Watersheds, Rain Barrels, and Rain Gardens

The water you drink today could be the same water (or water molecules) that a dinosaur bathed in millions of years ago? Planet Earth will never create new water. (A compelling reason to protect and conserve this precious resource!)

The way that we live on the land has a direct impact on the quality of water in our rivers and streams – even if we don’t live near one. Everything from the consumer choices that we make to how we manage our lawns and gardens, the cleaning products and personal care products that we use, our pet care, car care, recycling efforts, etc has a direct impact on the quality of water in our rivers and streams, and in turn, our drinking water supply.

At PRC, we Celebrate the Rain! Take part in our Watershed Awareness/Rain Barrel Workshops to learn about their watershed, how to reduce their impact, stormwater management options, and how to build and install a rain barrel for rainwater harvesting.

Why Water Matters

One thing that we all have in common is our reliance on water –whether it’s for drinking, bathing, cooking, growing food, manufacturing products, generating electricity, or the other innumerable ways in which water is a crucial part of our existence. Water is life! And even though it’s been around for, well…forever, it is constantly being purified as it traverses its circular journey, the hydrologic cycle, and gets filtered as it infiltrates the soil and passes through the roots of vegetation, rock, and sand. Infiltration also recharges our groundwater supply, slows the flow rate which reduces the potential for flooding and Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO), and helps to maintain a steady supply of water in rivers and streams while keeping our soil healthy and fertile. It’s a perfect system –until humankind gets involved.


We all live in a watershed. A watershed is an area of land that all drains into the same body of water. Planet Earth is covered with them and they are separated from one another by elevation – hills, mountains, etc. with the “divide”, or watershed boundary, being at the ridge line at the peak of the hills. In other words, watersheds are basins or bowls. The sides of the “bowls” are the hills and mountains (elevation). At the bottom of each bowl/basin/watershed we find the body of water (collection site) that the surrounding land area drains into when it rains and when the snow melts.

Watersheds are nested, smaller ones inside larger ones. Pennsylvania has six major watersheds. Almost all of western PA lies within the Ohio River Watershed, which contains the Allegheny, Monongahela, Youghiogheny, Clarion and many other smaller watersheds. This means that all of the surface and groundwater in this region eventually ends up in the Ohio River, getting there via many rivers and streams. The Ohio River Watershed lies within the Mississippi River Watershed which drains half of the continental United States, and which lies within the Gulf of Mexico Watershed. Separated by the Allegheny Mountains, the mountainous eastern part of the Allegheny Plateau in the Appalachian Mountains, the rest of Pennsylvania drains eastward eventually reaching the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. The eastern edge of PA, where Philadelphia is located, is in the Delaware River Watershed while the largest of PA’s major watersheds lies in the center of the state draining into the Susquehanna River and then out to the Chesapeake Bay.

Watersheds and Pollution

Why is this important? Water is the universal solvent, and it is always flowing. As it flows it carries with it that which it passes over and through, (road salt, litter, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, automotive fluids, pet waste, CSO, farm animal waste, fracking fluids, pharmaceuticals, etc) accumulating ever higher concentrations of nonpoint source and point source pollution as it continues its journey to the sea. We all share responsibility for the problem. According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), lawn use is a significant component of the total pesticide problem. NAS reports that the homeowner uses 10 times more pesticides per acre than do farmers.

We’ve got a pretty good toxic soup brewing as the Mississippi River approaches the Gulf of Mexico. The good news is that the pollutants that are filling our waterways can be greatly reduced if everyone pitches in. Simple actions such as cleaning up after Fido and avoiding products like anti-bacterial soaps (Triclosan), fragrance-laden (phthalates) cleaning and personal care products, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and harvesting our roof water for on-site usage/absorption can help to insure a healthier water supply, healthier environment, and healthier population.

That which harms the earth harms us as well. An Associated Press investigation found pharmaceutical drugs in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas from Southern California to New York City, which provide water to 41 million Americans. In Philadelphia, 56 drugs were found in the drinking water. In addition, the Allegheny County Health Department reported that in the 2004 river recreation season (May 15-September 30), a CSO river advisory was in effect 90% of the time, limiting the use of county waterways for recreation and exposing those who did recreate to possible health risks. It is essential that we all understand watershed issues and problems so that we are better able to make sound behavioral decisions.

Rain Gardens

Rain Gardens are shallow, planted depressions that absorb runoff from impervious surfaces and allow it to infiltrate into the soil.  Rain gardens are designed to have a “bowl shape” or “dip” that retains rain water as it waits to be absorbed into the soil.

Rain Gardens are planted with deep rooted, native plants. Native plants are beautiful, hardy, and once established require less maintenance than a conventional lawn.  Native plants provide food and shelter for a host of native birds, butterflies and beneficial insects.

Rain Gardens reduce the initial rush of water that enters a stream during rain storms by capturing and absorbing runoff from yards, roofs, and paved surfaces. Rain gardens can absorb 30% more water than a traditional lawn. Properly designed rain gardens drain in 24 – 48 hours, can filter many common pollutants found in runoff, and help to recharge the ground water supply.

Pollution from stormwater runoff is the leading cause of impairment in our streams.  You can make difference by installing a beautiful rain garden on your property.