The Challenge: Watershed Assessment
The watershed, a hydrologically-bounded ecosystem, is a logical unit for environmental management. A watershed management approach helps environmental managers focus on the highest priority problems affecting ground water and surface waters as well as issues of ecosystem health and community well-being. Watershed approaches are organized around the guiding principles of partnerships, geographic focus, and well-organized management, ideally based on sound science and data.
Incorporating science consistently in watershed management decisions, however, is challenging. Tradeoffs among environmental, political, economic and social factors based on subjective value judgments may occur as part of the decision process. It is often difficult to reconcile the desire to take scientifically supportable actions with the complexity of how local watershed decisions are often reached. As a result, scientific information is often underutilized when it is not clear how to incorporate it with other considerations.
The science underlying watershed assessment is also complex and difficult, which further complicates science-based decision making in watersheds. Multiple, interrelated sources of watershed problems result in numerous adverse effects. Information gaps are common.
Assessment is one of the most critically important parts of watershed management because it attempts to transform scientific data into policy-relevant information that can support decision-making and action. Many other definitions and methods of environmental assessment are in use, but none has been widely adopted for incorporating science into watershed management. Ecological risk assessment may be particularly useful in watersheds as a scientific method that includes steps for integration with planning, priority-setting, and decision-making.