Students are introduced to scientific models that help them to conceptualize watersheds and their importance for managing nonpoint sources of pollution. Students answer these essential questions: What is a watershed? What is the relationship of the water cycle to watersheds? How does my watershed connect to the Grand River and Lake Michigan? What is nonpoint source pollution? How can actions upstream affect water quality downstream?
We all live in a watershed. But what is a watershed? A watershed is an area of land, defined by hills and ridges, which drains to a common body of water. It is defined by topography, hydrology, and climate. An analogy is a household shower where water runs over the shower floor into a drain.
Like pieces of a puzzle, watersheds can be subdivided into smaller units known as "sub-watersheds," which collectively flow together to form larger sub-basins and "river or lake basins".
Most of Kent County is in the Lower Grand River Watershed (LGRW). Many creeks (Plaster, Mill, Bear, Buck), streams, and small rivers (Rogue, Thornapple, Flat) flow into the Lower Grand River. This watershed drains into Lake Michigan, as do all of the watersheds in west Michigan. The watershed to our north is the Muskegon River watershed and the Kalamazoo River watershed is to the south. Watersheds in four states (Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana) are part of the Lake Michigan basin. The Great Lakes basin is the drainage area for all of the Great Lakes and this connects to the Atlantic Ocean.
Even though you may not live directly on the Lower Grand River or Lake Michigan, what you do where you live can impact the health of the watershed. Pollution refers to the contamination of water, land, or the air by substances that can adversely impact the environment and human health. Types of pollution include organic, inorganic, biological, and temperature (too high). In the past, many of the water quality problems were associated with an obvious cause – point source pollution from a specific location such as a discharge pipe or disposal site. Environmental regulations and cleanup efforts have helped to control point source pollution. However, water quality problems from nonpoint source pollution remain a challenge.
Nonpoint source (NPS) pollution is pollution caused when rain, snowmelt, or wind carry pollutants off the land and into lakes, streams, wetlands, and other water bodies. As the runoff moves, it picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants, finally depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters, and groundwater. The top three nonpoint sources of pollution in the LGRW include sediment, nutrients, and pathogens. Temperature and chemical pollution are of concern as well.
According to the MDEQ, if we manage activities on the land that drains to bodies of water, we will protect and improve the water resources of the state. Almost every activity on the land has the potential to affect the quality of water in a community. The Lower Grand River Watershed Management Plan (WMP) presents an action-oriented approach to effectively manage and restore the designated uses of the watershed. It serves as an excellent resource for understanding the Lower Grand River Watershed and nonpoint source pollution sources. Watershed planning brings together the people within the watershed to address those activities, regardless of existing political boundaries. By working together, individuals within the watershed can design a coordinated watershed management plan that builds upon the strengths of existing programs and resources, and addresses the water quality concerns in an integrated, cost effective manner.
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The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Nonpoint Source Program assists numerous non-profit entities and other local, state, and federal partners to reduce nonpoint source pollution (NPS) statewide. NPS pollution comes from all over the watershed – anywhere rain falls. There is no specific source like a pipe or smoke stack. As such, the basis for this program is watershed management.
The Lower Grand River Watershed Management Plan (LGRWMP) is a document developed to provide a description of the watershed, identification of impairments, and goals and objectives for management and improvement of the watershed. The WMP’s Information and Education (I&E) Strategy calls for educating stakeholders about the watershed and the impacts that stakeholders have on the watershed. The strategy has three steps: (1) awareness, (2) education, and (3) action.
With funding from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) Nonpoint Source Program, four lessons that draw upon information from the Lower Grand River Watershed Management Plan (WMP) have been developed for teachers. The purpose of these lessons is to further the I&E objectives that reach students as outlined in the WMP.
The three main nonpoint source pollutants of concern in the Lower Grand River Watershed Management Plan include sediment, pathogens, and nutrients. The lesson titles, which reflect this, are:
Using watersheds as an organizer for earth science, chemistry, and biology concepts can serve to integrate instruction. Incorporation of the water cycle into the study of watersheds is important to do. According to Shepardson (2007), the following concepts need to be developed in order to enhance students’ conceptualization of watersheds:
• When rain falls on the land, or snow melts, some of the water soaks in to the ground, some of it evaporates back in to the atmosphere, and some of it flows over the land in a down slope direction, often toward streams, rivers, lakes, or wetlands. A watershed is the land area that provides runoff that feeds particular rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, or wetlands; that is, a watershed has a structure (i.e., flowing and still water).
• Water, nutrients, and the sun serve as energy resources within the watershed. For example, the sun’s energy warms the water within a stream or pond and drives the hydrologic cycle.
• Every place on land is a part of a watershed, including the places where we live, work, play, and go to school.
• Smaller streams flow into larger rivers forming a river system, a network of tributaries that flow into a major river, which drains water from the land within the watershed.
• Watershed boundaries are defined based on topography. Topographic divides determine the direction water flows and any and every point on a stream, river, or body of water has a watershed associated with it.
• The earth’s surface consists of numerous nested and joining watersheds that drain into lakes or oceans. These sub-watersheds may be further divided into smaller watersheds.
• Sediments, nutrients, and other substances and contaminants on land are transported into the stream through runoff and temporarily stored before being transported through the watershed by the river system and into joining watersheds. The contaminants transported off the land area and through the river system are often referred to as nonpoint source pollution: fertilizer and pesticide runoff, for example.
• Sediments, nutrients, and other substances are transformed and cycled within a watershed (e.g., nitrogen and carbon cycles).
• Pollutants may be organic, inorganic, toxic, thermal, or biological. Zebra mussels are a biologic pollutant—an invasive species.
• Watersheds consist of physical and biological components that influence the quality of the watershed and make each watershed unique. For example, a watershed in the Arizona desert is physically and biologically different than a watershed in Michigan.
• Watersheds are constantly changing as a result of natural and anthropocentric processes such as land use, which often interact. These changes may impact the structure, function, and components of a watershed.
Shepardson, D.P. et al. (2007). What is a watershed? Implications of student conceptions for environmental science education and the National Science Education Standards. Science Education, 91(4), 554-578.