WHAF Key Concepts


Key Concepts: Watershed Health and Systems Management

Managing for Health

Managing for health seeks to embrace and enhance the natural processes that make our systems resilient and sustains them over time.

A multitude of challenges threaten the health of our natural systems and our human communities. These challenges occur across spatial scales, from local to global; and across temporal scales, from instant impact to delayed response. Addressing the challenges that cross these boundaries should also include a broad review of ecological components and the processes that connect them. Managing for healthy systems must allow new approaches to emerge that embrace this complexity.

Basic Concepts: What is a Watershed?

what is a watershed story map

Key Concepts for System Health

Health: "Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal."- Aldo Leopold

What is watershed health? - Explore the concept of watershed health by comparing it to human health. 

Health index values are calculated statewide for each of the 5 components to give a broad suite of vital signs. Some health indices measure a condition or degree of alteration, some measure context or risk factors that can't be changed but should be considered, and some measure how system health is responding.


Scale: The relative dimension used to measure and study any phenomenon, such as temporal, spatial, quantitative and analytic. 

Selecting a boundary or watershed scale to begin a watershed health exploration is the first step; but it is essential to consider other spatial scales while evaluating data layers and health indices. Different patterns of health emerge when changing the observational scale. This additional information will help match the scale of a health challenge with an effective strategy for improvement.

Spatial Scale

What is a watershed? - The simple answer is that a true watershed contains all the land and water features that drain excess surface water to a specific location on the landscape. Sometimes the word 'watershed' is used for administrative boundaries that subdivide true watersheds for practical land management purposes. For example, nearly 50% of the 81 Major Watersheds in Minnesota are administrative subdivisions of larger true watersheds. 

How are spatial scale and health connected?  The Watershed Health Assessment Framework calculates health scores at two different spatial scales.  Some scores are calculated for the 81 major watersheds in Minnesota, and some scores are calculated for each of the 10,000+ DNR catchment subwatersheds.  These two spatial scales reveal different levels of detail about the variability of watershed health in Minnesota.       

Temporal Scale

Measuring change in landscape condition over time is a step toward understanding relationships between human alterations to land and water resources and responses that occur in the natural systems. The link between actions and response is rarely direct, and often involve multiple components responding at different rates.


Complexity: “To understand life, you have to study it at different scales. Each part has emergent properties that feed back into the system. The complexity of this system is incredibly humbling.”  Penny Chisholm

Ecological Components

5 components - The Watershed Health Assessment Framework uses 5 ecological components (Hydrology, Connectivity, Biology, Geomorphology and Water Quality) to provide different perspectives for evaluating system health.   Each component holds a suite of health index values that show multiple views of health status.    

Managing systems - More about understanding the five-component system of evaluating watershed health


Making connections - The dynamic relationship between different parts of a natural system express themselves in many ways.  Examples of changes on the landscape can be connected to the forces at work to help us better understand these relationships.

Watershed stories - Lessons learned from river systems that were not managed as systems.

River continuum concept - Connectivity in river systems extends in all directions, up and down stream, into the floodplain, and below ground.  A multi-faceted understanding of hydrologic connectivity is needed. 


Resilience: The ability to tolerate disturbance while maintaining the capacity to adapt.

Managing for healthy watersheds leads to more resilient systems. Building resilience is important because the system is more able to:

  • recover from stress, shocks and change
  • while maintaining the capacity to recover in the future
  • and without shifting to a different (often less desirable) state.

Climate change is an example of a stress or shock with many unknown impacts to ecological systems.  The concept of resilience will be included in adaptive management strategies that address the challenges. Extensive scientific information and climate change resources for Minnesota are available here

Understanding resilience and its connection to watershed health is an expanding area of scientific exploration. The Resilience Alliance is an excellent source of new learning by the scientific community and access to related scientific literature.