October 03, 2007


I was writing a section of a book about groundwater chemistry and we made a diagram of a watershed including an aquifer, and aquitard, an artesian well and a landfill leaking a plume of contamination. There was a hill on the left of a figure and a river on the right and the groundwater flowed towards the river. My coauthor labeled the hill 'watershed' and I said no, a watershed is a geographical region draining into a single body of water like a river or lake. He disagreed, citing a similar Danish word, and said that a watershed is the line where water could flow in either direction. No I said, that is called a divide, like the Great Divide or the Continental Divide. So I looked it up in Wiktionary and it turns out we are both right. The English word 'watershed' is taken from the German word wasserscheide which means 'water divide'. In Europe that is the meaning, the watershed is the boundary dividing two adjacent catchment basins. In the US it is the region of land draining into a body of water. I never would have guessed that there would be a major linguistic divide over such a pedestrian word. I wonder what the Canadians mean by watershed?


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