Eagle River Watershed Council: What is a Watershed?
You have probably heard or read the term “watershed” before, we all live in one — no matter where in the world we live. But, do you know what a watershed really is?
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a watershed is a land area that channels rainfall and snowmelt to creeks, streams and rivers, and eventually to outflow points such as reservoirs, bays and the ocean.
Knowing what a watershed is helps people understand what their impact is on their watershed as well as the ones downstream. In the United States, there are over 20,000 watersheds. Each of these watersheds leads into one of the 18 major river basins in America. A river basin can either end up in lakes or reservoirs, like the Great Lakes, or end up in an ocean, like the Gulf of Mexico. There can be hundreds of different, smaller Watersheds within a river basin. Some major river basin examples are the upper and lower Colorado River basins, the Pacific Northwest Basin and the upper and lower Mississippi basins.
River basins can be massive. The Mississippi River Basin covers over 1.2 million square miles of land. Think of a river basin as a massive watershed. Instead of the tributaries being streams or small rivers, the tributaries are large rivers that put thousands of cubic feet per second of water into an even larger river. Just like how the Green River is a massive river but is technically a tributary of the Colorado River. Knowing that your watershed is an important part of a larger basin is extremely important. You have a direct impact on the health of the larger basin.
Here in Eagle County, we find ourselves within the Eagle River Watershed, a relatively small watershed of 970 square miles. The Eagle River Watershed is part of the Upper Colorado River Basin, which is a much larger land area that includes hundreds of other watersheds like the Green River Watershed, the Duchesne River Watershed and the Little Colorado Headwaters.
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The Eagle River Watershed explained
We are so lucky here in Eagle County to have a beautiful watershed that includes hundreds of tributaries, eight reservoirs, and around 120 natural lakes. Our mainstem, the Eagle River, travels 77 miles from its headwaters, up by Tennessee Pass, all the way to the confluence with the Colorado River in Dotsero. From there, the mighty Colorado River flows thousands of miles through six states and Mexico before it dries into a trickle, and then disappears, just before the Sea of Cortez. This is also known as the Colorado River Basin.
Our watershed has a lot to offer, from drinking water to supporting our local economy. There are also a lot of threats to our watershed like high river temperatures in the summer, extended drought and pollution. Luckily we have a lot of community members working to protect our watershed. If you are interested in exploring the health of our watershed you can visit ERWC.org/monitor to review the Eagle River Watershed Water Quality Report Card.
Exploring our watershed
Though some people explore the watershed through long hikes in local wilderness areas, exhilarating whitewater rafting trips and strenuous bike rides on remote dirt roads, there are more accessible ways to experience this watershed. Often, the best exploring can be done close to home or even on a short drive with your family to a new location. Below, are a couple of ideas on how to explore our watershed!
If you have not paid the Homestake Valley a visit, this summer is a great time to see it. This valley is located south of Red Cliff and is filled with amazing hikes, streams and unique ecosystems. The Homestake Valley is special not only because it is part of White River National Forest or because of its many peaks surrounding the area. It also has an antique ecosystem there called fens. Fens are thousands of year-old wetlands and once they are gone, it is nearly impossible to get them back. Within this valley, you will also find hundreds of different species ranging from bears to ground bees. It is truly a special place with endless activities.
Perhaps one of the most well-known bodies of water in the valley is Gore Creek. Recognized as a gold-medal trout stream by Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Gore Creek flows through Vail into the Eagle River in Dowd Junction. The source of this waterway is in the Gore Range, also known as the Nuchu Range, at almost 12,000 feet in elevation. From there, it collects snow melt as it makes its way to Vail.
An accessible way to explore the Gore is the Gore Creek Path, which runs much of the length of the waterway. Along the way, there are signs to learn more about Gore Creek and why it is important to protect this beautiful tributary. Whether on wheels or on feet, it is a beautiful place to connect with our watershed.
Whether you are new to the Eagle River Watershed or a longtime local, it is important to connect to our rivers. They provide so much to us here, from river recreation to drinking water supply, as well as to everyone downstream of us.
Connecting with our watershed can be more accessible than you think. It is also ever important as threats to our watershed continue to happen. Without water, this beautiful place would not be able to survive. If you are interested in finding more ways to connect, visit our events page at ERWC.org/events. We host events from a community science day in the Homestake Valley to water efficiency workshops. There is something for everyone!
Rose Sandell is the education and outreach coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit erwc.org.