Watershed Analysis...Whatever That Is
Leslie M. Reid
USDA-Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station, Arcata

"Cumulative watershed effects," (derisively) "...whatever that is." "Ecosystem management, ...whatever that is." "Watershed analysis, ...whatever that is." "Democracy, ...whatever that is."

Each of these terms is a coded label given to a very simple idea. Democracy we know the best: "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." Note that the concept carries no information about how this is actually to be carried out, and that there are roughly 300 million differing prescriptions for how to do it in the United States alone. The idea is simple and revolutionary, but the doing is complicated.

The same is true with cumulative watershed effects, ecosystem management, and watershed analysis. They are all exquisitely simple and profoundly revolutionary ideas, but the doing is hard. The confusion about the terms arises when people don't believe that the ideas are as simple as they seem and try to make them complicated enough to live up to their confusion. In the case of cumulative watershed effects, this took the form of trying to restrict the definition to particular types of combined effects, thereby avoiding the simple concept that if something is impacted, an impact has occurred. Restricting the definition is like insisting that if a government isn't made up of Democrats and Republicans, it's not a democracy-the concept is lost in a quibble over details.

In the case of ecosystem management, confusion has taken the form of trying to insist that the idea doesn't exist unless there's a method attached to it. Democracy was a good idea, and we've been stumbling toward it ever since the Greeks invented the word. Just because we haven't quite gotten there yet doesn't mean that the concept is bankrupt or that it just stands for business as usual. What does ecosystem management mean? Simply that because the whole sustains the parts, we'll take the whole picture into consideration before making management decisions. How to do ecosystem management? The details will probably be perfected about the same time that the perfect democracy is designed.

The confusion over watershed analysis comes about for the same reasons. Again, the concept is simple: you cannot understand a problem without looking at its context. Again, we've been deflected by details: "Watersheds aren't appropriate for understanding birds", "`Watershed' implies that the geo-hydro analysis is the most important", "FACA keeps us from talking to people", "We don't know enough yet about the riparian fungi", "It has to be done exactly the same everywhere." All of these are red herrings that trick us into ignoring the basic truth: we simply must understand how the parts of an ecoscape interact before we can sensibly manage that ecoscape. Or as a worst case, we must identify the things we'll need to understand before we make irreversible decisions.

Most problems in watershed analysis can be solved simply by referring to the underlying concept. Watersheds aren't appropriate for birds? Of course not, and they're not ideal for anything else, either. But each discipline can take what they know and apply it to any arbitrary area. Watersheds are useful because they don't change, you can see their boundaries in the field, and they would have to be considered anyway to understand aquatic, riparian, and terrestrial ecosystems along rivers. So the trick is to take the information available about wildlife, vegetation, socio-economic history, hydrology or whatever in the area and to see how that might affect the bird community there. The appropriate scale for evaluating a problem depends on the nature of the problem. Once the issue is identified and the interactions evaluated, then results can be "cookie-cut" to apply to the watershed in question. 'Watershed' implies that the geo-hydro analysis is most important? No way. A watershed is a patch of land, not a prescription. Besides, an understanding of the geomorphology and hydrology of an area can come about only by understanding the ecosystems and socio-economic processes. For that matter, an understanding of the ecosystems and socio-economic processes can only come about by understanding the geomorphology and hydrology-each component is so thoroughly entangled with the rest that none can be understood in isolation. It may be best to think of watershed analysis as "ecosystem analysis at a watershed scale."

FACA [the Federal Advisory Committee Act] prevents us from talking with people? Not for the type of work that is needed for interagency watershed analysis. The interagency version of a watershed analysis is not a decision document, but is a purely objective report of conditions and process interactions in an area. Interviewing individuals to obtain information about an area does not violate FACA. FACA has not been an issue for the Washington State approach to watershed analysis because that is not a federal effort. There isn't enough known yet about riparian fungi? Of course not. There isn't enough known yet about anything. The analysis is intended to 1) figure out what is known, 2) use what is known to identify potential interactions with other components of the environment, 3) use this information to figure out what else needs to be known.

It has to be done the same everywhere? Only one thing is certain: if analysis is done the same everywhere, it is wrong everywhere. Every watershed has a distinct suite of potential problems, ecoscape characteristics, and process interactions. No one set of methods will be appropriate for every site. Two things tend to happen when an accepted concept is not widely understood. First, people grasp onto cookbooks that allow them to get to the finish line without confronting the concept. Thus it becomes possible to vote a Democratic or Republican slate, or to "evaluate" cumulative watershed effects by "doing" Equivalent Roaded Area calculations. The cookbook makes that uncomfortable step called "thinking" unnecessary. Second, the goals themselves become displaced. Elected officials drop the objective of doing democracy for that of getting reelected, and watershed analysts are judged by acres analyzed and adherence to deadlines. Acres are countable, understanding is not.

So you want a cookbook for watershed analysis? A uniform protocol that will allow you to turn out top-flight analyses? Sure, no problem, it already exists: think.