Depending on where we live, we cross quite a few creeks, streams, branches, or ditches as we drive to work each day. Each waterway we cross is part of a massive network of perhaps three million streams that drain to rivers or lakes and ultimately, to the sea. Each stream has its own watershed that encompasses all of the land that drains to the point where we cross it. Collectively, these small watersheds provide critical natural services that sustain or enrich our daily lives: they supply our drinking water, provide critical habitat for plants and animals, are areas of natural beauty, and water bodies for recreation and relaxation. As part of this watershed network, small streams are an important element of our local geography, and confer a strong sense of place in a community.
A watershed is an area of land that drains to a common point. HRWC works primarily in the upper 1,006 square miles of the upper Hiwassee River watershed in Georgia and North Carolina. The “common point” that we use to define the upper Hiwassee River watershed is Apalachia Dam near the North Carolina-Tennessee state line. Almost all of the waterways within Towns and Union counties in north Georgia and Cherokee and Clay counties in southwestern North Carolina ultimately flow into the Hiwassee River and then west out of NC through Apalachia Dam. Our watershed includes the Nottely and Valley Rivers and Brasstown Creek.
The mountains that form our watershed boundary on the southeastern edge also form the southeastern-most part of the Eastern Continental Divide. That makes our watershed unique. Rivers in almost all of Georgia and the vast majority of North Carolina flow directly to the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. However, the Hiwassee River flows north and west into the Tennessee River and then north again into the Ohio River. Finally, the waters make their way south via the Mississippi River, entering the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans, Louisiana. Another term for watershed is river basin. We are part of the huge Mississippi River Basin that drains two-thirds of the United States! The Mississippi River watershed is the third largest river basin in the world.