Water Resources Management

Watershed Plans Overview

Protecting and Restoring Water Resources

The watershed planning approach recognizes the need to address not only the individual water resources within any given watershed, but all the land which drains to these waterbodies. This approach is comprehensive, action oriented, and emphasizes broad environmental goals and objectives that cover all aspects of water quality. Watershed protection and restoration each are necessary to reverse the pollution that continues to degrade the State's waters and to preserve high quality waters. The following are some of the approaches you will want to consider to protect and restore water quality in your community:

  • control the location and design of development to avoid water quality impairments
  • adopt an overlay district to regulate the most immediate contributing areas surrounding waterbodies, including measures to control runoff, improve septic system operation, provide vegetative buffers, and to reduce use of fertilizers and pesticides especially in sensitive areas
  • implement best management practices, such as the following:
    • create wetlands for stormwater control
    • establish vegetative treatment systems including buffers and grassy swales
    • develop a highway stormwater abatement program
    • minimize the disturbance of natural vegetation and land contours during construction work
    • protect open space parcels that currently provide water quality benefits
    • improve or restoring open space parcels to provide water quality benefits
    • require pumpouts at marinas
    • request state designation of waterbodies as no-discharge zones
    • improve wastewater treatment facilities
    • develop standards for septic systems, including routine inspections
    • eliminate or reduce combined sewer outfalls
    • establish training practices on appropriate road maintenance practices
    • provide public education and outreach programs for specific groups such as property owners or farmers
    • develop tools such as pollution-potential models and GIS-based models to help in determining priorities for water quality improvements
    • establish a water quality monitoring program
    • implement changes in institutional arrangements to coordinate implementation of water quality improvement projects
    • revise local land and water use controls to protect and restore water quality
    • implement specific actions to achieve compliance with Phase II Stormwater Permits

Involving key stakeholders and partners

Watershed planning can only be successful when those that live and work in the watershed realize that they are a crucial part of their watershed. It happens when they recognize that their actions impact the health of the watershed. It happens when they are determined to protect and restore their watershed for the benefit of the entire community and future generations.   Community participation can take many forms but it is generally designed to:

  • foster an appreciation of your watershed
  • introduce local leaders and community residents to the watershed planning process
  • generate a community consensus about the vision for the future of the watershed
  • develop a strategy to address the most critical watershed issues

Success in watershed planning requires partnerships with the right blend of stakeholders.  These will come from the private sector, all levels of government, and from the community to form a partnership with the common goal of achieving your shared vision. Important potential partners include:

  • local and county government – elected officials, local boards, and staff
  • adjacent municipalities
  • regional planning or resource conservation organizations
  • state and federal government partners
  • academic institutions - colleges and universities, local schools
  • representatives of businesses and industries in the surrounding area
  • property owners in the surrounding area
  • residents in the surrounding area
  • community and neighborhood groups
  • nonprofit organizations with a stake in the community and the watershed

Assessing Water Quality in Your Community

The focus of a watershed plan is on protecting and restoring water quality. Water provides each and every living organism the opportunity to grow, take up nutrients and, put simply, survive. Water also shapes our physical world. Most people recognize the importance of water, but so often its availability and quality are taken for granted. We continue to pollute our groundwater, wetlands, rivers, lakes, and oceans to a point where once reliable sources of drinking water can no longer be used without expensive treatment, our ability to use water for recreational purposes has been impaired, and habitats can no longer support wildlife. To combat pollution we must understand the nature of the problem and select and implement practices that reduce our impacts on our water resources.  

In assessing water quality in your community, you should take a look at:

  • the watersheds associated with your waterfront, including topography, hydrography, soils, precipitation, drainage patterns, land cover, land use, development trends, and habitats
  • the current water quality, quantity, and related infrastructure such as outfalls and other conveyances
  • the sources and location of pollution in the various subwatersheds, the various types of pollutants, and  pollutant loadings
  • uses and activities impaired by pollution and the causes of these impairments
  • local nonpoint source pollution management programs and practices
  • existing institutional arrangements of local, state and federal agencies, and roles of regional planning boards and non-governmental groups in protecting water quality
  • existing land and water use laws, including zoning, site plan review, harbor management, erosion and sediment control and wetlands and watercourse laws to see if they deal with water quality issues and uncover the gaps in the existing point and nonpoint source controls
  • current routine roadway, drainage-way, and stream maintenance practices that could impair water quality
  • key resources warranting special protection or restoration

It is useful to map these features and to document pollution sources and impairments through photographs.
An initial indication of water quality can be found by consulting the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) water quality classifications. The NYS DEC also publishes a series of reports, the "Waterbody Inventory and Priority Waterbodies List", that identify the waters of the State that either cannot be fully used as a resource, or are degraded by pollutants. These reports indicate the impairments in each listed waterbody and the causes of these impairments.
The main types of uses and activities that you should examine for their effects on water quality include the following:

  • Roads contain and attract contaminants and convey these contaminants into waterbodies. The NYS Department of Transportation follows the techniques and procedures in its Environmental Procedures Manual in environmental matters relating to the planning, design, construction and maintenance of transportation facilities. These approaches may help you manage local roads.
  • Agriculture is an important activity in most watersheds of the State. It is also a source of water pollution from pesticides, fertilizers, sediment, and animal waste. To address these myriad potential sources of pollution, the Agricultural Environmental Management (AEM) Program provides a mechanism to help assess farming operations, identify potential environmental problems and assess options to reduce pollution.
  • Marinas and Boating - Because they are located at the water's edge, pollution generated from marina activities, such as refueling and hull maintenance, can directly pollute waterways. Similarly, direct discharges from boats can pollute waterways.
  • Development - Both existing and new development can be major sources of water quality problems. Examples include the expansion of impervious surfaces resulting in the erosion and sedimentation of streams and loss of base flow to wetlands and waterbodies, and contamination of ground and surface water from over-fertilization of lawns and failing septic systems.

The U.S. EPA provides more details on these and other pollution causes and offers guidance for specifying management measures to address these causes.

Watershed Plan Components

Your watershed plan should be well organized and easy to navigate. It should include prioritized recommendations such as capital improvements to correct existing impairments and the revision of local controls to prevent future impacts to water quality. Recommendations should be keyed to a watershed map showing specifi c project locations. Photographs can often improve the visual presentation of a watershed plan by providing the reader with specifi c examples of problem areas and threats and potential areas for protection and restoration. Watershed plans generally include six main sections:

  • Executive Summary:  The executive summary presents the key points of the watershed plan. Here, you provide a brief overview of the purpose of the watershed plan and who was involved in the planning process. 
  • Introduction: The introduction should describe the watershed plan and allow the reader to get a basic understanding of the planning process. An overview of the watershed - where it is located, general facts about the watershed and the communities that lie within its boundaries, and general demographics of the watershed - will give the reader an understanding of the watershed and why watershed planning is important
  • Characterization:  The Characterization will  provide an inventory and analysis that describes the current state of the watershed. This section delineates the watershed and subwatershed boundaries and describes its waterbodies. It will describe the physical and biological characteristics of the watershed, including how the watershed functions, explain existing land use and land cover patterns, and identify trends within the watershed. 
  • Watershed Management Recommendations: This section will explain how water quality will be protected and restored within your watershed through a series of projects and actions developed to correct existing impairments and prevent future impacts to water quality.
  • Implementation Strategy: This section will set the stage for implementation by identifying the actions needed to address the problems and opportunities in your watershed. It will set out an implementation schedule, lay out priorities, establish realistic expectations for partner involvement, and outline budget needs.
  • Monitoring and Tracking:  This section will outline a proposed long-term monitoring plan, describe indicators and performance criteria for monitoring restoration projects, establish milestones and tracking mechanisms to evaluate progress over time, and propose mechanisms for reporting progress and updating the watershed plan.