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Watershed Organizations

Minimum Measure: Public Involvement/Participation

Subcategory: Soliciting Public Opinion

Photo of residents and stakeholders atend a meeting of Russian River Watershed Council in N. California


A watershed organization incorporates the ideas and resources of many different groups into a single organization. The groups can consist of local governments, citizens, nonprofit environmental groups, and local universities, among others. The purpose of a watershed organization is to restore, protect, and promote the natural resources of the watershed. To accomplish this, a watershed organization might set goals for and subsequently implement public education and stormwater management programs, stream clean-up events, or restoration activities.

Watersheds usually encompass multiple jurisditions and involve multiple government participants. It is essential for all municipalities that fall within the watershed boundaries to participate in watershed organizations. If a watershed organization is still in the conceptual stage, it will behoove the municipality to help structure it in a way that will serve all interests in the watershed. A municipality cannot--and should not--control a watershed organization, but it can support it, nurture it, and help it achieve its goals.


A watershed organization can exist for any watershed, large or small, but organizations for larger watersheds are more common. In all cases where a watershed organization exists, it is crucial for municipalities to be involved in the decision making process to ensure that the municipality's goals are achieved. In places where no watershed organization exists, municipalities can create one by working with other stakeholders and interested parties.


The creation of a watershed organization results from the cooperation and sharing of ideas among several stakeholder groups, including the municipality. However, a watershed organization must have an organized structure. A constitution and bylaws should be developed, membership and representation defined, and goals and objectives stated.

Guidance is available to help municipalities and other interested parties start watershed organizations. Purdue University's Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC, no date) developed guidance for watershed organizations, which they term "watershed partnerships," through their Know Your Watershed program Exit EPA Site.

The watershed organization might sponsor volunteer activities and annual events that involve the general public, school groups, and others in enjoyable, hands-on activities in their watershed. Activities that promote the watershed's quality help citizens learn and appreciate the value of conservation, pollution prevention, and cleanup. Watershed organizations typically sponsor projects such as:

  • Field trips and tours,
  • Meetings and workshops,
  • Canoe trips,
  • Volunteer monitoring,
  • Cleanup and restoration days,
  • Educational programs for schools, civic groups, and other local organizations,
  • Media relations,
  • Opinion surveys, and
  • Focus groups (CTIC, no date).

Different members of the watershed organization have different roles. CTIC (no date) recommends that local elected officials:

  • Provide political leadership and credibility,
  • Make land use and resource management decisions, and
  • Provide financial support for projects.

They also recommend that local government agencies

  • Provide financial and technical support,
  • Develop policies and make decisions that affect the watershed,
  • Provide logistical support and equipment, and
  • Collect and analyze data.


Watershed groups improve water quality when they are well organized, active, and have committed members. For example, since 1996, CF Industries has honored several voluntary, nongovernmental partnerships for their outstanding efforts to protect water quality (Terrene Institute, no date; 1996; 1997; 1998; 1999). The following organizations have received the award:


  • Potomac Watershed Partnership's Growing Native Program
  • Kansas State University's Kansas Environmental Leadership Program (KELP)
  • Lower Columia River Estuary Partnership
  • General Motors GREEN Program


  • Adobe Creek Restoration Project
  • The Indian Core4 Conservation Project
  • The Lititz Run Watershed Alliance
  • Arkansas' R.I.C.E.

These programs were selected because they developed innovative, nonregulatory approaches to water quality improvement. More information about these organizations and the National Watershed Award Exit EPA Site.


Watershed organizations can promote a sense of ownership of water resources and improve local awareness of stormwater issues. Cleanup and restoration events can benefit wildlife habitat and water quality as well. By forming an organization, each stakeholder gets a voice in the decision making process, which ensures that the final plan represents the consensus of all parties. According to CTIC, watershed organizations also

  • Make more efficient use of financial resources,
  • Create a spirit of sharing and cooperation,
  • Ensure fairness, which minimizes the potential for negative social and economic impacts, and
  • Result in more creative and acceptable ways to protect natural resources.


It takes time and skill to establish partnerships and create an effective watershed organization. Municipalities can not accomplish this on their own--they must rely on other stakeholders to provide input and resources to manage the watershed effectively and with fairness. Motivation and enthusiasm are key to keeping stakeholder participation high. Funding for programs and activities is another limitation for watershed organizations. Organization members should work together to raise money and apply for grants to support these activities.


Costs for watershed organizations vary with the scope of activities planned for the watershed. Many state and local governments offer grants to watershed organizations. For example, as part of its pollution control efforts, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation supports, trains, and enhances networking among watershed coordinators by offering information exchange and grants to local projects. Virginia also permits the formation of watershed improvement districts with taxing powers. The Lake Barcroft Watershed Improvement District in Falls Church, Virginia, is an excellent example of a successful watershed organization that gets its funding from tax revenues.

Federal grants are available through USDA and EPA to fund certain types of watershed activities. More information about these and other federal grant programs can be found at USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service Exit EPA Site website and at EPA's Nonpoint Source Control Branch website.

Additionally, watershed groups can hold fund-raising events, sell T-shirts with their logo and slogan, or hold raffles. The money generated by these activities can pay for activities, field equipment, and other necessities.


CF Industries, Inc. 2004. National Watershed Award: Partnerships for Water Quality. [ Exit EPA Site]. Accessed September 14, 2005.

CTIC. No date. Building Local Partnerships : A Guide for Watershed Partnerships. [ (PDF) Exit EPA Site]. Accessed September 14, 2005.

Lake Barcroft Watershed Improvement District. 1998. Watershed and Lake BMP's. Lake Barcroft Watershed Improvement District, Falls Church, VA.

Terrene Institute. 1996. National Watershed Award winners named. Runoff Report 4(5):1, 4.

Terrene Institute. 1997. Winners set pace for watershed protection nationwide. Runoff Report 5(5):1,6.

Terrene Institute. 1998. National winners in the prevention game. Runoff Report 6(5):1,6.

Terrene Institute. 1999. CF Industries National Watershed Awards. Runoff Report 7(4):1,6.


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Last updated on February 19, 2014