How Misapplication of the Hydrologic Unit Framework Diminishes the Meaning of Watersheds

Abstract

Hydrologic units provide a convenient but problematic nationwide set of geographic polygons based on subjectively determined subdivisions of land surface areas at several hierarchical levels. The problem is that it is impossible to map watersheds, basins, or catchments of relatively equal size and cover the whole country. The hydrologic unit framework is in fact composed mostly of watersheds and pieces of watersheds. The pieces include units that drain to segments of streams, remnant areas, noncontributing areas, and coastal or frontal units that can include multiple watersheds draining to an ocean or large lake. Hence, half or more of the hydrologic units are not watersheds as the name of the framework “Watershed Boundary Dataset” implies. Nonetheless, hydrologic units and watersheds are commonly treated as synonymous, and this misapplication and misunderstanding can have some serious scientific and management consequences. We discuss some of the strengths and limitations of watersheds and hydrologic units as spatial frameworks. Using examples from the Northwest and Southeast United States, we explain how the misapplication of the hydrologic unit framework has altered the meaning of watersheds and can impair understanding associations between spatial geographic characteristics and surface water conditions.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Jim Harrison, now retired from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for encouraging the exploration and documentation of this topic. Support for this research has been provided in part by the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This manuscript has been subjected to U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency review and has been approved for publication.

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Correspondence to Glenn E. Griffith.

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Omernik, J.M., Griffith, G.E., Hughes, R.M. et al. How Misapplication of the Hydrologic Unit Framework Diminishes the Meaning of Watersheds. Environmental Management 60, 1–11 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00267-017-0854-z

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Keywords

  • Watersheds
  • Hydrologic units
  • Rivers/streams
  • Aquatic ecology
  • Watershed management