Defining Watershed-Scale Planning

What it Means

Our activities impact the health and stability of our natural resources including threatening how much clean water we have available. The best way to protect these valuable resources is to do so on a watershed scale.  A watershed-scale approach to planning allows for the integrated management of human activities and natural resources, protection of important water resources, reaction to future issues such as population growth and climate change. The watershed-scale approach to planning allows for multiple issues to be addressed while planning within a very complex and uncertain environment. This calls for the collaboration and involvement of a wide variety of managerial and community interests including, but not limited to federal, state, and local agencies, municipalities, tribes, businesses, residents, and landowners.

A watershed-scale plan should:
  • Be hydrologically-defined
  • Be geographically-focused
  • Be based on sound science
  • Involve all stakeholders in both the public and private sector
  • Include all stressors
  • Include a coordinating framework
  • Strategically address priority water-resource goals (e.g. water quality, habitat)
  • Integrate multiple programs, both regulatory and voluntary
  • Be aided by strategic watershed plans
  • Use adaptive management

Watershed-scale management plan should focus on improving the ecological function of the entire watershed in order to rehabilitate and preserve water resources within the watershed. Such an approach is expected to produce more immediate and measurable positive results relative to more narrowly-defined approaches that rely on uncoordinated regulatory drivers.

The City of Redmond outlines such an approach in their Citywide Watershed Management Plan. This goal of this plan is to focus resources and efforts into five specific watersheds to recover in-stream habitat within decades. Their plan includes capital investment planning, design, and construction in addition to programmatic efforts.

How A Watershed-Scale plan different?

The watershed-scale management plan is a proactive approach, not a reactive approach. It works to both protect existing environmental conditions while also working to improve the overall health of the watershed. It enacts a prioritization scheme that directs stormwater management improvements to areas where the improvements will provide the most immediate environmental benefit. A broad, watershed-scale perspective encourages the development of solutions to environmental issues that can satisfy several regulatory requirements simultaneously. Old approaches often failed to identify the significant and cumulative impacts to a watershed’s function because they viewed site-specific projects as small and seemingly harmless, single projects. Previous efforts emphasized point source management, visible pollution, and government stewardship. These single projects collectively impact the health of the whole watershed, but were not always coordinated or integrated.

The Building Cities in the Rain project addresses the challenge of meeting growth management and stormwater goals by directing redevelopment to dense urban centers to reduce sprawl. This works to accommodate the growing populations in the Puget Sound area while working to protect air and water quality. Building Cities in the Rain does so by encouraging the development of recommendations for incentives and cost-effective approaches that encourage infill and creating alternatives within existing stormwater regulations that work to improve overall water resource conditions.

What does a Watershed-Scale Plan look like?

Watershed-scale management plans are very much dependent on the characteristics of the watershed, the specific water management issues in the area, and the interests and needs of the communities within the watershed. A watershed-scale management plan should include a set of metrics, tailored to the local area, that allow for diverse subbasins to be compared in a meaningful manner. Some examples of this include:

Pierce County's Raise the Grade project tracks and reports the water quality of streams and lakes in an annual Water Report Card. The goal of the Raise the Grade project is to improve water quality in streams and lakes with low grades.

King County's Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity (B-IBI) Project uses ten metrics that measure different aspects of stream biology to describe aspects of the community that responds to degradation. By measuring these metrics, King County is able to use a score-card system to rank the health of their streams. This system allows for very different streams to be compared to each other and ranked according to their ecological health.