Two trucks in a farm field next to a stream

In Watershed Planning, Knowing Where to Start Can Be Tricky. Here Are Five Ways ACPF Can Help

Human Capital Blog Series

By Jenny Seifert

With any big endeavor – like, you know, improving water quality – you have to start somewhere. But that starting place might not always be obvious.

In watershed management on agricultural landscapes, it can sometimes seem like every farm should be a priority for support in reducing runoff. Luckily for watershed managers, there is a tool that can help them triage and find the right place to get started: the Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework, or ACPF.

ACPF allows managers to use high-resolution data and ArcGIS to create detailed maps that represent the intricacies of small watersheds and, subsequently, identify where conservation measures would reap the most gain in water quality improvement based on landscape and hydrological features. It gives watershed planners both the birds-eye-view of the landscape they need to prioritize and field-scale details that can facilitate conversations with farmers and landowners.

Here are five ways ACPF can help watershed managers get started on the right foot.

Pinpoint areas of critical need for conservation

Many watershed managers use the Nine-Element Watershed Plan as a formula for strategizing success in local water quality improvement efforts. ACPF can be used nearly every step of the way.

Importantly, ACPF can help reveal what critical conservation issues a watershed is even dealing with, which is the first step in the nine-element plan. The maps it can generate – of stream networks, runoff risk, drainage, etc. – can show what are the causes and where are the sources of pollution.

By revealing these runoff hotspots, it is easier for managers to pinpoint where conservation measures could get them the most bang for the buck.

Validate the case for funding

Knowing where the need lies is one thing; justifying funding to address it is another. ACPF can help watershed managers quantify needs and opportunities to bolster their funding proposals or allocations with evidence.

For example, in Dunn County Wisconsin, watershed planners used ACPF in conjunction with other watershed planning tools to identify which areas of the landscape were culprits for the most sediment runoff. Through meetings with landowners, protecting trout streams emerged as the community’s priority, and they wanted to do so by restoring and protecting a riparian corridor through the implementation of practices like cover crops, grassed waterways, and others that reduce sediment loss.

With the help of ACPF and the other tools, the watershed managers were able to identify where practices should go and which ones would work best. This priority list subsequently guided funding for landowner proposals to implement conservation practices where they were needed the most.

Clarify upstream-downstream connections

Something that’s long been a challenge in watershed planning is how to demonstrate the connection between upstream practices and downstream impacts. This is because managers often have only limited information about the hydrological features that dictate the flow of water and sediment, such as its stream network, the less obvious intermittent flow paths, and where those flow paths intersect with ditches, ponds, and lakes.

Because ACPF can map a landscape’s hydrological components with more precision, it can provide more clarity around those upstream-downstream connections. The term for this unique capability in ACPF is riparian catchment delineation, whereby the tool can show the specific area that contributes flow to each segment of a stream.

What this means for implementation is a clearer indication of what kind of riparian buffers would be beneficial to mitigate the impacts of upstream practices. It can also help stimulate watershed thinking among landowners, as they get a clearer picture of how their management of a particular field might affect local streams and waterbodies, which is not always obvious.

Discover places to double up on conservation practices

Because of all the data layers ACPF can generate – each tracing aspects of a landscape that matter for how and where water, runoff, and sediment flow – you can find spots where not just one, but two or more conservation practices would deliver desired results.

In other words, ACPF can reveal places where there are opportunities to stack practices, such as pairing a grassed waterway with a bioreactor, and which practices would work the best in that location.

Start the conversation with landowners

Of course, critical to implementing conservation practices effectively is including landowners in the process of designing solutions on their land. The maps generated by ACPF are conversation starters with landowners and provide them the information they need to contribute to decision-making.

Here is where having both watershed-wide and field-scale output maps comes in handy. The watershed-wide maps, called areawide maps in NRCS speak, can help watershed managers prioritize where in the watershed they need to focus their landowner outreach efforts and what practices to focus on.

They can then bring ACPF-generated maps of conservation opportunities at the field scale to meetings with those landowners and work with them to identify where there is overlap between what the maps say and the landowners’ concerns. In turn, managers can also help place landowners’ concerns and conservation opportunities into the context of the broader watershed with the areawide map, to give them the bigger picture.

Have you used ACPF to help you get started with a watershed management plan? Tell us how it helped you in the comments!

Header image: A saturated buffer installation in Iowa. NRCS/SWCS photo by Lynn Betts


The Human Capital series features insights and stories to help tap the true human potential for achieving clean water in the Midwest.

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