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A Strategic Approach to Assessing the State of the Watershed

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A Strategic Approach to Assessing the State of the Watershed

  • NSF Biocomplexity Grant Collaborators: John Loomis1, Melinda Laituri1, Jorge A Ramírez1, Kirk Sherrill1, Ellen Wohl1, Angela Henn1, and Juan Marcos Gonzalez1; Alan Covich2; Paul Box3, Todd Crowl3, and Katie Hein3; Armando González-Cabán4; Elías Gutíerrez5, Luis Santiago5, and Richard Ortega5; Juan Felipe Blanco6; Andy Pike7, Fred Scatena7, and Dana Tomlin7; Rob Buirgy8; Sheila Murphy9, and Brenda Faber10
  • 1 Colorado State University, 2 University of Georgia, 3 Utah State University, 4 USDA Forest Service, 5 University of Puerto Rico, 6 Universidad de Antioquia,7 University of Pennsylvania, 8 Big Thompson Watershed Forum, 9 US Geological Survey, and 10 Fore Site Consulting, Inc.

Data Quality

Data obtained from various entities such as the US Geological Survey, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the National Weather Service, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and local city and county agencies can vary in quality. A data quality matrix was developed to aid groups in assessing the quality and relevance of their data. Four key terms were used to organize the data quality topics: accuracy, utility, integrity, and completeness.

Accuracy – information is presented in an accurate, clear, complete and unbiased manner.

Data Quality Topics

- Spatial Resolution

- Accuracy

Utility – how useful is the information for the intended users, including the public

Data Quality Topics

- Purpose for Data

- Data Format

- Metadata

Integrity – information is protected from unauthorized access or revision to ensure that the information is not compromised by corruption or falsification.

Data Quality Topics

- Maintenance

- Data Currency

- Data Source

- Collection and Analysis

- Methods

Completeness – data is comprehensive across the landscape, has temporal significance, and is rich in content.

Data Quality Topics

- Data Gaps

- Data Collection Frequency

- Breadth of Data

Users should prioritize the relevancy of each data quality topic for the purpose(s) of their project and then consider the questions presented for each topic. This will provide the user with the information necessary to determine the overall quality of existing data, and hence the confidence of their conclusions drawn in the report. Additionally, the user will be able to identify data gaps or weaknesses that may exist and will have the ability to identify future research needs.

An example of the Data Quality Matrix is provided below


A watershed assessment is essential for evaluating watershed health and ecosystem resilience. Understanding the current state of the watershed is one method for maintaining and improving the nation’s watersheds. A watershed assessment provides information needed to understand the current conditions based on a set of indicators. For example, indicators may include designated uses, water quality, water pollutants and stressors, and potential decline. A State of the Watershed Handbook has been developed to provide guidance in conducting watershed assessments that are adaptable to watersheds across the nation. A watershed assessment will enable resource managers to make better-informed and effective decisions, identify data gaps, discover and examine uncertainty in existing projects, and make recommendations for future studies. A consistent approach to assessing the state of watersheds will allow for comparisons between watersheds, identification of management strategies, and advancement in the understanding of watershed systems.

  • State of the Watershed Handbook
  • Designed to help collect information, data, and maps needed to create a State of the Watershed report
  • Involves developing a detailed profile of the earth, air, water, and life in the watershed and how they all interact
  • Places outputs of the assessment into the framework of complexity
  • Organization
    • Introduction
    • Purpose
    • Credits
    • Environmental Setting
        • Earth
        • Air
        • Water
        • Biosphere – includes the human dimension
    • Watershed Health
        • Earth
        • Air
        • Water
        • Biosphere – includes the human dimension
    • Interactions - Complexity
        • Integrates the assessment, using complexity concepts to understand relationships between socio and ecological processes
    • Historical Timeline
    • Future Challenges and Opportunities
    • Summary
  • Suggested topics for useful information are included under each heading. For example under “Earth” in the Environmental Setting it would be useful to talk about the physiography and the geology of the watershed.
  • This handbook is meant to provide guidance in preparing a watershed assessment. However, because watersheds vary widely, groups may choose to add or delete topics or emphasize some more than others.

Integrating Complexity Theory into Education

This project, partners teachers and students in Colorado and Puerto Rico to understand complexity in the environment. A key purpose of the project is to introduce teachers and students to the concepts of complexity science. Using the Handbook, teachers and students will identify the interactions between socio and ecological processes in their watersheds. The State of the Watershed Handbook provides guidelines for how to collect information about the issues facing a community’s watershed and then places these issues into the framework of complexity science.

  • Complexity Concepts
  • Unpredictable behavior
  • Non-linear or chaotic processes
  • Cascading effects
  • Emergent properties
  • Hierarchical structure
  • Self organization
  • Interactions that span multiple spatial and temporal scales
  • Acknowledgements
  • The State of the Watershed Handbook is part of a collaboration between the National Science Foundation’s Biocomplexity Project (, the Big Thompson Watershed Forum (,and the U.S. Geological Survey (
  • This handbook was prepared by: Sheila Murphy1, Melinda Laituri2, Brenda Faber3, Angie Henn2, Rob Buirgy4
  • 1U.S. Geological Survey, 2Colorado State University, 3Fore Site Consulting Inc., 4Big Thompson Watershed Forum
  • The feedback provided by the students from the Thompson River Project Class of 2006 at Thompson Valley High School in Loveland, Colorado was essential in the improving of the State of the Watershed Handbook