We have all heard the age-old adage April showers bring May flowers. April raindrops rejuvenate the Earth and prepare the ground for spring. Where does all the rain go and how does it make way for the beautiful flowers we enjoy? Follow along on the journey of a raindrop from the clouds as it travels through watersheds and finds its home in a farm field.

Where does water go when it rains?

An aerial view of a wooded hillside with multiple riverways emptying into each other. There is a lot of greenery and trees with fingers of riverways interlaced.

Water always seeks the lowest point – gravity pulls water downhill.

Some rainwater infiltrates, or soaks, into the ground to recharge the groundwater. This moisture might be absorbed by plants to help them grow or the water may seep into an underground aquifer before it travels to the nearest stream.

The water that doesn’t soak into the ground is called “surface water”. Rainfall and snowmelt are two main sources of surface water.

When rain falls on the roof of a house, for example, the drops travel down the slope of the roof and into the gutter. You might observe the water flowing out of the gutter, across the driveway, and into a storm drain that empties into a ditch or waterway.

According to NOAA, rainfall and snowmelt travel through a watershed until the water ultimately ends up in a lake or ocean.

What is a watershed?

An illustrated graphic of a watershed. The graphic shows rain falling at the top of a hillside and draining into a river at the base of the hill.

A watershed consists of all the streams, creeks and rivers that flow into a common body of water like a lake. Watersheds can be small, like a local lake and the surrounding streams. Watersheds can also span thousands of square miles, like the Mississippi Watershed which spans from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians.

Think of a watershed like a bowl. The creeks, rivers, hills and peaks are the bowl’s mouth and sides. Any water that starts at the top of the bowl will ultimately end up at the bottom of the bowl in a common body of water like a lake.

As water flows, it may pick up pollutants along the way. Pollutants in one creek or stream will ripple as the water travels out of the creek and into a larger body of water like a lake or ocean. Imagine a piece of trash on the side of the road. The wind may carry that trash into a creek and that creek empties into a larger river which empties into a lake or bay. Any pollutants upstream can ultimately affect the entire watershed.

How does farming affect watersheds?

According to the most recent census of agriculture, farmers are responsible for stewarding 40% of the land in the United States. Water sources may be adjacent to or run through areas represented in the 900 million acres of farmland in the U.S.

Nutrients from farm fields must be responsibly managed so they do not have a negative impact on the watershed.

The same water that falls onto your house during a storm likely travels through a shared watershed with your community farmers.

How do farmers protect water?

Looking out from the top of a hillside overlooking a valley filled with farm fields and grassy pasture.

Farmers are the first line of defense in protecting our water supply.

Farmers follow nutrient management plans to responsibly apply fertilizer to their crops. Similar to following the guidelines from your pediatrician or doctor, farmers work with experts that write a prescription for their fields to apply precise amounts of fertilizer where it is needed.

Conservation practices like cover crops and buffer zones help to prevent erosion and runoff into waterways. These extra measures of protection act like a sponge and filter, holding soil and nutrients in place.

Farmer-led watershed groups play an important role in protecting and enhancing water quality. These groups are made up of farmers from the same watershed who have voluntarily joined forces to advance conservation and protect the water sources in their community.

How can we support healthy watersheds?

We all share the responsibility of protecting our water resources. It is important to be mindful of our waste and the potential pollutants that might travel from our own homes into our watersheds. Keep trash contained in the appropriate bins, properly dispose of waste fluids from your car or lawnmower and follow local guidelines for discarding yard waste.

May the journey of a raindrop serve as a reminder that we are all connected in our watersheds and inspire us to embrace our role as stewards of our resources. We can all work together to ensure that the April showers of today bring not just May flowers, but a flourishing and sustainable future for all.