Southern Regional Water Program

Research, Extension & Education Water Quality Programs through the Land Grant University System

Watershed Management in Alabama

The word watershed is commonly used to refer to a hydrologic unit of any size, and is synonymous with drainage basin (See definitions of hydrologic unit, drainage basin and watershed in the glossary.) A watershed may range from a few square miles in the case of a small stream to thousands of square miles in the case of the Mississippi River. The continental U.S. is subdivided into many watersheds or hydrologic units, which correspond to river drainage basins and aggregates of basins.

Hydrologic regions (2 in Alabama) are the largest watershed units and may contain several major river basins. Sub-regions (6 in Alabama) are those watersheds that correspond to the drainage area of a major river. Hydrologic accounting units (11 in Alabama equivalent to 6-digit USGS coded units) refer to the drainage areas or watersheds of major tributaries of rivers (State maps of Alabama are often delineated as having 18 river system watersheds). Hydrologic cataloging units (52 eight-digit units in Alabama) or cataloging sub-units (629 eleven-digit units in Alabama), refer to the watersheds of tributaries of smaller and smaller streams. A 14-digit sub-sub-cataloging unit of watersheds down to the smallest perennial streams in Alabama is under development.

Alabama's average annual rainfall of 55 inches supplies the water for over 77,000 miles of perennial and intermittent streams; over 560,000 acres of ponds, lakes and reservoirs; and over 3.0 million acres of marshes and wetlands. In addition, Alabama has over 50 miles of coast with over 400,000 acres of estuaries, which are influenced directly by rainfall and stream flow. Almost all water systems in Alabama receive significant use and most are impacted to some degree by both point and non-point source pollution.

Most point source water pollution in Alabama has been successfully controlled through the federally mandated discharge permit program of the Clean Water Act. However, this program is not effective in controlling non-point sources of pollution, which comes primarily through pollutants carried in storm water runoff. Since watersheds are geographical units, which channel all their runoff to easily identifiable water bodies or stream segments, they are considered the ideal land-based units for managing non-point source pollution. One of the primary goals of effective watershed management is to control non-point source pollution.

Conditions in Your Watershed:

No matter where you live in Alabama, you live in a watershed, which in most cases is part of a bigger watershed that drains into the Gulf of Mexico. Your everyday actions, regardless of whether they are associated with activities where you live, work or play, can contribute to the quality of water that flows from your watershed. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), Alabama state office of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and local citizen watershed or stream monitoring groups, are the primary sources for information on the conditions of your watershed. These same agencies, plus additional organizations and educational institutions are good sources of information on how you can help protect your watershed.

Alabama uses the USGS 8-digit Cataloging Unit (CU) watersheds as the spatial framework for defining its watershed assessment categories and for targeting the watersheds it views as its highest restoration priority. In most cases, only certain areas within an entire CU will show major water quality impairments. Alabama provides pinpoint data for reservoirs, streams, lakes or smaller water bodies that need management attention to EPA. Most of this information comes from the Unified Watershed Assessment and 303(d) list of impacted waters, which each state must provide to EPA as mandated by the Clean Water Act. Both EPA and ADEM make this information available to the public through the Internet. The EPA also maintains a directory of volunteer monitoring programs.

To find specific information by 8-digit watersheds in Alabama, go to EPA's Surf Your Watershed web site (click on locate your watershed map, click on the map, click on Alabama, and then click on the watershed of choice). http://www.epa.gov/surf.

Information on Index of Watershed Indicators, Volunteer Monitoring Programs in Alabama, and the status of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for Alabama watersheds may be retrieved from the previous URL.

In 2001 EPA launched a new web site for Watershed Assessment, Tracking & Environmental Results (WATERS).

Resources and Programs

A wide variety of watershed resources and programs are available from the Internet.

Extension Outreach

Watershed Projects in Alabama:

Scientific Research

College and University Education

Auburn University:

Universities Water Information Network

Additional resources

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