Water Quality Targeting Success Stories

Achieving Cleaner Water Through Farm Conservation Watershed Projects

About the Report

How do you clean up impaired waterbodies with farm conservation practices? One targeted watershed project at a time. A new joint report by AFT and WRI features lessons learned from six "Water Quality Targeting Success Stories." The projects used in-stream and tile drain monitoring to detect water quality improvements attributable to farm conservation practices adopted in the watersheds. Successful projects were found in California, Oklahoma, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Indiana.

Given that hundreds of similar projects exist under several USDA programmatic frameworks (e.g., Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative and National Water Quality Initiative) and hundreds more are getting started (Regional Conservation Partnerships Program), the report highlights best practices to increase the likelihood of similar levels of success.The full report will be released to the public on May 24, 2017.

Success Stories Profiled in the Report

The report contains the following successful examples of watershed-level water quality improvements.

  • CALIFORNIA'S WALKER CREEK PROJECT—Achieved three years of no Chlorpyrifos pesticide exceedances, thereby complying with state regulations for irrigated cropland.
  • OKLAHOMA'S HONEY CREEK PROJECT—Proposed delisting the stream (from the Oklahoma List of Impaired Waters) for E. coli impairment given a 51 percent load reduction, as well as load reductions in nitrate, total phosphorus, and Enterococcus by 35, 28, and 34 percent, respectively, compared with the control watershed.
  • IOWA'S HEWITT CREEK PROJECT—Documented a 60 percent decrease in turbidity (water cloudiness) and a 40 percent decrease in total phosphorus concentrations in the stream; quantified social and economic outcomes—e.g., created a "watershed community" and increased farmer profitability.
  • WISCONSIN'S PLEASANT VALLEY STREAM REHABILITATION PROJECT—Proposed delisting the stream from the Wisconsin List of Impaired Waters for sediment impairment due to documented improvements in six metrics, including a 50 percent decrease in fine sediment material and increasing trout by 70 to 100 percent.
  • WISCONSIN'S PLEASANT VALLEY ON-FARM PHOSPHORUS AND SEDIMENT REDUCTION PROJECT—Reduced total phosphorus storm event loads by 55 percent and sediment storm loads during unfrozen conditions by 66 percent, compared with the control watershed.
  • INDIANA'S SHATTO DITCH PROJECT—Documented an 80 percent reduction in nitrate-N loss from tile drains through year-round sampling at the watershed scale.

Key Factors in Achieving Project Success

To achieve their successes, some of the projects:

  • Relied on local conservation districts
  • Fostered farmer leadership
  • Conducted geographic targeting
  • Used paired watershed monitoring programs
  • Modeled environmental outcomes

Methods and Analysis

Study methods included conducting literature reviews and interviews with USDA staff, farm conservation and water quality experts, and leaders of the six projects. Project leaders attribute their success to 16 key factors. Comparing the case studies yielded 11 useful lessons about designing, implementing, and evaluating successful targeted watershed projects.


Recommendations are provided for USDA, EPA, Congress, the research community, charitable foundations, and the corporate supply chain sustainability community to help other projects achieve and measure landscape-scale environmental outcomes.

About the Author

For more information about the Michelle Perez, please click here.

Press Inquiries

Members of the media may contact Phoebe Silag, Director of Communications at psilag@farmland.org.