Watershed Characterization and Land Use Planning

Watershed characterization is a useful tool for including watershed condition in the planning process. Land use planning and permit decisions are usually made using site scale information. Rarely are these decisions adequately informed by an understanding of ecosystem processes or watershed conditions. One of the keys to effective mitigation is to move away from site-by-site piecemeal solutions, and towards a broader ecosystem view to achieve a more functional and resilient natural system.


  • Sustain and restore aquatic resources.
  • Establish a common approach to coordinate planning efforts.
  • Involve the community in developing a green infrastructure plan.
  • Promote the integration of the Growth Management Act (GMA) and Shoreline Management Act (SMA).
  • Support Shoreline Management Plan (SMP) updates by:
    • Establishing a framework for characterizing landscape processes and developing a restoration plan as required under the SMA.
    • Promoting "no net loss" of shoreline and wetland function.


  • Provides for the comprehensive long term protection of aquatic resources and maintenance of quality of life.
  • Guides future development (e.g. “green infrastructure” ) to:
    • Identify and avoid development patterns that cause problems difficult for a community to correct in the future.
    • Provide background information necessary for completing SMP and comprehensive plan updates, including critical areas ordinances.
    • Reduce total development costs.
  • Streamlines permitting because it can:
    • Provide a predictable permitting environment for developers.
    • Reduce permit review, project implementation and enforcement time.
    • Provide more local control and less state overview.
  • Provides flexibility to meet the needs of the community.

Watershed Characterization

In its most basic form, watershed characterization information can help identify areas that are:

  • priorities for acquisition (or protection via conservation easements),
  • more appropriate for restoration and/or mitigation/conservation banks,
  • less likely damaged by development impacts to ecosystem or watershed processes.

Where watershed characterization reveals major conflicts between ideal and actual land uses, planners and permit writers should acknowledge these conflicts and learn from these situations to reduce future siting conflicts. Local governments can and should use characterization information to support the development of local shoreline master plans and critical area ordinances.


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