ABSTRACT: Urbanization of a watershed degrades both the form and the function of the downstream aquatic system, causing changes that can occur rapidly and are very difficult to avoid or correct. A variety of physical data from lowland streams in western Washington displays the onset of readily observable aquatic-system degradation at a remarkably consistent level of development, typically about ten percent effective impervious area in a watershed. Even lower levels of urban development cause significant degradation in sensitive water bodies and a reduced, but less well quantified, level of function throughout the system as a whole. Unfortunately, established methods of mitigating the downstream impacts of urban development may have only limited effectiveness. Using continuous hydrologic modeling we have evaluated detention ponds designed by conventional event methodologies, and our findings demonstrate serious deficiencies in actual pond performance when compared to their design goals. Even with best efforts at mitigation, the sheer magnitude of development activities falling below a level of regulatory concern suggests that increased resource loss will invariably accompany development of a watershed. Without a better understanding of the critical processes that lead to degradation, some downstream aquatic-system damage is probably inevitable without limiting the extent of watershed development itself.