Abstract Emergy is a thermodynamics-based entity that enables the implementation of a holistic environmental accounting system. It contributes to identify and measure all the inputs (energy and matter) supporting a given system, expressed in a common unit, namely solar emergy joule (sej). The emergy per unit product (called unit emergy value, UEV), is a measure of the environmental cost of a given resource. It is specific of the system/process and gives information on the dynamics, components and functioning of it. This paper presents the emergy evaluation of water resources within the watershed of the river Sieve, located in the Province of Florence (Italy). Along the river, an artificial basin has been created by means of a dam to preserve water quantity and quality, and to protect the Florentine area from dangerous floods and inundations. Different UEVs of water can be identified along the course of the river, especially upstream and downstream of the dam. These values quantify both the environmental and human efforts made to ensure and regulate the presence of water at different points of the river. The UEV of water flowing in the river increases from 1.35 × 10 5 sej/g upstream, to 5.80 × 10 5 sej/g downstream of the dam, depending mainly on man-made infrastructure. Along the watershed, three different systems of extraction, purification and distribution of water have been chosen on the basis of their dimension, type and location. UEVs of water distributed and the emergy investment necessary to implement different water management strategies are presented. The value of water purified and distributed decreases from 2.00 × 10 6 sej/g for the smallest plant in the mountainous area, to 1.72 × 10 6 sej/g for the largest plant, in the city of Florence, depending on production efficiency.