Target Grade Level / Age Range

Adults and older youth (aged 12-18) with basic understanding of watersheds


40 to 50 minutes


An inquiry based approach to discussing water quality issues surrounding watersheds and the decision making processes that go into improving those water quality issues.


  • Watershed Activity Board(s)
  • Situation news release
  • Board agenda
  • Set(s) of water test result cards – (blue cards with secchi disk: A-H)
  • Set(s) of investigation results cards – (yellow cards: 1-10)
  • Set(s) of potential BMP/Improvement cards – (green cards)
  • Food coloring – green, red, blue
  • Clear plastic cups
  • Water

Suggested Companion Resources


  • Watershed – a watershed is an area of land where all of the water that drains off of it goes into the same place.  Typically the boundaries of a watershed are defined by geographical features like a mountain range or other high elevation.  All living things in a watershed become inextricably linked by their common water course. 
  • Secchi disk – is used to measure water transparency and is related to water turbidity.
  • BMP (best management practice) – used to describe types of water pollution control.  This may refer to a principal control or treatment technique.
  • Nitrate/nitrogen – nitrogen or nitrates are an important part of agriculture.  Nitrogen in the form of ammonium is often added to corn crops as fertilizer.  All plants need nitrogen to grow.  Soybeans and other legumes don’t need nitrogen fertilizer because they have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria that produce the nitrogen the plant needs by pulling it from the air.  Nitrogen fertilizer that is added to corn and other crops might not all be used by the plant.  Unused nitrogen can leach through the soil or runoff the field with excess water.  Nitrogen can also be found in animal waste from undigested and partially digested plant matter.
  • Turbidity/sediment – turbidity refers to the amount of sediment particles that are suspended in water that causes cloudiness or haziness and is a key test of water quality.  Sediment is naturally occurring material broken down through weathering or erosion and transported by water or other means. 
  • PPM (parts per million) – this is a way of expressing the concentration of something in water. 

Interest Approach or Motivator

As new members of a community organization interested in improving local water quality – The Cedar River Watershed Association – you will play a key role in examining simulated water samples, exploring the land users in your community, and then creating a plan for improving your watershed on a limited budget.

There is no one solution to this activity and the results are dependent upon the creativity, opinions and ideas of the participants.

Background – Agricultural Connections

We all live in a watershed – the area that drains to a common waterway, such as a stream, lake, estuary, wetland, aquifer, or even the ocean – and our individual actions can directly affect it.  Working together using a watershed approach will help protect our nation’s water resources.


  1. Break the class into two or more small groups of 4-10 people each.  Smaller groups will allow for deeper discussion and greater participation from each member.  Larger groups will allow for greater diversity of opinion and more chance for debate.
  2. Present each group with a watershed map and allow them to become familiar with it.  Present each group with the news release.  Have each group read it independently or have the larger group read it together.  Discuss initial reactions:  What might be the potential causes for the creek impairment? 
  3. Scenario: Each team is voting members of the watershed association.  They have been granted a budget of $200,000 to implement solutions to address the creek impairment problems.  Present each group with the agenda for the meeting.
  4. Present each group with a sealed envelope of the water test results.  Students read the results.  Place a clear plastic cup on each letter of the map filled with equal amounts of water.  Based on the instructions of each card, place the appropriate number of food coloring drops into each cup to represent nitrates, sediment or hazardous substances.  Use the secchi disks on the cards to examine water quality.
  5. Present each group with a sealed envelope of the investigation results.  Have each group discuss their findings and how each site contributed to the watershed impairment.
  6. Present each group with the sealed envelope of cards with the potential BMP/improvements.  Each potential BMP/improvement costs $50,000 to implement.  Remember, you only have a budget of $200,000.  Ultimately you can only choose for solutions.  Each group should discuss the potential solutions.
  7. Each group should prepare and present a plan which implements their four chosen improvement practices in our watershed.

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)

Did you know? (Ag facts)

  • The agricultural sector uses up to 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals growing crops and raising livestock.
  • Farmers use a number of different tactics to maximize the benefit of water usage and minimize the potential harmful effects of leaching and soil erosion.  Some of these tactics include no-till farming, planting cover crops, irrigation scheduling, tailwater return systems, buffer zones, and terracing.
  • Variable rate technology allows for different segments of the field to receive different levels of chemicals to be applied based on the nutrient level in the soil or other affecting factors.  This in turn reduces the chemical that might leach through the soil or wash away with runoff. 
  • In the U.S. there are 2,267 defined watersheds.

Extension Activities

  • Students can write a paper discussing their findings and outlining their solutions.
  • Students can water tests on bodies of water in their community to determine nitrate levels and turbidity levels.
  • Contact an environmental specialists or city water works employee and interview them about the types of water quality issues they deal with.


Original activity from The Pennsylvania State University


Will Fett

Organization Affiliation

Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation

Agriculture Literacy Outcomes

  • Theme 1:  Agriculture and the Environment
    • Discover how natural resources are used and conserved in agriculture (e.g., soil conservation, water conservation)
    • Describe benefits and challenges of using conservation practices for natural resources (e.g., soil, water, and forests), in agricultural systems which impact water, air, and soil quality
    • Discuss (from multiple perspectives) land and water use by various groups (i.e., ranchers, farmers, hunters, miners, recreational users, government, etc.), and how each use carries a specific set of benefits and consequences that affect people and the environment
    • Describe resource and conservation management practices used in agricultural systems (e.g., riparian management, rotational grazing, no till farming, crop and variety selection, wildlife management, timber harvesting techniques)
    • Describe how wildlife habitats are created and maintained by farmers/ranchers and why these habitats are important (e.g., promoting pollinator habitat, insect refuges, creating buffer zones for nutrient management, etc.)
    • Identify non-native or invasive species in your state that impact the sustainability and/or economic value of natural or agricultural ecosystems
    • Evaluate the various definitions of “sustainable agriculture,” considering population growth, carbon footprint, environmental systems, land and water resources, and economics
    • Understand the natural cycles that govern the flow of nutrients as well as the way various nutrients (organic and inorganic) move through and affect farming and natural systems
  • Theme 4:  Science, Technology, Engineering & Math
    • Identify specific technologies that have reduced labor in agriculture
    • Discuss how technology has changed over time to help farmers/ranchers provide more food to more people
    • Provide examples of science and technology used in agricultural systems (e.g., GPS, artificial insemination, biotechnology, soil testing, ethanol production, etc.); explain how they meet our basic needs; and detail their social, economic, and environmental impacts
    • Identify science careers related to both producers and consumers of agricultural products
    • Identify current and emerging scientific discoveries and technologies and their possible use in agriculture (e.g., biotechnology, bio-chemical, mechanical, etc.)
    • Evaluate the benefits and concerns related to the application of technology to agricultural systems (e.g., biotechnology)
    • Discuss population growth and the benefits and concerns related to science and technologies applied in agriculture to increase yields and maintain sustainability

      Education Content Standards

Next Generation Science Standards

  • LS: Life Sciences
    • Middle School. Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems
      • MS-LS2-5.              Evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services.
    • High School. Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems
      • HS-LS2-7.               Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity.
  • ESS: Earth and Space Sciences
    • Middle School. Earth's Systems
      • MS-ESS2-4.            Develop a model to describe the cycling of water through Earth's systems driven by energy from the sun and the force of gravity.
    • Middle School. Human Impacts
      • MS-ESS3-3.            Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment.
    • High School. Earth's Systems
      • HS-ESS2-2.             Analyze geoscience data to make the claim that one change to Earth's surface can create feedbacks that cause changes to other Earth systems.
      • HS-ESS2-5.             Plan and conduct an investigation of the properties of water and its effects on Earth materials and surface processes.
    • High School. Human Sustainability
      • HS-ESS3-4.             Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.
      • HS-ESS3-6.             Use a computational representation to illustrate the relationships among Earth systems and how those relationships are being modified due to human activity.
  • ETS: Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science
    • Middle School. Engineering Design
      • MS-ETS1-1.            Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.
      • MS-ETS1-2.            Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
    • High School. Engineering Design
      • HS-ETS1-3.             Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

        Common Core Connections

English Language Arts Standards » Science & Technical Subjects » Grade 6-8
  • RST.6-8.1
    • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.
  • RST.6-8.3
    • Follow precisely a multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks.
  • RST.6-8.7
    • Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table).
  • RST.6-8.9
    • Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic.
English Language Arts Standards » Science & Technical Subjects » Grade 9-10
  • RST.9-10.1
    • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to the precise details of explanations or descriptions.
  • RST.9-10.7
    • Translate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text into visual form (e.g., a table or chart) and translate information expressed visually or mathematically (e.g., in an equation) into words.
English Language Arts Standards » Science & Technical Subjects » Grade 11-12
  • RST.11-12.4
    • Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 11-12 texts and topics.
  • RST.11-12.7
    • Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., quantitative data, video, multimedia) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • RST.11-12.9
    • Synthesize information from a range of sources (e.g., texts, experiments, simulations) into a coherent understanding of a process, phenomenon, or concept, resolving conflicting information when possible.
English Language Arts Standards » Speaking & Listening » Grade 6-12
  • SL.6-12.1
    • Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 6-12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
  • SL.6-8.4
    • Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound valid reasoning, and well-chosen details; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.
  • SL.9-12.4
    • Present information, findings, and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed, and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and a range of formal and informal tasks.
Standards for Mathematical Practice
  • MP.2
    • Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
  • MP.3
    • Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
  • MP.4
    • Model with mathematics.
Grade 6 » Ratios & Proportional Relationships
  • 6.RP.A.3
    • Use ratio and rate reasoning to solve real-world and mathematical problems.
Grade 7 » Expressions & Equations
  • 7.EE.B.3
    • Solve multi-step real-life and mathematical problems posed with positive and negative rational numbers in any form (whole numbers, fractions, and decimals), using tools strategically. Apply properties of operations to calculate with numbers in any form; convert between forms as appropriate; and assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies.
Grade 7 » Ratios & Proportional Relationships
  • 7.RP.A.3
    • Use proportional relationships to solve multistep ratio and percent problems. Examples: simple interest, tax, markups and markdowns, gratuities and commissions, fees, percent increase and decrease, percent error.
High School: Number and Quantity » Quantities
  • HSN.Q.A.1
    • Use units as a way to understand problems and to guide the solution of multi-step problems; choose and interpret units consistently in formulas; choose and interpret the scale and the origin in graphs and data displays.
  • HSN.Q.A.2
    • Define appropriate quantities for the purpose of descriptive modeling.
High School: Statistics & Probability » Making Inferences & Justifying Conclusions
  • HSS-IC.B.6
    • Evaluate reports based on data.

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