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Watershed Connections
Introduction to Watersheds
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Source of Activity:
Boulder Area Sustainability Information Network


Students will find their watershed on a topographic map.

QCC: S.8.10

Time Requirement:

1 period

By the end of this activity students should be able to:
  • Define the term watershed
  • Read a topographic map
  • Locate a watershed on a topographic map
Background Information:

One of the most widely used of all maps is the topographic map (often called topo maps). The feature that most distinguishes topographic maps from maps of other types is the use of contour lines to portray the shape and elevation of the land. Topographic maps render the three-dimensional ups and downs of the terrain on a two-dimensional surface.

Topographic maps usually portray both natural and human-made features. They show and name mountains, valleys, plains, lakes, rivers, and vegetation as well as roads, boundaries, transmission lines, and major buildings.

The wide range of information provided by topographic maps makes them extremely useful to professional and recreational map users alike. Topographic maps are used for engineering, energy exploration, natural resource conservation, environmental management, public works design, commercial and residential planning, and outdoor activities like hiking, camping, and fishing.

(source: USGS, http://mac.usgs.gov/mac/isb/pubs/booklets/topo/topo.html)



  • Topographic map(s) of your area
  • Dry erase pens
  • Clear plastic sheets
  1. Look at a city map and find out what body of water (creek, wetland, pond) is near your school.
  2. Next, look at a topographic map and see if you can locate the creek or pond on that map (often times topo maps will have major streets and other landmarks). Cover the map with clear plastic so that you can write on it and still erase the ink.
  3. Once you locate the creek or pond, mark where your school is on the map (this will help keep everyone oriented).
  4. Look at the topo map. Can you find the contours lines on it? These lines show the elevation of the landscape. To locate the watershed that your body of water drains, look for the highest ridges or hills around your stream- these are the drainage divides. Drainage divides separate one watershed from another.
  5. Once you have outlined the shape of the watershed have students locate well-known places such as the school, parks, bikepaths, the grocery store, etc.
  6. Determine the direction of water flow (draw blue arrows from the landscape to the water). Which direction does the water flow?
  7. If you are looking at a stream in an urban environment, sometimes the stream may disappear - it may be piped underground. Contact your local government for maps of the storm sewer system. This will give you information about water supply system in your watershed. Are there ditches connected with your stream?

Ask students to write an essay about the importance of watersheds.

Have students locate several natural physical features and several human-made features on the topographic map.

Ask students to describe ways in which the physical features of the watershed could influence future human activities. Let them predict ways physical features of the watershed could influence future human activities.

Ask students to describe ways in which human activities change the shape of the watershed, and, consequently, the path along which water will flow.


Use the topographic map to build a 3-D model of your watershed (see link to activity below)

For More Information:

Free topographic maps from Topozone

Ordering information from the US Geologic Survey

How to read a topographic map

Trace the Watershed of the Humbolt River System

Hydrology Learning Activity: Model Your Watershed


Visit Our Partners:
Center for Community Design and Preservation Center for Community Design & Preservation
Georgia Museum of Natural history Georgia Museum of Natural History

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