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Lexicon of Sustainability

Watchword: Watersheds

Watchword: Watersheds
To draw attention to the best and brightest ideas in sustainability, the Lexicon of Sustainability's Food List project defines the words that are integral to a healthy, transparent, and accountable food system. Each week, we explore a new word through artwork, films, recipes, and written works. See all Food List words here. 

Watersheds: A watershed is the total landmass area determined from a major river or waterway traced back to its point of origin. “At the most basic level, a watershed encompasses all the land surface that collects and drains water down to a single exit point," explains water expert Brock Dolman. "The continual cycle of erosive water flowing over uplifting and weathering land has sculpted all landscapes into distinct cradle-like entities known as watersheds, basins, drainages, or catchments. Everyone on the planet lives in a watershed somewhere.”

Protecting and restoring our watersheds

Illustration: Jim Coleman

There’s a huge amount of pressure on the natural resources of our planet, especially as populations grow and gravitate towards urban centers. Over half of the global population lives in cities and for this reason, cities are at the center of the global challenge to protect and preserve watersheds. When it comes to water infrastructure in cities, we often think “grey”: grey pipes, grey steel, grey water, grey waste treatment.

As Kurt Pelzer and Laura Tam of SPUR find, “[Grey infrastructure] is no longer the only tool in the toolbox. Green infrastructure systems harness natural processes, and extend beyond steward and flood control to include carbon sequestration, recreational amenities, habitat creation, and beautification.”

Sink it, Slow it, Reuse it, Move it: these are the four green stormwater management tools outlined by the San Francisco Urban Watershed Plan and described by SPUR with examples from all over the world. Read more about the 8 Shades of Green Infrastructure.

Title: Watershed
Location: Waipa Watershed, Hanalei, HI
Featuring: Stacy Sproat Beck of the Waipa Foundation

Traditionally, Hawaii’s most vial laws concerned water use. Their language underscored its significance: “wai” means fresh water; “wai wai” means wealth. Stacy Sproat-Beck, director of the Waipa Foundation, says that earlier Hawai’ians (“na hulu kupuna”) practiced community-based management of land and resources at the water level.

“Ahupua’a” means watershed. A watershed is a land area, such as a river valley, where all water that falls as rain, collects as dew, or falls as cloud mist, drains into a common waterway. Native Hawai’ians’ “ahupua’a” were sustainable communities that originated in the interdependence between the land and the people. The boundaries of these communities were established along watershed lines. Abundant and clean water was the most valuable resources, and a healthy native forest was the source of such water. Preserving healthy forests, wetlands, farmland, rivers, reefs and other resources also preserved their very way of life.

Video: "Water" by Know Your Food

Agriculture depends on water, but in many parts of the world water is a scarce resource. Effectively managing watersheds helps farmers both preserve their farms while also protecting the environment, while new technologies like drip irrigation help conserve water by putting small amounts precisely where it’s needed, which greatly reduces water waste.

How do you strive to conserve water in your day-to-day life?



For the past three years, the Lexicon of Sustainability has sought out the foremost practitioners of sustainability in food and farming to gain their insights and experiences on this important subject. What began as a photography project to spread their knowledge has grown to include short films, study guides, traveling shows, a book, and a website where people can add their own terms to this ever-evolving lexicon. See more at

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