Water Runs Down Hill

This map shows the percentage of forest/wetland cover in the communities that are part of the Chautauqua Lake watershed.

I live on top of a hill, and the other night I went out for a run just down around the block and back. When I made the turn to head home, I found myself thinking about all the different ways I could get back and how all of them ended with a slog uphill. This is because I live near the lake. As I trudged along up the hill I had a random thought – “Is water smarter than me? I think it must be, because it never runs up hill.”

This may seem like a silly story (because it is), but it’s a true story and it bears an important point to remember. Water moves downhill. And for so many of us there is an important body of water that sits at the bottom of that hill, and that’s Chautauqua Lake. Whether you know it by this term or not, this concept – water running downhill until it reaches a body of water at the bottom – is a watershed. We all live in a watershed, no matter where you live on the planet. And if you care about whatever body of water you have at the bottom, then what we do in the watershed matters because water runs downhill.

Obviously this isn’t a terribly complicated phenomenon, but it is one that’s easy to forget because it takes place over such a large area. Besides being easy to forget, it also often gets ignored because protecting the watershed is what we would all think of as “preventative care.” It’s not a quick fix where you are going to see results overnight. Think about a fitness routine. You have to be committed over the long-term to see an impact, and if at any point you stop the benefits will go away. Protecting the watershed works the same way.

When the watershed is covered by trees, wetlands, and other native plants the water moving down it gets slowed down and has a chance to absorb. This recharges our groundwater, which feeds our streams, and eventually makes its way to the lake. When the watershed is covered by pavement, roofs, or believe it or not even mowed grass the water keeps right on moving over the surface and goes directly into our streams or the Lake without ever getting cleaned. How plants and the sand and soil that hold them naturally filter and clean water could be an entire separate article, but we’ll save that for another day. The point is that development directly effects water quality.

This isn’t new information. The impacts of watershed development (building things) on water quality have been studied for over two decades. Time and time again the results show that when we build and develop land our water quality suffers. So what right? We have to build to survive and grow. I really liked the way Booth, Hartley, and Jackson put it in their article in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association: “Almost every increment of cleared land, and of constructed pavement, is likely to result in some degree of resource degradation of loss. The decision of how much is ‘acceptable’ is thus as much a social decision as a hydrologic one.”

Person jogging on a side road by Lake Chautauqua. Submitted photo

So, the “what” is up to us. We all have to decide how much we care about our water ways and the ability to drink from them, play in them, boat on them, and enjoy the beauty they bring into our lives. Or if you personally aren’t drawn to the water, then at least to think about how its health impacts our local economy. The same wise researchers I quoted above gave us a goal – 70%. When the amount of area in a watershed that is forested or covered in wetlands drops below 70% you start to see a significant impact on water quality.

The good news is we are really close. For the Chautauqua Lake watershed the average forest/wetland cover is approximately 64.9%. If we work together to find the best places to protect or reforest and are really strategic about where and how we develop, we can still get back to that magic number of 70%. The question is whether we will come together and make a social decision that our water is important to us or not. I hope you’ll join me in a resounding yes. …now let’s work together to get there.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a not-for-profit organization with the mission to preserve and enhance the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, visit chautauquawatershed.org and follow us on Facebook and Instagram.


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