WSU Whatcom County Extension

Stewardship is Where You Are

Gutter Guardians

The Big Picture

The land and water are interconnected.  Land determines where the streams will flow or lakes will form.  Every drop of rain or snow that does not fall directly on our water bodies travels over or through the land on its journey to those places.  This land that feeds the rain to a water-body is referred to as the watershed for that water-body, and the water that runs over the land is referred to as runoff.

We become concerned about watersheds and runoff when the rain picks up significant pollutants on its journey to our water-bodies.  When it rains, pollution from the land can enter the water.  The pollution that washes off of streets and parking lots, yards and farmland is called non-point source pollution because the pollution comes from a large area rather than a single point such as a factory discharge pipe.

Natural resource scientists use a number of tests to detect pollution in streams, lakes and bays.  This helps us determine whether the water is clean enough for fish and fishing, for swimming and boating, or as a source for drinking water.  For many tests, you need a laboratory.  But there are many important tests that you can do at home, or in partnership with scientists as a citizen scientist.

Explorer - Skill Level: One Engager - Skill Level: Two Citizen Scientist - Skill Level: Three


Water Strider
Nooksack River Flooding


Watersheds and How They Work

Activity 1:  Model a Watershed

Objective:  Make a model watershed: the area of land that feeds water into a stream, river, lake or bay.

Science Skills: Build/Construct, Hypothesize, Analyze, Observe,

Life Skills:  Critical Thinking, Communication

Preparation Activities:  This activity involves water and food coloring so choose the surface you will work on accordingly. 


3 or 4 pieces of 8 ½ x 11 paper
1 piece of 11x 17 inch paper
¼ cup of water
Clean sprayer bottle with water (such as you might use for homemade cleaning supplies)
1 packet of  Kool-Aid or food coloring
Drinking straw or small dropper such as a leftover medicine dropper

  1. Crumple the pieces of paper into balls.  Lay the three smaller pieces on a table or countertop.  Uncrumple the 11x 17 inch paper, lay it over the balls of paper and tape it loosely to the counter.  Press the paper over the balls so that it resembles mountains and valleys with the tallest mountains on the outside edges of the paper.
  2. Imagine that it is raining on your paper landscape.  Notice the highest points on your paper – your mountain peaks and ridge lines.  Think about what will happen to the raindrops that land in different areas on your paper landscape.  Imagine where lakes and wetlands might form and where streams might flow.
  3. Use your straw or medicine dropper to place 2 to 3 drops of water onto your paper in different areas.  Notice which direction the water begins to flow.  Does the water behave the way you predicted?  Does the water collect anywhere?
  4. Spray some water over your paper and let it soak in for a minute or two.  You want the paper to be damp all over but you don’t want water pooling on the paper at this point.
  5. Mix the packet of Kool-Aid into ¼ cup of water or add enough food coloring to the water to make the color pretty intense.
  6. Using your paintbrush, paint the peaks and ridgelines on your paper landscape.  You’ll notice the colored water will begin to run down the sides of your mountains right away.  Encourage any streams that begin to form by brushing more colored water onto the ridge in that area.  As you work you should see a whole network of rivers and lakes begin to form on your landscape.


Asking the Right Questions: 
Did the streams, lakes, and wetlands form where you predicted they would?

How many different watersheds did the youth identify in their model?

Does any part of the model remind the youth of the mountains or valleys around their home, school, or another familiar area?


Activity 2: Runoff Races

Activity:  Measure and record the quantity and rate of water runoff from different materials.

Objective:  Learn how surface materials influence storm-water runoff.

Science Skills: Collect Data, Compare/Contrast, Measure, Observe, Optimize, Predict, Test, Use Tools

Life Skills:  Keeping Records, Problem Solving, Teamwork.

Preparation Activities: Read the activity and gather materials. Decide if the youth will design their own data sheet or acquire one from a third party.


Cardboard milk or orange juice carton with back panel cut out
Plastic cup with small holes in the bottom
3 cups of dirt
3 cups of gravel
2 cups of sand
3” x 6” strip of rooted grass or sod
3 handfuls of straw
Additional materials if you wish
colored powder drink mix
Small plastic tub for catching runoff water
Measuring cup
A watch, stopwatch or clock.
Data sheet

Set up the materials as shown in the activity below:


  1. You are going to place each material in turn into the milk carton, sprinkle water on it and see how much water runs out and how fast it runs out.   Fill the carton with 3 centimeters of material and use the same amount of water each time.  Use the watch or stopwatch to record how fast the runoff comes out, and the ruler to measure how much runoff comes out.  Figure out who will do what and change jobs so that everyone gets a turn.
  2. Before you begin, which materials do you think will think will produce the most and fastest runoff:  the dirt, gravel, sand, sod, or straw?   Which do you think will produce the least/slowest?  Why?   How will the bare carton compare with the materials?
  3. Run your experiments.  Test the bare carton, too and be sure to clean out the carton after each trial.  Record your data on the data sheet.
  4. Once you’ve finished testing your materials, try combining materials to make the slowest and least amount of runoff.   Fill the carton with only 3 centimeters of total material for each trial.
  5. Now sprinkle some colored drink powder mix on the top of the soil. How much water (run-off) is required before the color of the run-off is affected?


Asking the Right Questions:
How did your predictions compare with reality?  Which materials generated the fastest and most runoff?  Why?  Which produced the slowest and least?  Why?
What land type, such as pavement, lawns, farms, and forest, is each material most like?  If you wanted to minimize runoff from a neighborhood, what materials would you minimize?   What materials would you emphasize?



Natural Resource Stewards


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Explore More

The Surfrider Foundation Explains Watersheds 101

United States Geological Service Science in Your Watershed Page

Into the Watershed


It’s All Connected

You may have heard of the Lake Whatcom watershed.  This is the area of land that drains into Lake Whatcom.  People are concerned about pollution entering the Lake because it provides drinking water to 80,000 people. But the Lake Whatcom watershed is not the only watershed.  Everyone lives in a watershed and all water bodies - streams, lakes, wetlands, and bays - are influenced by the land in their watersheds. 

Water Resource Inventory Area no. 1 Resource Library


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WSU Whatcom County Extension, 1000 North Forest Street, Suite 201, Bellingham, WA 98225, (360) 778-5800, Contact Us