from the rest of the watershed. It flows, over time, to other parts of your at-home watershed, and eventually to waterways or groundwater that go well beyond your property.
The important takeaway is that we are all inter-connected … what happens within our greater watershed can impact people, aquatic ecosystems and the overall flow of things well beyond our own property lines, even if we aren’t located on the banks of the Susquehanna River or one of its tributaries.
In the map at the beginning of this post, you will see the shaded region that represents the middle Susquehanna watershed. It includes 11,000 square miles of land within well more than 20 Pennsylvania counties that all eventually feed into the north and west branches of the Susquehanna River. That is the region our Riverkeeper association represents and protects.
The middle Susquehanna watershed is part of the bigger Susquehanna watershed, the largest source of water in the greater Chesapeake (Bay) watershed, which sits within the larger Atlantic Ocean watershed. Basically, we are just one of a series of nesting dolls that have a worldwide footprint.
So, we have a responsibility – beyond our own individual needs – to do our parts within our own watersheds … and thankfully there are a network of incredibly valuable watershed associations that focus on specific tributaries of the river. Beyond our efforts to protect water quality at our own homes – a great way to have a real impact is to get involved with these groups – mostly all volunteers who clean up litter, strengthen streambanks and work together to protect and promote their nearest waterway.
On a larger scale, individuals and groups can influence policy and improve protections for our aquatic resources – and a good example of that is the work of former state Senator and representative Franklin Kury.
Interestingly, the word “watershed” has an additional meaning in the Merriam-Webster dictionary beyond what I shared earlier – it also can mean “a crucial dividing point or factor.”
Kury’s “watershed” moment came on May 18, 1971, as Pennsylvania voters approved – by a 4-to-1 margin – the state’s Environmental Rights Amendment. The moment was made possible by Kury and others in a bipartisan effort to push the landmark addition to our state constitution, which states, among other things:
“The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”
I refer to this amendment as “landmark” because it truly is significant … no other state, in its constitution, protects the rights of the people to pure water. The effort behind the amendment helped trigger critical amendments in 1972 to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. As amended, the nationwide law became known commonly as the Clean Water Act.
Those amendments included crucial new regulations that are the backbone of many of our waterway protections today, 50 years later.
As you read the growing library of posts in our online blog or in the pages of our "Sentinels of the Susquehanna" paperback, it is important to do so through the lenses suggested in this section. That we are all part of a greater watershed that impacts others and that we all have this unique state-mandated right – and responsibility – to protect pure water.
While a series of regulations and efforts by various state agencies are a part of that process to protect and promote our river-based resources, it is so incredibly important to realize that we all play an important role – and can spark real change that has a ripple effect well beyond our little corner of the greater watershed.
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.