Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.
What does this mean?

Understanding the Watersheds That Provide Our Drinking Water

A complex web of factors impacts the health of these important water sources.

This is the second of a three-part series designed to help readers understand the watersheds they depend on for drinking water and to provide easy-to-understand information on water quality. Read Part I of the series here.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a watershed is “a land area that channels rainfall and snowmelt to creeks, streams and rivers, and eventually to outflow points such as reservoirs, bays and the ocean.” Because your drinking water comes from your local watershed, the quality of water in that watershed impacts the safety and reliability of your drinking water.

While drinking water utilities work hard to ensure the water they provide is safe to drink, the measures they take are partially determined by the water quality in watersheds.

Organizations such as the American Water Works Association (AWWA), National Association of Water Companies (NAWC), Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA), American Rivers, US Water Alliance and others support drinking water utilities in efforts to keep watersheds clean.

Residents can help drinking water utilities by understanding key factors that positively or negatively impact water quality and getting involved in organizations that support the health of their local watershed.


Since the passage of water quality legislation in the 1970s, water quality in the United States has improved significantly. Still, approximately 50 percent of water bodies in the U.S. are currently considered “impaired.

The Clean Water Act passed in 1972 improved water quality in our nation’s waterways by limiting water pollution and setting discharge regulations.

The Safe Drinking Water Act passed in 1974 aimed to protect drinking water supplies such as lakes, rivers and reservoirs. It also set national standards for drinking water safety

Water quality is directly impacted by the land activity surrounding watersheds. Agricultural, industrial and urban runoff during heavy precipitation can contaminate watersheds and reduce the aquatic life that sustains healthy watersheds. Even individual actions such as overuse of pesticides and fertilizers on lawns or pouring toxic household chemicals down the drain can contribute to impaired watershed health.

While many things influence watershed health, some key factors that are essential for good watershed health include:

  • Riparian buffers
  • Native land vegetation
  • Undisturbed floodplains
  • Intact native habitat to support plant, animal and aquatic life
  • Fully functioning headwaters

These attributes require concerted, collective effort to preserve, restore and maintain the land surrounding watersheds.


Healthy watersheds mean healthy ecosystems, which in turn provide water filtration, flood and erosion control; promote biodiversity; and reduce vulnerability to invasive species and the impacts of climate change.

Healthy watersheds are not just good for ecosystem health. They also improve human health. Studies show that routine exposure to green space and waterways produces:

  • Lower illness rates
  • Decreased stress levels
  • Improved cognition and attention
  • Higher likelihood of exercise
  • Lower health-care costs

Because the interaction between water and land dynamics is complex, it is difficult to translate the above benefits into economic terms, but a strong body of research supports the idea that healthy watersheds are associated with improved mental and physical health.

There are also economic benefits to supporting good water quality. Healthy watersheds reduce treatment and infrastructure costs for drinking water, reduce flood mitigation costs, increase property values, and generate revenue from tourism and recreation.


True Elements developed True Qi scores to provide government leaders and constituents with information to support decision-making, help prioritize action and promote greater collective water stewardship.

True Qi scores are set within a 70- to 100-point range, as they are intended to provide greater clarity into water quality for non-water professionals. Please note that the drinking water data used to calculate True Qi drinking water scores indicates whether water meets safe drinking water standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Here is how True Qi scores are created:*

True Elements captures publicly available data from more than 900 consumer confidence reports (CCRs) from water providers serving 75,000 customers or more and, where possible, state drinking water quality data (Pennsylvania and Florida) to create True Qi drinking water scores. Each CCR may include a single public water system or multiple systems. True Elements aggregates this data into a single platform, then translates the data into easy-to-understand scores and visualizations, down to the ZIP code level.

Consumer Confidence Reports (CCRs) are reports the EPA requires community drinking water providers to issue to its customers once a year. CCRs provide valuable information about drinking water quality. More information about CCRs can be found here.

True Qi drinking water scores are based on levels of 78 contaminants** identified in the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. Scores are calculated by deducting points from a score of 100 for each contaminant found to be above the EPA's Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG). For any contaminant detected, points are deducted based on the contaminant’s concentration and the EPA's description of potential severity of impact on human health*** (more points are deducted as the potential health impact increases). The score reflects a total weighted deduction based on EPA monitoring protocols, contaminant-specific health goals and maximum allowable levels.

If you are concerned about the quality of your drinking water, contact your water provider. If you do not know your water provider, you may be able to find it here. You may also contact the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791.

Click on the map above to access True Qi drinking water scores in your area or anywhere in the U.S.

Click here for a brief video demonstrating how to find a True Qi drinking water score for your specific location.

*See “What You Should Know About Drinking Water Quality” for frequently asked questions and answers.

For more information about True Elements or True Qi drinking water scores, please contact us.

Next week, read Part III of the What’s in Your Water? What You Should Know and Why series that covers why an understanding of water resources is critical for a water resilient future for all.

** Although Acrylamide, Cryptosporidium, Epichlorohydrin, Fecal Coliform and E. coli, Giardia lamblia, Heterotrophic plate count (HPC), Legionella, total coliforms, turbidity, and viruses (enteric) are included in CCRs (and shown on True Elements’ platform), they are not factored into True Qi drinking water scores due to reporting and normalizing complexities.

***More information on health impacts as specified by the EPA National Primary Drinking Water Regulations can be found here.
True Elements transforms water and data complexity into clear, easy to understand insights for fully informed, effective decision making.
From Our Partners