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Wisconsin’s healthy watersheds assessments

tranquil day by a stream

Wisconsin contains a diversity of water resources that support public health, recreation and the local economy. Once waters become degraded, significant time and funds are required for restoration. Looking proactively toward the future, the DNR is asking:

  • Where are our water resources likely to be healthiest?
  • Which locations may be most vulnerable to future degradation?

By focusing our efforts on these waters and partnering with local entities, we can prioritize protection efforts so that these healthy watersheds remain healthy.

EPA's national effort

In 2013, Wisconsin DNR partnered with U.S. EPA to develop a model-based assessment tool for all the watersheds in the state. This tool ranks each watershed based on many aspects of the watershed condition, including water quality, hydrology, habitat, and biological condition. The assessment results are a modeled prediction of both overall watershed health and vulnerability, which are presented in a series of maps and ranking scores.

Using the ranking scores

The results should be used in a comparative sense: a watershed's rank indicates how it scored when compared to all other watersheds in the state. The ranking scores are not, by themselves, an indication of whether a watershed's overall health is "good" or "bad," or meets certain thresholds. Rather, the results are best used as a broad-level screening tool to compare watersheds to one another and begin targeting appropriate locations for monitoring and management actions.

Aquatic ecosystem health assessment

The Aquatic Ecosystem Health Assessment is made up of four main categories: Hydrologic Condition, Habitat Condition/Geomorphology, Water Quality and Biological Condition. Within these categories are a variety of metrics. For more information about each metric and how it was derived, see the Healthy Watersheds Assessment Final Report [PDF].

Aquatic ecosystem health assessment

Watershed vulnerability assessment

The Watershed Vulnerability Assessment is made up of three main categories: Climate Change, Land Use Change and Water Use. Each of these three categories was developed using specific metrics, as shown below. For more information about each metric and how it was derived, see the Healthy Watersheds Assessment Final Report [PDF].

Watershed vulnerability assessment


Health and vulnerability overlay

One of the most powerful ways to use these rankings as a screening-level tool is to overlay the "Health" scores with the "Vulnerability" scores [PDF]. This helps pinpoint two useful things:

Health and vulnerability overlay
  • Those watersheds that are most healthy but also most vulnerable to future degradation, shown in blue on the map. These are watersheds that could be considered for protection priorities, to prevent future degradation and maintain their high quality.
  • Those watersheds that are less healthy but are not very vulnerable to future degradation, shown in red on the map. These watersheds may be more stable over time, so restoration actions taken here may have a better chance at maintenance and success in the future. These watersheds could be considered for restoration priorities.

The types of protection or restoration that might be most appropriate for each watershed can be explored by viewing the individual metric scores for the watersheds, which will help predict what the problem issues may be. This screening-level exercise should be followed by a discussion with local experts who are familiar with the actual land uses and conditions of the watershed.

Report, maps and data

Interactive Map

Use DNR’s interactive mapping tool to zoom to your location and view the maps and scores from the Healthy Watersheds Assessments.