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Extension > Environment > Education for Professionals > Watershed Education > What is a watershed

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What is a watershed?

Mississippi River watershed and Lake Itasca subwatershed

A watershed is all of the land and water areas that drain toward a particular lake or river segment. Thus, a watershed, also called a drainage basin, is defined in terms of each selected lake or river.

Watersheds can be identified on different scales. Large scale watersheds are composed of smaller areas called subwatersheds. For example, the Mississippi River has an extremely large watershed, encompassing most of the central United States, including all or part of 31 states. In contrast, Lake Itasca in north central Minnesota has a relatively small watershed. As the source of the Mississippi River, Lake Itasca's drainage basin is considered a subwatershed of the entire Mississippi River basin.

Topography determines watershed boundaries

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources uses the following terminology to identify watersheds on different scales: regions, subregions, basins, subbasins, watersheds, and subwatersheds.

A watershed can be defined as the area of land that drains to a particular point along a stream. Each stream has its own watershed. Topography is the key element affecting this area of land. The boundary of a watershed is defined by the highest elevations surrounding the stream. A drop of water falling outside of the boundary will drain to another watershed.

See basins and major watersheds in Minnesota (PDF - MN Pollution Control Agency).

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