What is a watershed?

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​An aerial view of Drakes Bay, part of California's Tomales-Drake watershed. CCredit: Brian Cluer, NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region, California Coastal Office.

The size of a watershed (also called a drainage basin or catchment) is defined on several scales—referred to as its Hydrologic Unit Codes (HUC)—based on the geography that is most relevant to its specific area. A watershed can be small, such as a modest inland lake or a single county.

Conversely, some watersheds encompass thousands of square miles and may contain streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and underlying groundwater that are hundreds of miles inland. The largest watershed in the United States is the Mississippi River Watershed, which drains 2,981,076 square kilometers from all or parts of 31 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces stretching from the Rockies to the Appalachians!

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