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Land Use vs. Watershed Management Degrees

Susette has a Master's degree in Sustainable Development. She leads her local Green Council and writes for The Sustainable Business Review.

Feeding ducks at a beautiful wastewater reclamation pond set up as a public park in Los Angeles County.

Feeding ducks at a beautiful wastewater reclamation pond set up as a public park in Los Angeles County.

A Career in Land Use Planning

Droughts are becoming more prevalent in certain parts of the world, while floods are becoming stronger and more devastating in other parts of the world. The public is becoming aware that many of these extremes are exacerbated by human activities. And governments are responding by asking universities, nonprofits, and private consultants to provide them with research they can use to guide them in regulating more carefully and in watershed restoration.

All of this leads to job opportunities for young people looking for a career. Whereas land use planning used to focus on utilizing municipal lands wisely—choosing between manufacturing, corporate, residential, and sometimes agricultural land use—now a need has emerged for people who also understand how to preserve a watershed. To find out if you could be such a person, or if one of your friends or family could be, you can ask yourself some questions.

Do You Care About Water?

Do you recognize the integral part that water plays in maintaining the earth's natural systems and helping it thrive? Are you determined to do something positive for the environment—be part of a new way of conducting business that honors the ways of Nature? Are you tired of seeing the destruction and pollution caused by those who would exploit, rather than respect Nature? Are you willing to acknowledge Nature as having its own intelligence and be a partner to that? Humanity needs more people like you, who care about managing the earth's fresh water supply wisely.

Wise Water Management

Where are our watershed wisdom providers going to come from? Experience is showing that wise water management is key to the success of a civilization, since water is at the center of physical, community, and economic health. We can't live or conduct business without it.

When we destroy a watershed, we hurt the environment, all other living things, our work, and ourselves. This is happening now all over the world, including in California's San Joaquin Valley and Louisiana's New Orleans area with floods, droughts, and land subsidence. Land use planning skills are no longer enough when it comes to deciding where and how to build and where not to, but considering them is a start.

Rio Grande Canyon in New Mexico—a gorgeous river still plagued by water rights lawsuits.

Rio Grande Canyon in New Mexico—a gorgeous river still plagued by water rights lawsuits.

Land Use Planning Careers

Land use planning is a well-established discipline that focuses on allocating land based on dominion. Who has the most "right" to use it? What will contribute most to economic growth? Except in extreme cases, Nature's needs are seldom considered.

Because the practice of land use planning is integral to many jobs, to some degree, this would be a worthy discipline to study. Let's consider the types of jobs available to a land use planner.

The most obvious job available as a land use planner is in city, county, or state planning departments. With the decline of land and water quality everywhere, the value of this job is starting to gain recognition. However, other industries also use land use planning types of skills. In the following sections, you will see different types of land use planner jobs and some of the decisions they have to make.

City Land Use Planning—Government bodies hire land use planners to figure out how to distribute land in a way that will be fair and will cause the least amount of conflict. This is supposed to include the preservation of natural resources, but hasn't always. At the urging of citizens who see the destruction of our watersheds, however, planners are beginning to focus more on protecting land and water, rather than using it purely for economic growth.

Private Consulting—Those government bodies that don't have experts on staff are increasingly hiring private consultants to help with planning and research. The Pacific Institute in Oakland, California is one such consultant. They produce research that promotes a sustainable environment, healthy economy, and social equity. And they hire planners. Sometimes both private and public planners hold trainings or tours for the curious public.

Explaining Albuquerque's recreation trails along  the Rio Grande River.

Explaining Albuquerque's recreation trails along the Rio Grande River.

Real Estate—Your title may be different, but land use planning skills can be invaluable when selecting land to buy or develop, planning how to develop a parcel of land, and promoting that development to financiers, government permitters, or buyers. Clarion Associates based in Chicago, Illinois is a good example. The company is a land use consulting firm that is particularly known for its expertise in plan implementation (including zoning laws), according to its website.

Banking—Banks are in positions of great power when it comes to land use. Your skills can be invaluable when evaluating a project for funding. Who will the bank finance for what type of project? Can they require a change in development plans to make a project more water and/or environmentally friendly? A number of leading banks have started environmentally friendly lending practices recently.

There are also banks set up specifically to work with land acquisition and/or renovation. These types of banks are called "land banks" and Cuyahoga Land Bank in Cleveland, Ohio is a good example.

Utilities—Utilities have more power than they realize. If a new coal mine couldn't get water or electricity, they couldn't operate. A land use planner is trained to know all the land use rules and regulations. They could be invaluable to utilities to help them make choices between resource use and economic priorities.

California's Department of Water & Power offers tours of the San Francisco Delta aqueduct that carries water to Southern California.

California's Department of Water & Power offers tours of the San Francisco Delta aqueduct that carries water to Southern California.

Law—Then there are all the lawsuits filed every year for illnesses and deaths caused by corporate water pollution and another set of lawsuits that resolve conflicting water rights claims. Law firms all over the country benefit from land use expertise, especially if an understanding of the watershed is part of the mix. Eisenhower Carlson PLLC in Tacoma, Washington is a good example of a law firm that specializes in this kind of litigation.

Note that any one of these organizations could be entrenched in old ways of doing business and resistant to your ideas. That just means there's an in-house education component you might need to take care of first. They would not have hired you if they didn't need your land use skills (assuming you told the truth about yourself during job interviews).

Watershed Management

Expanding the vision of land use planning, watershed management focuses on preservation and wise use of our most essential and precious natural resource . . . water.

Instead of looking only at a particular area's land use, the watershed management expert looks at how the development of land affects and is affected by, the entire watershed. Will it help or hurt the area's water supply? Use it up, balance it, or provide more of it (rain harvesting)? Will it pollute or help clean up the environment? Will it block the aquifer or open it to water absorption?

Watershed management also takes habitat and aesthetics into account. Will this land use contribute to habitat restoration and/or provide additional habitat? Or will it destroy habitat and/or scare wildlife away with intense noise, lights, or chemicals?

Definition of a Watershed

A watershed is an area bounded by higher ground where water collects from rain or snow melt. The water typically runs down hills or mountains and forms streams at the bottom, which come together into rivers leading to a lake or an ocean. Much of the water is also absorbed into the aquifer, becoming "groundwater," which replenishes streams as they run out. This replenishment is how streams stay full even when it hasn't rained for a while. If the water table (level of groundwater) is too low, the streams will dry out during the summer.

Graph of a simple, functional watershed. Good land use planners should have this memorized, so they know how to preserve the natural flow of water when they allocate land in their area.

Graph of a simple, functional watershed. Good land use planners should have this memorized, so they know how to preserve the natural flow of water when they allocate land in their area.

Watershed Management Training

To give you a feel for what jobs like this entail, here are some factors that government-employed watershed managers must consider when making decisions, and which you can expect to learn more about if you choose to prepare for this kind of career. The first set is also studied by land use planners.

Land Uses/Environmental Issues

  • Agriculture
  • Manufacturing & mining
  • City expansion
  • Water and energy supply
  • Recreation

Watershed Management

  • Water flow and cleanliness
  • Natural resource conservation
  • Wildlife habitat
  • Aesthetics
  • Public safety

As a major part of land use planning, a manager must understand and prioritize (or help others prioritize) all of these different components in a way that best utilizes and preserves the health of the land and its inhabitants for the long term.

Some proponents of a project will push you into believing that theirs is the only project of value, but in reality, it's not that black and white. When the health of the environment is placed first, accepting that our own health is necessarily secondary, then all of the uses above can be met to one degree or another, in one place or another. Here are potential upsides and downsides of each use that you will likely have to consider:



Provides food, increases community resilience.

Strips soils, contaminates water, uses up available water supplies.


Provides minerals & products, income from taxes, employment.

Contaminates water, big buildings block aquafir, strips vegetation, can reduce air quality, drives away wildlife, compacts soil.

City expansion

Provides housing, employees, income taxes.

Blocks aquafir, uses water, reduces air quality, too much noise & lights, drives away wildlife, compacts soil.

Water & energy supply

Provides life, electricity, expansion.

Drains aquafir, encourages overuse, enables foreign plants, destroys ecosystem.


Variety available, lots of space.

Reliance on sports can ruin environment, light & noise pollution.

Habitat Preservation

Improves health & safety, magic in working with nature, increases sensitivity and satisfaction, opportunities for photography & art.

Withholds resources that could be used to make money, fewer taxes.


City can save $ with conservation, federal/state funding available.

Costs money to protect or restore, can lose tax potential of polluters, may be too far gone, too costly.


Can use concern to attract voters.

Can use lack of concern to attract corporate money.

Your training should prepare you for all of these decisions—not just to make them, but also to back them up with relevant research. It should also prepare you to work with other specialists and to deal with the general public.

Schools for Environmental Studies

Some universities that are well known for their comprehensive studies in watershed management are:

Colorado State University—Known worldwide, this undergrad/graduate program is interdisciplinary, not only among the various ecological sciences, but also requires practical application courses in water resources planning and management, as well as communication.

Portland State University—This is a certification program focusing on watershed issues for the professional. In addition to watershed health, science, and technology, the program offers courses in law, policy, and the economics of water.

Pennsylvania State University—Graduate studies in Watershed Stewardship include watershed-relevant disciplines, in addition to management and an interdisciplinary team project working in a Pennsylvania community on watershed issues. The project gives students experience in working with government, nonprofits, landowners, and businesses.

University of British Columbia—This Canadian program is geared toward working professionals, including government and industry. It provides them with the practical and technical skills to respond to water resource issues, giving them the tools to resolve water resource conflicts.

Watershed Management Job Preparation

Any of the courses of study above should prepare you well for applying watershed management principles to the work you do, whatever kind of job you end up acquiring. With all of the many ways that these studies can be applied, you should be well prepared for the upcoming job market. After all, they say that "Water is the new oil," and you know how profitable that industry has become.

Albuquerque Botanical Garden - this pool is actually diverted from the Rio Grande River. It hosts fish and waterfowl, in addition to water plants and trees not native to the area.

Albuquerque Botanical Garden - this pool is actually diverted from the Rio Grande River. It hosts fish and waterfowl, in addition to water plants and trees not native to the area.


Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on October 28, 2012:

Thank you billybuc and rfmoran. I doubly appreciate comments from people like you that I know to be experts. :-)

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff from Long Island, New York on October 20, 2012:

This is a comprehensive treatment of an important topic, including career resources. Great contribution. Voted up useful and interesting. Well done Susette.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 19, 2012:

Suzette, I really enjoy and appreciate your hubs about water and natural resources. As a former science and geography teacher, this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart, so thank you for raising awareness about this important subject. You are doing a great job here; keep it up.