The Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework (ACPF): A Watershed Planning Tool

About the ACPF  l  Download Information  l  Support and Training  l  Additional Information

About the ACPF

Facilitating Conservation Planning in Agricultural Watersheds

The ACPF watershed planning toolbox is intended to leverage modern data sources and help local farming communities better address soil and water conservation needs. We believe water quality challenges can be better met by improving the quality of information used to identify conservation options in watersheds and on farms. High-resolution geo-spatial datasets that can improve the information base available for conservation planning have recently become available. The Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework (ACPF) toolbox can be used within the ArcGIS® (Ver. 10.2 – 10.5) environment to analyze soils, land use, and high-resolution topographic data to identify a broad range of opportunities to install conservation practices in fields and in watersheds. These opportunities can then inform of a non-prescriptive approach to encourage farmers and landowners to become engaged in local watershed improvement.

The ACPF Toolbox Contains Tools To:

  • Process (or “hydro-condition”) a watershed’s high-resolution topographic data for terrain analyses
  • Determine which fields within a watershed are most prone to contribute runoff to streams
  • Identify where field-scale and edge-of-field practices could be installed in your watershed, including:
    • Controlled Drainage (drainage water management)
    • Surface Intake Filters or Restored Wetlands for topographic depressions
    • Grassed Waterways
    • Contour Buffer Strips
    • Water and Sediment Control Basins
    • Nutrient Removal Wetlands
    • Edge-of-field Bioreactors
  • Map opportunities for riparian management:
    • Prioritize for runoff interception and to address bank erosion
    • Opportunities for removal of dissolved nutrients and floodplain reconnection
    • Saturated Riparian Buffers
User options are included in every tool to allow flexibility in matching practice-siting criteria to each local setting.

Where Has the ACPF Been Used?

This map shows watersheds where users have reported using the ACPF. Click on a watershed to learn who did the work. Watersheds can be submitted to this map by completing this form. If you have a large number of watersheds to submit, email to get a spreadsheet form.


Download Information


ACPF Version 2.2 Features

  • Optimized tools for better performance and results
  • Updated land use data with data from the 2016 field season
  • Watersheds in northern MN and southeast Nebraska
  • Technology compatible with ArcGIS 10.5 and TauDEM 5.3.7
A complete list of changes to version 2.2 can be found Here.

Land Use and Soils Data:      DOWNLOAD

Recent land use (through 2016), field boundary, and soil survey information for individual HUC12 watersheds in Iowa, Illinois, southern Minnesota, eastern Kansas, and portions of Nebraska, Missouri, and Wisconsin can be downloaded.

Via this ACPF land use viewer web page, users may navigate to individual HUC12 watersheds, view land-use maps, and download land use and soils data that can be directly used as input data for the ACPF toolbox. Before developing information on conservation priorities and opportunities using the ACPF toolbox, users will need to obtain elevation data for their watershed.

Elevation Data:      DOWNLOAD

The ACPF Development Team at the USDA/ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, in cooperation with the Iowa State University GIS Facility (ISUGISF) are pleased to announce web access to state-wide, high-resolution elevation data for Iowa. These data are being made available in support of the Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework (ACPF) and other GIS applications. The new release and accompanying information is available on the ACPF DEM page, on the ISUGISF web. The ISUGISF has created an ArcGIS Server application to download 2-meter DEM by HUC12 watershed for the state of Iowa.


Support and Training

Training Videos

The ACPF ArcGIS Training videos are a series of 26 lessons explaining how to setup, use, and interpret all the tools in the ACPF toolbox. This is essential training for users who have not attended a hands-on workshop or who want to review modules.

The videos are designed for people with intermediate ArcGIS skills, including importing and managing files and layers, and processing raster data such as for terrain analyses or hydrological modeling of DEMs. They assume the viewer is comfortable navigating toolboxes, using tool dialogs, manipulating map characteristics, moving around tables, and joining tables, etc.

The videos build on each other, so work through them in sequence from Lecture 1 to Lecture 26. As you watch, have the User Guide available and ArcGIS open so you can follow along. Allow two full days of watching the videos and practicing to become well-trained in using the ACPF.

ACPF Forum

The ACPF Forum is an online group for discussing technical issues related to using the ACPF tools. Anyone can view the discussions Here. To participate, first join the group by sending an email to

Sign up for ACPF News and Updates


Additional information

Premise of the ACPF Framework

In leveraging newly available data sources to effectively improve conservation planning information, we need to consider that:

  • Watershed planning alternatives must be constructed by recognizing the unique landscape of each watershed.
  • Farmers and landowners must be able to fully participate in identifying and developing planning alternatives for watershed improvement.
  • To reduce agricultural nutrient losses and solve water quality problems such as Gulf of Mexico hypoxia, we need a systematic approach including a suite of conservation practices that can be applied within fields, at field edges, and in riparian zones.
  • The need to protect soils from erosion, improve soil productivity, and conserve soil water is critical for successful agricultural management, for watershed improvement, and for adapting to climate change. We know that better soil management can reduce peak runoff from extreme rainfall events, promote streamflow recovery following drought, reduce nutrient losses, and increase crop production.

The ACPF approach leverages new data sources and incorporates these four needs. Conceptually, our framework is based on a “Conservation Pyramid” (Figure 1) that emphasizes soil conservation as the foundation to agricultural watershed management. Well-managed soils will lose less water to runoff and leaching, which will improve production, and enable additional practices to effectively treat losses that will still occur due to the natural ‘leakiness’ of agricultural lands. These additional practices, which control water flows and trap/treat nutrient losses, are implemented in fields, at field edges, and in riparian zones (Figure 1). Each practice is typically applied at one of these three spatial scales in order to address either surface runoff or subsurface (tile) drainage. The ACPF framework (Figure 2) identifies locations where specific landscape attributes are favorable for installation of each type of practice, and includes methods to prioritize these locations according to susceptibility to runoff and erosion losses. A novel riparian analysis also helps watershed planners identify riparian management alternatives, including innovative practices that can be highly cost effective for nutrient removal.

Application of the ACPF provides an inventory of conservation alternatives that can be considered at the local and farm level. Prescriptions and recommendations are not made, but left as local decisions. The input data required, including agricultural field boundaries, land use, soil survey information, and detailed (LiDAR-based) elevation data, are broadly available across much of the Midwest. The framework has been applied in a variety of landscapes, including tile drained watersheds, dissected watersheds dominated by runoff, and permeable bedrock (Karst) terrain.

Figure 1.


Figure 2.


Tomer et al. (2013)

Examples of Output Maps

Examples of output maps and a conservation plan combining several of the output maps:



A conservation plan combining several of the output maps:



Peer reviewed articles have been made publicly available and provide detailed information on the ACPF: A) Planning concept; B) Toolbox; C) Riparian mapping system, and D) Database design.

A) Tomer, M.D., S.A. Porter, D.E. James, K.M.B. Boomer, J.A. Kostel, and E. McLellan. 2013. Combining precision conservation technologies into a flexible framework to facilitate agricultural watershed planning. Journal of Soil & Water Conservation. 68:113A-120A.

B) Tomer, M.D., S.A. Porter, K.M.B. Boomer, D.E. James, J.A. Kostel, M.J. Helmers, T.M. Isenhart, and E. McLellan. 2015. Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework: 1. Developing Multipractice Watershed Planning Scenarios and Assessing Nutrient Reduction Potential J. Environ. Qual. 44(3):754-767

C) Tomer, M.D., K.M.B. Boomer, S.A. Porter, B.K. Gelder, D.E. James, and E. McLellan. 2015. Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework: 2. Classification of Riparian Buffer Design Types with Application to Assess and Map Stream Corridors J. Environ. Qual. 44(3):768-779

D) Tomer, M.D., D.E. James, and C.M.J. Sandoval-Green. 2017. Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework: 3. Land use and field boundary database development and structure. Journal of Environmental Quality. 46(3):676-686.

Press Releases

September 2015, AgResearch Magazine: Toolset Identifies Water Conservation Options
The ACPF was developed at the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment (NLAE), of the USDA-Agricultural Research Service. The development team was led by Mark Tomer and NLAE is located in Ames Iowa.

Early versions of the ACPF toolbox were developed under a Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) awarded by USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service to the Environmental Defense Fund; Eileen McLellan was the project coordinator.