Not All Watersheds Are Created Equal: Natural Boundaries Also Predict Patterns Of Inequality

Patterns of inequality in exposure to environmental pollutants exist around the world today, even right here in our backyards. Such patterns of injustice, observed over the past few decades, are often researched and discussed in the body of scholarship known as Environmental Justice. Researchers who work in this field typically study patterns of exposure by race and class, documenting the fact that the underprivileged in society are exposed to harmful pollutants and environmental hazards to a greater degree than other groups.

This body of scholarship has established that there are differences in race and class in regards to harmful environmental exposure — a finding that continues to motivate scholars to try to understand the problem and identify potential solutions. While the majority of contemporary studies focus on exposure differences using what we call “firm” boundaries (those that are determined by people, such as county lines, zip codes, or boundaries determined by census information), instead, in our paper (recently published in Applied Geography) we use watershed boundaries (non-human determined) to study inequality, recognizing the reality that we live in a coupled system comprised of both social and biophysical forces.


Every investigation into a problem includes determining what unit of analysis to focus on; in other words, will the researcher study an individual, an organization, a society, a program? What are the defining boundaries for the person/people/thing(s)/processes you will study and analyze? This will help in determining your unit of analysis, an important step in the first stages of research. Environmental Justice scholarship includes many geographic investigations looking at firm boundaries between states, counties, and cities, as well as census block groups and zip codes. Scholars recognize that trying to separate the social from the biophysical is overly simplistic and problematic — bringing the two together in a socially focused investigation enables us to gain a better understanding of environmental problems that we face. As a simple example, one may consider air pollution. While it most certainly impacts people, it also impacts the foliage on trees, the soil, and can cause fish kills through acid rain. As scientists focused on whole inquiry, we mustn’t limit our units of analysis to predetermined or human-made categories – the environment itself can provide useful measures that can tell us a lot about how we interact with it.

To bring environmental features into a socially focused analysis, we decided to use watershed boundaries as our study units rather than firm boundaries. Watersheds are natural boundaries between water bodies where any water that enters that boundary (from rain to pollution discharges) makes its way into that watershed’s waterways. Therefore, what happens in that watershed impacts the water there directly, which includes local pollution, outputs, inputs, human activity, and nonhuman occurrences. Watershed units thus provide us with an opportunity to observe a system at work with multiple interacting parts, both social and non-social. Because the watershed contains several human and non-human interacting elements, it provides a boundary that is at once organic and inclusive rather than predetermined by an arbitrary line drawn on a map or by a random zip code.

The watershed’s inclusive nature allows us to connect the condition of the waterways within it to its social aspects, which also enables us to provide environmental managers with important information on current conditions of watersheds and identify any water bodies that may need improvement. There are differences between water quality and activity with some watersheds facing higher pollution than others from many sources including hazardous waste discharges. Differences between where people live are present as well. Environmental Justice research utilizes social indicators of inequality including race and class differences to identify areas of unequal impact. It is known that people of color face greater environmental hazards than counterparts, and class differences exist among people who are impoverished facing greater environmental burdens. These patterns exist across and within human-made boundaries, but do they also exist across watersheds? According to our research, the answer is yes, they do.

We found that in the watershed and sub-watersheds we examined, race was an important predictor of watershed quality. Watersheds with a higher percentage of minority residents were more likely to be impaired or face noticeable impacts than those areas with fewer minority residents. The same pattern was present but less apparent for poverty. The pattern of racial inequality, known to exist between human-derived boundaries, has also been observed between the natural boundaries of watersheds. Those watersheds also contained higher numbers of hazardous pollutant discharges contributing to ongoing water quality problems.


While the results are most relevant to the watershed we studied, there is room for recommendations to other watersheds across the state and nation. Watershed management could be improved if the social benefits of improving water quality were also considered along with the water itself. Further, new research into watershed and waterway differences in other parts of the country will help us learn where else this might be a problem. Efforts to improve urban waterways could also help people move toward equitable exposure to the many benefits of living near waterways and having access to clean water for recreation and other enjoyment.

These findings are described in the article entitled The environment and environmental justice: Linking the biophysical and the social using watershed boundaries, recently published in the journal Applied Geography. The work was conducted by Dustin T. Hill, Mary B. Collins, and Elizabeth S. Vidon at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse.



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