Healthy Watersheds in Kansas

Photo courtesy of Scott Bean Photography

Figure by Julie Benyshek, Master's Candidate, Regional & Community Planning, Kansas State University

A watershed is a geographic area of land where water, sediments and dissolved materials drain from higher elevations to a common low-lying outlet like a lake, river, stream or aquifer. When rain drops or snow melt flow over a surface, or infiltrate into the ground, much of the water eventually makes its way to that common low-lying outlet.

The speed the water drains to the common outlet depends on various factors such as type of soil, amount of plant life, the geology underlying the soils and the steepness of the terrain. The boundary of a watershed is drawn by the natural landscape, such as hills or ridges. Gravity pushes water from the higher locations toward the lower river, lake, stream or aquifer on the surface of the landscape or through subsurface drainage and/or ground water connections.

A healthy and sustainable watershed system is comprised of the following elements:

  • Clean. healthy and functional streams, rivers, wetlands, riparian zones, and landscapes (minimal sources of point- and non-point source pollution and degradation from management activities impacting soil and water resources).
  • Healthy terrestrial and aquatic habitat with adequate connectivity and passage for wildlife.
  • Functional hydrology that allows for protected water supplies, adequate recharge and sustainable (i.e., renewable) yields of food, fiber and water.
  • Treatment of point source and non-point source contamination on-site, so that it does not pollute downstream ecosystems.
  • Social systems and adequate economy that supports the healthy watershed system and its parts including its people and communities.
  • Such a system in its higher functional state amplifies and expresses the positive benefits of ecosystem goods and services while attenuating the negative impacts to the watershed and its inhabitants (human, wildlife, and beneficial insects and microbial communities) from human activities.

This definition of a healthy and sustainable watershed system is based on our understanding of systems theory, but will require a paradigm shift from our historical and current perspectives to a healthy systems-based approach to achieve:

  • The concept is that at all scales of organization (or systems), the relationships among the parts are as important as the parts themselves (i.e., the sum of the system parts and relationships among them are greater than those separate parts alone and emergent properties are expressed at each scale of organization and those cannot be predicted by simply analyzing the parts);
  • A healthy system is one where all of its parts and the relationships among them are intact and functioning healthily, with feedback mechanisms that control the system to achieve a range of healthy functions and ecological processes:
    • in theory, amplifying positive feedbacks and attenuating (or negating) negative feedbacks will lead to more positive outcomes for the system and the sum of its relationships and parts-- making it healthy;
  • Systems are organized (i.e., nested) based on the scales of their processes, functions, relations and feedback controls;
  • Higher, healthy emergent properties occur at various scales in the nested system when the systems' parts and relationships are at ease (as opposed to dis-ease) (i.e., healthy) at all scales (individual organisms to global environment);
  • So, in theory, we (humans, wildlife and all life) cannot achieve a healthier systems' state unless our systems, in this case watersheds, and all its parts and relationships are functioning healthily;
  • A healthy system is more resilient to catastrophic negative feedbacks, so it can withstand them and can repair the health of the system when distressed--it processes, parts, relationships and inhabitants.
  • Smaller scale systems' health once achieved can create positive relations and feedbacks that can result in larger scale systems' health (e.g, river basins, continental, global), as more smaller scale systems achieve health themselves (emergent healthy properties and functions of organisms to watersheds).

(1) Current Paradigm: Historically, and in many cases currently, we compartmentalize our understanding of the places (i.e., watersheds) where we live into separate parts like the economy (i.e., how we attain our livelihoods and our incomes), our communities (i.e., the social and governing influences with which we interact and influence our own economies ) and our environment (i.e., often perceived as our weather, climate, soil, water and wildlife that provide us resources to support our economies and communities)-- and ourselves as individuals and families living there. However, by not recognizing all of the interconnected relations and processes that are constantly occurring among all these parts, we tend to address "issues" associated with a particular part when impacted negatively by them and often we address separate symptoms, or parts, of the problem. For example, if our cost of living is increasing where we live but our income remains stagnant, we tend to think of this as negative (a feedback) and want to address it to create a more positive circumstance (i.e. positive feedback) for ourselves and our families-- maybe we think if we get a higher income (a symptom or part of an economic problem), we can solve the issue. But when our solutions are in response to a strong negative feedbacks and we are not understanding the interconnectedness of systems and the relationships at work, we are likely missing an important understanding of the root of the problems (negative feedbacks to the nested systems) and simply reacting or desiring a reactive positive feedback from one or more of the system parts (e.g., community governance) to counteract the overwhelming negative feedback(s) we are observing. What we are really observing are unhealthy systems interacting to create strongly negative feedbacks and often our responses are to put out one little fire next to us as it is encroaching on us, when the landscape all around us is on fire and often we may not know the root cause.

(2) Shifting Paradigm: However, if we simply shift our paradigm to recognize all of the interconnectedness of the relationships and processes at work all around us and try to focus on the overlapping connection that creates the most sustainable and positive feedbacks for all of the systems, relationships and their parts at once (which includes ourselves and our family and our livelihoods), we can initiate a healing process for the systems as well as ourselves and our families. One way to do this is to recognize the positive feedbacks we desire and amplify those parts and relationships while attenuating or negating the negative feedbacks (e.g., a higher incidence of cancer in our communities), but to do so, we need to recognize the "sweet spot" of interconnectness among the systems, and often this "sweet spot" has been termed "sustainability." By amplifying the positive feedbacks and attenuating the negative ones, we can create resilience in our systems and possibly surpluses over time, so one overwhelming negative feedback can be absorbed and the systems can repair themselves with resilient surpluses when in their healthy state.

(3) Healthy Systems Paradigm: Yet, even the shifting paradigm has flaws in its understanding of how systems work. Systems range in scale from the smallest conceivable scales (e.g., atoms, molecules, cells, tissues and organs) progressing to larger and larger scales (e.g, individual organisms to ecosystems, watersheds, regions, countries, continents and planet) and with various systems (e.g., economy, communities and social structures, and the environment) comprising them or nested within them and functioning on various scales. The systems when in a state of dis-ease express higher degrees of negative feedbacks and when healthy express more positive feedbacks. When these feedbacks emerge overwhelmingly from the smaller scale systems to shift the relationships, processes and functions of the larger scale systems, this is often referred to as an emergent property. Emergent properties can be negative or positive. The same happens at all scales and typically predictions of the larger scale emergent properties are more difficult to predict than the scale at which we exist and live because the larger-scale systems are functioning beyond our scale (both temporally and spatially). The key here is to recognize that an overwhelmingly negative feedback that we are observing at our scale or larger scales at this time is a part of nested systems-- sort of like many of the canaries in many coal mines dying all at once-- it's an emergent property created by overwhelming negative feedbacks of many nested systems. So, if we desire more healthy systems and more healthy livelihoods for ourselves, our families, and our communities, we need to focus on a better understanding of our place in the nested systems and also achieving more positive, healthy feedbacks and emergent properties through our actions at the scales at which we live to create a ripple effect of resilience and sustainable, healthy systems from the grass roots up to healthy watersheds and beyond. In civics, this is often referred to as the "public good."

Figure by Jeff Neel, Blue Earth, LLC. Adapted from Systems Theory.

Potential Emergent Properties of Healthy Watershed Systems :

Our Livelihood Potential at Watershed Scales







Local "Gardens of Eden"

Figure by Jeff Neel, Blue Earth, LLC. Adapted from Nested Sustainability Model.

Kingsbury Foundation Logo & Link

The Kingsbury Foundation is credited with funding for this initiative to develop an integrated, holistic management approach to healthy watersheds as well as development of this partnership website to identify opportunities to improve watershed health in the pilot watershed, through its generous grant funding to support this project.

  • The pilot project areas assessed to identify healthy watershed practices and integrate opportunities to do so were in:
    • South Fork Cottonwood Watershed (HUC-10; five HUC-12 watersheds) in Chase County, Kansas
  • A complimentary effort working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, scientists at Konza Prairie, Kansas State University, Kansas Biological Survey, Kansas Geological Survey, University of Kansas and The Nature Conservancy to remove barriers to native prairie stream fish communities is being explored at:
    • Kings Creek Watershed at Konza Prairie Biological Station in Riley and Geary Counties, Kansas.
    • This effort will also be used to investigate methods to identify stream instabilities in recovering prairie streams and to map riparian and wetland habitat to support research efforts there.
    • Fish ecologists are simultaneously studying the reconnection of aquatic habitat and passage using pit-tags to monitor downstream fish movement back upstream past a low water crossing barrier that has been removed (and once fragmented their aquatic habitat).
    • Integration of watershed models, methods explored with Kingsbury Foundation grant funding, and on-going applied research will continue through the effort at Konza Prairie.
    • So far, one low water crossing barrier has been removed and natural channel designs using low infrastructure and cost inputs are being explored as the impacts of barrier removal are monitored for the Kings Creek Watershed.
  • We are grateful to the Kingsbury Foundation for providing funding to initiate this effort, the many partners supporting this endeavor and working together to achieve positive watershed-scale feedbacks, and the opportunity to apply research to real problems while monitoring emergent properties of a holistic systems approach to watershed management.
  • We are also thankful to the many nature photographers appreciating the world around us and enhancing this site by sharing their many breathtaking and beautiful scenes of our natural heritage here in Kansas.