Performance Based Farmer Led Watershed Management

Performance-based farmer-led watershed management is a very useful framework for small watersheds with diffuse nutrient pollution sources. It hinges on participatory planning models, giving farmers the tools necessary to evaluate, monitor, and prioritize conditions and improvements within their own watersheds, thereby creating a leadership structure to ensure that plans are implemented and reevaluated over the long term.

The concept of performance-based management has much in common with Wisconsin’s adaptive management framework, except that it lacks the emphasis on achieving predefined standards – or, as Morton and McGuire frame it, a shift from “compliance-mode” to an emphasis on continuous improvement. Like adaptive management, performance-based management emphasizes feedback loops within programs that create an emphasis on quality outcomes versus the more traditional emphasis on technological fixes and on-time implementation strategies. These feedback loops, fueled by routine and extensive monitoring, create a process whereby programs are continually improved upon to reach nutrient pollution reductions.

A visual representation of the process followed in Hewitt Creek, from Morton's 2007 presentation, cited below in the additional information section.

A visual representation of the process followed in Hewitt Creek, from Morton’s 2007 presentation, cited below in the additional information section.

Hewitt Creek Watershed, Iowa: An Applied Case Study

Iowa, with more than 91% of its land area dedicated to farms, faces distinct challenges and opportunities when it comes to protecting its surface waters from nutrient pollution. The significance of agriculture from both an economic and cultural perspective in the state would seem to support more aggressive targeting and landowner support, however researchers in the Heartland Regional Water Quality program have found a persistent underestimation of the extent of water pollution as well as misconceptions about the source of much of that pollution. As such, an effort in the Hewitt Creek watershed sought to address the knowledge and interest gaps within watershed programs by creating a stakeholder-led performance based program.

The case study in Hewitt-Creek is an example of an application of performance-based management that is almost entirely managed by landowners in the region. The model, initiated by Iowa DNR and Extension staff, follows a 6-step process. As summary of the steps are as follows:


Awareness Often residents are not aware of problem. In this case, watershed groups were skeptical of impairment status and conducted their own monitoring, leading them to prove to themselves that the impairment was present and gaining understanding of scientific data.
Assessment Landowners assessed conditions on their own sites, creating greater understanding of how management practices lead directly to environmental outcomes. Again, also improves local scientific knowledge and technical skill levels.
Goals-Plans Established watershed wide goals based on aggregated assessment results as well as individual field-level goals. Also explored funding opportunities for on-field practices, including gaining tax-exempt status.
Targeting Introduced incentive program to encourage implementation of on-site practices. Additional inceptives applied to improvements in whole farm performance. Incentives include additional monitoring.
Performance Incentivized monitoring allows farmers to evaluate the impact of the BMPs they implement from year to year. Annual quantitative results provide information to set additional goals and adjust practices. Also shared information with watershed at large, allowing farmers to learn from each other.
Evaluation Looking at performance and measuring it up against watershed and individual goals allow group to make management decisions together and learn from one another.


The Hewitt Creek Watershed is an important case study for targeting in that is one of the few examples in which both the technical and the individual barriers are addressed. Morton and her colleagues approached these barriers as closely related, and by providing technical training were able to both improve the information available at the field scale and improve public awareness of the problem and its relationship to on-field practices. While targeting for nutrient pollution reduction is not necessarily the end goal of the program, the process of performance-based management produces similar results, whereby farmers are identifying major source pathways and practices and making incremental improvements to improve water quality.

It also addresses some of the institutional challenges of targeting. As explained in the Benefit Asymmetry section, one of the barriers to successful targeting is that those contributing pollutant loads will not necessarily benefit directly from the pollution reductions, and to incentivize it could be very costly and require long-term commitment from state or federal agencies. In this case, modest financial investment is directed at on-field practices that are quantitatively monitored for their impact on water quality. As such, the calculus is shifted to prioritize those practices that achieve longer-term environmental goals. Furthermore, the program is designed intentionally to not be overly reliant on these financial investments or on the professional education staff. Over time, the program can shift entirely onto local leadership.

The one requirement for this type of management model is that strong local leadership. In Hewitt Creek, this was established through the “Awareness” phase, from which was built a small group of dedicated community members. This model may not be right for all watersheds, but its serves to stimulate the imagination as to how a program can seek to address all three barriers targeting efforts face.

 For More Information

presentation – the art of integrating science and local knowledge in targeting bmps

This presentation, by Lois Wright Morton, was made as part of the Heartland Regional Water Coordination Initiatives 2007 meeting on targeting. Morton takes you through her work in Hewitt Creek and some lessons learned that can be applied across other watersheds. The presentation can be accessed here.

getting to performance based outcomes at the watershed level

Morton, L.W. and J. McGuire. 2011. Getting to Performance Based Outcomes at the Watershed Level. In Morton, L.W. and S. Brown (eds.). 2011. Pathways for Getting Better Water Quality: The Citizen Effect. Springer: New York. pp. 229-246.

This chapter describes and demonstrates performance-based management using the case study of Hewitt Creek. In this watershed, the authors describe a six-step process to achieve water quality goals. The process of performance-based management is iterative and is designed to lead to continued improvement in agricultural management for environmental performance. The steps are awareness, assessment, goals and plans, targeting, performance, and evaluation. Importantly, the targeting step includes incentive payments. This case study is important in several ways. Participating farmers expressed high levels of satisfaction, demonstrating that a bottom-up approach to conservation can be valuable in ensuring long-term compliance. It also shows that relatively modest monitoring and targeting efforts can lead to significant water quality improvements and better farm-management practices.

getting to better water quality outcomes: the promise and challenge of the citizen effect

Morton, L.W. and C.Y. Weng. 2009. Getting to Better Water Quality Outcomes: The Promise and Challenge of the Citizen Effect. Agriculture and Human Values 26: 83-94.

This study examines the relationship between social connections and farmer satisfaction with current conservation practices. The authors build from previous studies that suggest that in order to adequately protect water resources a paradigm shift in farming is requisite. The paradigm that dominates farming practice is one of utilitarian orientation towards the environment. Additionally, farmers make management decision based on their own knowledge and experience, which tends to perpetuate many inadequate or even detrimental practices. With that in mind, the authors seek to explore how the types of civic connection farmers have may work with or against knowledge of environmental degradation and subsequent attitudes about conservation practices. They hypothesize that farmers who express being more satisfied with conservation practices with have fewer nonfarm personal connections and interactions and will perceive water quality to be less of a serious issue (89). Their survey results support this hypothesis, suggesting that broader community networks will increase farmers awareness of environmental quality issues and increase their likelihood of participating in conservation activities.