Watershed Mapping and Data Sharing for the Next Generation

A watershed is a geographic area in which all sources of water drain to a common surface water body. Because watersheds are made up of several interrelated components, what happens in each component (including what happens on the land) can affect the water. To protect and restore coastal watersheds, NOAA has combined scientific data and watershed characteristics into a geographic information system. Tools such as NOAA’s Watershed Database and Mapping Projects allow coastal managers to better understand the many different factors that affect aquatic ecosystems.

The Charles River flows for 80 miles through 23 towns and cities before discharging into Boston Harbor

The Charles River flows for 80 miles through 23 towns and cities before discharging into Boston Harbor, a coastal embayment of Massachusetts Bay. NOAA has developed a watershed project to provide information and interpretive tools to aid in the multi-agency "Clean Charles 2005" Initiative. The project includes data for the entire 80 miles of the Charles River, but focuses on the reach below the Watertown Dam.

Protecting and restoring coastal watersheds involves understanding an array of complex environmental issues and the synthesis of various types of information.  The evaluation of hazardous waste site remediation, the dredging and disposal of contaminated sediments, and the restoration of injured habitats are just a few of the challenges facing coastal managers.

While in the past such issues were evaluated in a piece-meal fashion, today the challenge of evaluating multiple environmental issues is made easier by combining scientific data and watershed characteristics into a geographic information system (GIS). This article takes a closer look at how Watershed Database and Mapping Projects—decision-support tools developed by NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration—are used by coastal managers to resolve a broad range of coastal problems.


NOAA’s Watershed Database and Mapping Projects

National map showing the locations of Watershed Projects

This national map shows the locations of Watershed Projects around the country. Click image for larger view.

In the past, the evaluation of environmental contaminants has been hindered by the inability to bring multiple stressors (chemical contaminant data) together with natural resource information and model their relationships. Individual chemicals were often evaluated in isolation and without the context of the environment in which they were found. Maps developed to represent these evaluations were completely static and required many hours to produce and edit. The results of evaluation methods were often tedious and lengthy because multiple, repeated steps were required to get to a reasonable answer.

However, since 1998, NOAA’s Watershed Database and Mapping Projects have taken the approach of combining data and watershed characteristics into a GIS, to provide a rapid, convenient method to create maps that display analyzed, sorted, and summarized data needed by coastal managers and of interest to the public. All Watershed Projects represent an integrated assessment tool for improved evaluation and problem solving of a broad spectrum of coastal issues.


Watershed Project Components

All Watershed Projects include base maps that display geomorphology (landform shape), habitat characteristics, and land-use information. These maps capitalize on NOAA products such as Environmental Sensitivity Index maps, Electronic and Digital Raster navigation charts, and shoreline and bathymetry data relevant to the watershed.

NOAA’s Watershed Database and Mapping Projects combine the use of a standard database structure, database-mapping application, an ArcView® GIS project and tools, and an integrated Web-based “Watershed Webguide.” This combination of features allows data to be digitally overlaid on the base maps that show a watershed’s features and land uses and then displayed on new maps at scales appropriate for each individual project. Such an approach simplifies data analysis and presentation, provides valuable tools for complex decision making, and improves our understanding of dynamic aquatic ecosystems.

Query  Manager Contaminant Data

Query Manager contaminant data shown for the Portland Harbor Watershed Project site. Click image for larger view.

The database and mapping application, Query Manager, is an easy-to-use, interactive system that allows users to search the database and rapidly display the results on a map or export the data to any program that supports standard spreadsheet, database, or tab-delimited text files. Custom tools developed by NOAA allow data to be seamlessly imported from Query Manager into the Watershed ArcView GIS project, simplifying and enhancing further data analysis and presentation.

Query Manager allows sediment and tissue chemistry and sediment toxicity data to be evaluated through menus of programmed and user-defined queries. Integrating remedial investigation data with recently acquired site data into a single system helps investigators identify potential contaminant sources and evaluate contaminant effects in potential habitat restoration areas. In addition, combining natural resource information and contaminant distributions across a watershed enhances the potential for successful restoration of wide-ranging populations of organisms, such as the land crab fisheries on the Island of Vieques or the aquatic habitats of the upper Hudson River.

The Watershed Projects run on standard personal computers directly or via standard Internet-based, interactive mapping sites. Because the projects are built under a common organizational structure for data and spatial information, federal, state, and local agencies and communities can cooperate and share data when working within a watershed. Also, by making these projects available via online interactive mapping sites that do not require GIS software, they are available to a wider audience.


Watershed Project Benefits

The  Calcasieu Estuary in southwest Louisiana

The Calcasieu Estuary in southwest Louisiana is a highly productive estuarine habitat system that supports fisheries for shrimp, oysters, catfish, blue crabs, redfish, and menhaden. The Calcasieu Watershed project helps demonstrate the spatial component of ecological risk to coastal resource managers and communities. This figure depicts sediment risks to the aquatic resources as well as amphipod toxicity in Bayou d’Inde and Lockport Marsh. Click image for larger view and full caption.

The Watershed Projects benefit a variety of user groups and have enhanced cooperation and data sharing amongst these groups. The database mapping system allows users to:

  • evaluate multiple data sets within a geographic area;
  • identify chemical concentration and toxicity gradients;
  • prioritize problem areas based on sediment chemistry, sediment toxicity, and/or tissue chemistry;
  • catalog and evaluate potential habitats for restoration;
  • inventory planned, ongoing, and completed restoration projects;
  • identify important data gaps; and
  • add and share new information.


Watershed Project Application

Photo of  Sediment Sampling

A photo of sediment sampling from the Portland Harbor Watershed Project. A creosote/diesel oil mixture can be seen seeping out of a sediment core.

NOAA has developed Watershed Projects at over 20 watersheds throughout the nation’s coastal regions that have been affected by contaminant releases from Superfund sites and other hazardous waste sites. Examples of these projects include the Hudson River, New York; St. Lawrence River, New York; Anacostia River, DC; Charleston Harbor, South Carolina; Calcasieu Estuary, Louisiana; San Francisco Bay, California; Portland Harbor, Oregon; Puget Sound, Washington; and most recently, Vieques Island in Puerto Rico.

To meet the needs of each location, the Watershed Projects use a standard database structure along with information tailored to the major objectives of each watershed project. For example, the Portland Harbor and Calcasieu Estuary Watershed Projects support decisions about risk assessment, remediation, and disposal of contaminated sediment. The San Francisco Bay and Hudson River projects focus on Superfund site remediation and habitat restoration.

NOAA’s watershed projects are proving useful throughout the Superfund and the Natural Resource Trustee decision-making processes—from identifying locations for the collection of additional samples, to providing the historical context for interpreting data, to identifying areas for restoration. This versatile tool not only improves NOAA’s ability to protect and restore the biodiversity of watersheds that contribute to healthy coastal habitats, but has the potential to help address other important environmental issues.