Get To Know Your Watershed

The first step in understanding watersheds is to explore your own local watershed. Everyone lives within one.

Walnut Creek Watershed Map, provided by the Walnut Creek Watershed Council


This adapted activity, taken from the Watershed Explorer Curriculum, is a good way to introduce students to the importance of watersheds, and can be followed up with the Watershed In Your Hand activity to increase engagement.

Scroll to the bottom of this page to see a video demonstration of this activity!

What is a Watershed?

You might have noticed that we at River of Words talk a lot about watersheds - getting to know them, observing them, and conserving them. But what exactly is a watershed? A watershed is land that drains into the same body of water. Not only are all the landscape features, like hills, ridges, mountains, and plains, part of a watershed, but every living thing in a watershed is an important part of it, too!

Well, now that we know what a watershed is, why are they so important? No matter where you are in the world, the water in the area - whether it’s a creek, a river, or rain - has to drain somewhere. This means whether you live in the middle of a city or way out in a rural town, you’re also part of a watershed. And watersheds connect to each other; this means they all depend on each other to maintain the health of the overall ecosystem. Even a small problem in one watershed may drastically affect how other watersheds downstream function. 

Okay, so what do we do to protect watersheds? Good question! First and foremost, it’s important to get to know the environment you live in so you can help preserve it.

Today we’re going to be getting to know the watershed your school is in. Because River of Words is located in St. Mary’s College of California, that’s the watershed we’re going to be looking at, but you can follow these steps to learn about your own.

Activity Instructions

For this activity, you will need a topographic map of your local area. For example, if we at River of Words were to do this activity, we would print out a section of Google Maps. Topographic maps show features like hills, valleys, and so on, which can be extremely helpful for this activity. You can find these online or at your local library.

  1. Trace the high points that separate our nearest creek or river from the next. I’m doing this in red, but you can use any color you like as long as you remember what it means.

  2. Map out how the land in your area is being used. You'll notice that Google Maps uses green to indicate all sorts of land not used for commercial, residential, or industrial purposes. For example, parks, forests, and nature preserves are all indicated in green. What does it mean if an area on Google Maps is mostly or completely gray?
  3. Remember how we mentioned rain earlier? Now, list as many places as you can think of as to where rain goes in your watershed. For example, in St. Mary’s, the rain goes into storm drains, which drains into creeks, and those creeks drain into rivers that go out into the ocean. (If you don’t know what rivers might be in your area, now is a great time to check out that topographic map, or seek out a regular map if you prefer.)
  4. Think about the rain that falls onto the roof of your school building. Where does that rain go? Can any of it get to a river or stream? If so, how? If you can, pause this video, go outside, and look around your school building! You may notice land features that you’ve never noticed before.
  5. Think about the ecosystem. Are you ever anywhere that isn’t in a watershed? The answer, of course, is no: anywhere you encounter water, whether through the rain, a river, or underground wellspring, you're in a watershed.
  6. What’s going on with your watershed right now? Are there any recent articles about it online or in the newspaper? Do you have any issues with pollution or watershed mismanagement?

Congratulations - you're beginning to get to know your own watershed!