Key Concept - Health

Lake Pepin and surrounding community

A healthy watershed is a portion of a landscape that functions well; intact natural systems cycle water, nutrients, and energy to provide:  

  • clean air and water,
  • diverse, self-sustaining plant and animal populations,
  • strong, vibrant human communities,
  • resilience to address future conditions. 

The Science of Watershed Health

While describing a healthy watershed may seem straightforward, the science of watershed health requires constant exchange of information to better understand how systems work together to provide health and resilience over time.

Healthy and unhealthy responses occur in our natural systems and our human communities as conditions change.  Studying this constant flow of interaction requires a range of perspectives. The science of watershed health encourages innovation that acknowledges this complexity, shares failures and successes, and adapts quickly to new learning.   

Interested in the science of complex systems?  Visit our recommended readings page to dig deeper.

Managing for Watershed Health

Health is a process, not a place or a product.  Managing for health requires us to enhance the processes necessary for diverse, sustainable systems to emerge over time.  It requires us to evolve in the way we interact with each other and with our natural systems. The most basic products we value, such as air, water, food, shelter and climate stability; are derivatives of functioning systems and processes. Managing for watershed health embraces this understanding.

If you want to manage for watershed health, you need to be able to measure your health condition. Applying the health scores from across all 5-components during an exploration of your watershed, can illuminate new relationships between landscape conditions, context and responses.


physician and ecologist measuring health

Measuring watershed health requires values that represent and compare how well ecological systems are functioning. A physician decides if a human patient appears healthy based on vital signs like body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate; while considering the patients age and family health history. An ecologist decides if a watershed appears healthy based on conditions like habitat quality, diverse animal communities, stream flow, lake characteristics, presence of contaminants; while considering the climate, geology, and land use history.

Watershed Health Scores

Perennial Cover Health Score statewide

To assess the health status of Minnesota's watersheds, the WHAF developed watershed health scores to serve as comparable 'vital signs'. All WHAF health scores:

  • represent a meaningful ecological relationship,
  • are calculated statewide,
  • use data that will be collected over time for tracking trends,
  • are scaled 0 (degraded health/ high risk) to 100 (intact health / low risk),
  • use a 'red to green' color ramp for low to high health scores.

A five component framework is used to organize a comprehensive suite of health scores. The five components are:

5 ecological component icons and names

 To learn more about the full range of available of health scores: