Headwaters and the Journey to the Sea
By Christy Foote-Smith

To understand "headwaters" in all their complexity, one must be familiar with the idea of the "watershed." Roughly a decade ago, I shifted my thinking about wetlands from individual swamps and marshes and bogs and began to see them as integral components of the watersheds in which they lie. Watersheds are all those lands from which water runs to a river, a lake, or the ocean. Waterfalls as rain (or snow) and either seeps into soil and becomes groundwater or flows across the land surface to form streams. Wetlands form in low spots where water lingers on the land surface or bubbles up from underground. Ground waters, wetlands, lakes, streams, the river, and the land surface are all parts of the dynamic system we call a watershed.

Watersheds are like our lives. They have beginnings, middles, and ends. The end of the watershed is where water leaves the watershed and enters a lake, a bigger watershed, or the ocean. The middle is the main stem of the river where water from many tributaries has collected into a large channel that winds through the landscape. The beginning of the watershed is the most fascinating of all. This is where small drops of rain strike the soil and begin the long journey to the sea.

When I think of the headwaters of a river I almost always hear the opening bars of the 19th Century Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s symphonic tone poem The Moldau. Humming, I close my eyes, follow the music, and see raindrops forming puddles, joining in rivulets, dancing over small stones, winding, tripping, and flashing in the sun. Headwaters are joyous birthing places, the modest beginnings of great rivers.

We tend to think of the headwaters of a great river as occurring in just one place, at the "top" of the watershed, as if it were the top of a mountain. In fact, watersheds are shaped like bowls. Therefore, the top of a watershed occurs all along its rim at many locations. For every river, and for every watershed, there are many headwaters. Many small streams contribute to the mighty river just as many ideas contribute to the ocean that is our human society.

In the shallow channels and pools of headwater areas, there is more time for soil, plants, and water to interact. This is where chemical changes can take place as pollutants cling to soil particles or are absorbed by roots. Nowhere in the watershed is this cleansing process as efficient as in the small, shallow backwaters at the heads of streams. Perhaps this is what was meant when the phrase "clear-headed" was coined.

The watershed dynamic is both linear and cyclical, and it is important to recognize both of these aspects. The raindrops that begin their journey in the headwaters were once part of the great ocean that girds this planet. They returned to the atmosphere through evaporation, ready to repeat their journey through the watershed. And, it is to the clean, clear headwaters that anadromous fish, such as salmon and herring, return from a life at sea to lay eggs and complete their life cycle. Headwaters are, therefore, both the beginning and the end for these species.
In our highly disturbed landscape, small headwater streams have accentuated ecological significance. These streams are the most vulnerable to human disturbances from logging, road building, and development. Because they are small, they react rapidly to these changes. If downstream areas have undergone significant alteration, relatively undisturbed headwater areas can help maintain a balance within the watershed for both water quality and biological diversity. Biological diversity, an indicator of ecological health, is measured by the number of species represented in a community. In highly degraded river systems, unaltered headwaters can act as refuges for biological diversity. As long as these headwater refuges and the genetic material they harbor are protected, there is always hope that the degraded watershed can be biologically restored.

Perhaps, if we can embrace both the science and the metaphor of the watershed, we can begin to heal our environment and ourselves. We must keep in mind, always, as we pass through the watersheds of our lives, that headwaters are both the beginning and the end of the journey to the sea.