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The Importance of Watershed Protection   arrow

What is a watershed?

A very basic definition states that a watershed is an area of land that drains into an underground water supply; local stream, lake, small holding pond, or wetlands. Everything you do on your property can have an impact on the people, land, and water that make up your local watershed. As rain falls, snow melts, or irrigation runs down the hill into the soil, they carry sediment, nutrients, or other materials.

Why should you care about your watershed?

We all live in a watershed and everything we do on our property can have a negative impact.

The land drains into tributaries and these streams or creeks flow into bigger rivers. As this water flows downhill it moves over the soil. Along the way, the water picks up many different particles of debris (leaves or soil particles), sediments that can have negative impacts on the water quality. Water can pick up as it flows: motor oil, fertilizers, pesticides and eroded soil. Driving a car that’s leaking oil or antifreeze, fertilizing your pasture or lawn, or not picking up after your pet can pollute the watershed you live in. Remember that each of you can make a positive or negative difference on your watershed.

How Healthy is Your Stream?

There are thousands of small acreage farms that cover thousands of acres in Colorado. Singly, one farm may cause little pollution. But added together, small acreage can significantly impact a watershed. A stream reflects your management of the land and water. Proper upland and in-stream measures can result in clean water for fish, drinking, and swimming. You can check the health of your stream by using your eyes and legs.

  • Water color — Clear water is often found during low flows. Muddy color occurs during high flows and when upstream activities send sediment downstream. Tea-colored water often comes from the brown tannin of decaying leaves. Colored sheen may indicate an oil spill.
  • Foam Froth on a stream can be natural or human -caused. Natural foam has an earthy or fishy smell. Soap or detergent foam will have a perfume smell.
  • Stream sediment If gravel and cobbles are present, less than 25 percent of the gravel, cobble, and boulder spaces should be filled with sediment. A marginal to poor condition exists if more than 50 percent of the spaces are filled.
  • Algae color — Algae thrives on nutrients from commercial fertilizers, leaf waste, and manure. Light or dark green algae scattered in spots indicates a healthy stream. Matted or hairy algae mean poor stream quality. Brown algae points to sediment deposits.

An algae bloom indicates excess nutrients.

  • Stream bank erosion — Bare spots on steam- banks may indicate an unhealthy stream. Wooded stream banks seldom erode, even in high floods. Steep banks, frequent tree fall, and more than 10 percent bank erosion along a stretch of stream may indicate erosion problems.
  • Riffles — Riffles occur when water runs over rocky or rough streambeds. A mix of riffles and quiet pools provide good fish habitat. The ideal habitat for many aquatic animals is a streambed with cobbles of 2 to 10 inches in diameter.
  • Fish shelter — Submerged logs and dead trees provide good fish habitat.
  • Stream shade Trees overhanging more than 50 percent of the stream bank provide good fish habitat. Less than 50 percent indicates fair to poor habitat.
  • Stream temperature — If you have a thermometer handy, measuring a temperature less than 50 degrees is good, 50 – 64 degrees is fair, and more than 64 degrees is poor. Warm water threatens salmon, trout, and steelhead. Temperature is an important water standard in Colorado.
Source by: Save Our Streams, Izaak Walton League; Rangeland Watershed Management Program Stream Watercoure Site Evaluation, Oregon State University; Vermont Stream Bank Conservation Manual, Agency of Environmental Conservation.

Pollutants at Large in your Watershed

Point source pollution is pollution that comes from one source, such as a factory pipe outlet. Non-point source pollution is pollution that comes from many different sources, such as over fertilized lawns, trampled stream banks, or eroding pastures. Test your non-point knowledge.

The following table source is Adapted from guidance Specifying Measures for Sources of Non-point Pollution in Coastal Water, US Environmental protection Agency.

Non-point Source
  • Septic tanks poorly sited or maintained.
  • Livestock and pet waste.
  • Bacteria contaminate drinking water and swimming areas.
  • People eating contaminated fish, shellfish can contact hepatitis, stomach and intestinal problems, etc.
Low Dissolved
  • Straightened streams.
  • Dikes and dams.
  • Upland practices, e.g., stream shade removed, poor grazing practices, drained wetlands.
  • Plant litter, e.g., leaves and lawn trimmings dumped into ditches.
  • Irrigation leaching.
  • High temperature reduces oxygen.
  • Plant decay process uses up oxygen.
  • Low oxygen and high salinity stunt reproduction, increase diseases, and kill fish.
  • Crop fertilizers, livestock manure.
    • Landscape, lawn, & garden fertilizers.
    • Pet excrement.
    • Septic tanks poorly sited or maintained.
  • Nutrients cause algae blooms that die and lower oxygen levels.
  • Noxious alga blooms & discolored water limit recreation.
  • Nitrates in ground water kill livestock and sicken infants.
  • Erosion from poor grazing practices, tilling ground, logging roads.
  • Sheet, rill, & gully erosion
  • Dredging, stream bank erosion.
  • Bed scour from straightened streams.
· Construction, land clearing
· Natural erosion.
  • Sediment fills wetlands, destroys habitat, & smothers feeding & spawning areas.
  • Sediment carries nutrients.
  • Ports are dredged more often
  • Cities have increased costs to filter drinking water.
  • Motor fuel, exhaust
  • Consumer products
  • Construction materials
  • Naturally present in soil
  • Heavy metals disrupt fish /shellfish reproduction & can be passed up the food chain.
  • People eating contaminated fish/shellfish can develop brain damage & fetal defects
Car Pollutants
  • Fuel, antifreeze, grease, brake-lining particles, & exhaust from cars
  • Runoff from roads, parking lots, and driveways
  • Petroleum products accumulate in sediment, resist breakdown, & are toxic to fish in low amounts
  • Potential carcinogen in people.
  • Batteries, pesticides, household cleaners, and paints
  • Poor storage handling and disposal of hazardous chemicals
  • Pesticides kill aquatic insects and reduce fish food supply
  • Some pesticides cause bone defects & reproductive problems in fish
  • Unknown effects in people

What You Can Do

We are powerful because every action matters in a watershed. Consider developing a conservation plan and using conservation measures to protect, care for, and enhance your property values and watershed health. To get started, follow the guidance in this booklet, which describes conservation tips for small acreage landowners. One of the most important steps you can take to protect your watershed is to protect your land from erosion.

Erosion Management Guidelines

Every cubic inch of topsoil may contain over a billion creatures – mostly bacteria, microbes, and fungi. This tiny ecosystem recycles dead plant matter back into nutrients that support plant growth. When the upper 8 inches of soil stays put, this living layer produces:

  • Nutrients
  • High plant yields
  • Clean waterways and fish habitat

Some soil erosion is natural, but accelerated erosion is not. A canopy of trees and shrubs, a thick leaf layer, or dense stand of grass protects soils in its natural state when raindrops fall or winds blow. We speed up erosion by removing this protective blanket when we use poor management during tillage, grazing, timber harvest, or construction. Wind and water erosion create sterile soils, fill the air with dust, plug road ditches, carry pollutants, and clog fish habitat. It pays economically and environmentally to keep soil in place.

Keeping Soil on Your Land

Here’s how conservation measures reduce erosion:

  • Create a protective cover. Plant cover, more than anything else, keeps soil erosion in check.
  • Erect barriers to wind and water. Barriers slow wind and water and trap eroded soils.
  • Reduce slope length and steepness.

One conservation practice does not fit every erosion problem. Your soils, climate, topography, and land use will require a unique set of measures. Here’s a sampling of conservation measures that can be used whether you have a large garden or a field crop. They are often more effective in combination than alone:

  • Buffers of trees, shrubs, and/or grass slow water speed, filter pollutants, and trap sediment.
  • Conservation tillage reduces the amount of tillage and leaves at least 30 percent cover from crop residue after harvest.
  • Contour farming runs rows “on the level” around the hill rather than up and down the slope
  • Crop rotation changes crop each year in a certain order
  • Erosion control structure
  • Grassed waterway
  • Special planting in critical areas
  • Terraces are long, low dikes of earth that follow the contour of the hill.
  • Wind barriers are strips of grass, shrubs, or trees that slow wind. Grass barriers are one to two rows of tall grass planted perpendicular to the wind to protect crops, provide wildlife food and cover, and trap snow.