Adaptive Management

Adaptive management is an essential element of any watershed planning process. The concept reflects the need to monitor the effectiveness of plans once the planning process is over and make necessary changes to the plan depending on the outcomes. It also reflects the uncertainty involved in any planning process and treats water quality improvement as an iterative and dynamic process. There are three steps in an adaptive management process, as follows (from EPA):

  1. Monitor progress/changes in the watershed
  2. Evaluate results and establish trends
  3. Adjust the watershed plan
A visual representation of the Adaptive Management process from EPA.

A visual representation of the Adaptive Management process from EPA.

An Applied Example: Wisconsin Phosphorus Management

On December 1, 2010, water-quality based phosphorus criteria went into effect in Wisconsin, creating more stringent phosphorus standards and reflecting the persistence of nutrient pollution despite technology-based limits established by the CWA. These criteria place additional limits on WPDES permit holders, which are mostly municipal waste systems and industrial point sources. In recognition of the diffuse nature of phosphorus pollution, specifically the contribution by both point and nonpoint source, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) has developed an adaptive management option for reaching phosphorus criteria goals.

The adaptive management option is different from other water quality improvement mechanisms in that it focuses on in-stream concentrations of phosphorus instead of discharge levels. It is set up as a collaborative process that allows permit holders to identify other stakeholders and contributors and work collaboratively to find efficient and cost effective solutions. It can only be applied in watersheds in which WDNR has determined nonpoint sources to be a dominant source of pollution. To determine this ratio, the DNR has developed a GIS based model – The Pollutant Load Ratio Estimation Tool, or PRESTO – to estimate phosphorus loading by watershed. If a permit holder is approved for the adaptive management option, the permit is established for either a 10 or 15-year compliance period, with interim compliance limits scheduled.

The WI DNR outlines 9 steps to a successful adaptive management program. The following steps and explanations are direct quotes from WDNR Adaptive Management Handbook (2013):

Steps Tasks
1. Identify Partners Identify potential Partners, their role in adaptive management, and develop a communication strategy. Create Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between partners, if desirable.
2. Describe the watershed and set load reductions goals Describe the adaptive management action area including the counties in the watershed, available water quality data, number of reaches, hydraulic retention time and/or stream order data.
3. Conduct a watershed inventory Gather current and historical land use data and describe the physical features of the action area, typical agricultural practices in the watershed, and potential land uses in the future.
4. Identify where reductions will occur Evaluate all data gathered in step 3 for decision-making purposes and identify critical areas within the action areas to target management practices.
5. Describe management measures Complete facility plan to comply with interim limits, if necessary, and identify management measures that will be installed throughout adaptive management implementation to control nonpoint sources of excess phosphorus
6. Estimate load reductions expected by permit term Quantify the phosphorus reduction needed from point sources, and approximate the phosphorus reductions expected from nonpoint source management measures.
7. Measure success Develop a monitoring strategy that will identify who will collect TP data, who will analyze these data, when and where samples will be collected, and the quality assurance protocols that will be followed.
8. Financial security Evaluate adaptive management implementation costs, and provide a written statement from adaptive management participants that these financial needs are achievable.
9. Implementation schedule with milestones Prioritize implementation measures, and develop a schedule by setting compliance dates for adaptive management interim limits and water quality milestones.


From the steps outline above, it is clear that this adaptive management framework will lend itself well to targeting. It specifically proposes the identification of critical source areas as a means to channel watershed resources and planning efforts into those areas contributing disproportionately to nonpoint source phosphorus pollution. There are currently no permit holders in the state operating the adaptive management option, but as facilities update there permits over the next several years we will likely see more dischargers opting for this program, at which point Wisconsin will become a valuable case study for targeting impacts on water quality.

This case study is useful in that it both provides an example of how states can implement targeting within existing programs without significantly increasing cost, and provides a useful framework for watersheds that may wish to explore adaptive management to reduce phosphorus loads in states without an institutionalized program.

More information is available on the Wisconsin DNR website, including a link to the  Adaptive Management Technical Handbook. 

Adaptive Management wEbcast

While Wisconsin’s Adaptive Management Strategy has a very specific purpose and specification, it is important to note that adaptive management refers more generally to an iterative planning process that seeks to reevaluate and reassert objectives and strategies as needed to achieve measurable water quality outcomes. As such, the concept of adaptive management can be applied to other pollutants and sources as fit for a specific watershed planning purpose. That said, this webcast, hosted through eXtension,¬†teaches participants foundational concepts of adaptive management and examples of adaptive management practice. The focus of the webcast is on nitrogen management in corn and how evaluation of nitrogen applications can improve nitrogen efficiency. Access this 4-part webcast HERE.


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