Successful Voluntary Watershed Improvement Projects: Do Short-Term Adoption and Outreach Lead to Attitude Changes and Long-Term Sustainable Practice Adoption?

Sep 2017


The predominant approach to changing farming practices has been a system of incentives to encourage adoption of best management practices. Voluntary watershed management seeks to combine agency expertise, citizen knowledge and place-based interests to address water quality issues. Across Iowa and over time, variable approaches have been used to encourage engagement, adoption and sustainability of voluntary water quality and conservation practices through watershed management. These approaches are usually assessed at the time of implementation, but there has been little evaluation of long-term effectiveness to motivate sustainable change.


To assess the effectiveness of different approaches, this project includes a study of the structural practices of conservation practices adoption. In addition, the study will quantitatively and qualitatively assess and compare farmers’ and local stakeholders attitudes toward water quality and conservation within intervention and non-intervention watersheds.


The research team will evaluate three sets of paired HUC 12 watersheds. Three were chosen because of watershed projects implemented there over the last two decades. The other three were chosen because of their proximity and similarity, but also because these did not have any focused water projects conducted. The watershed approaches will be evaluated to determine the short-term successes and long-term sustainability of voluntary watershed improvement projects. The project will develop case studies on the three paired watersheds, a white paper on the policy issues related to the findings of the case studies, and document methodology and strategies to be incorporated into the Iowa Watershed Academy training for watershed professionals.

Project Updates

April 2021

The analyses conducted in the study yielded limited differentiation in outcomes and performance within comparison sets. These results are at odds with the perceptions of participants who are likely influenced by the short-term successes which were publicly recognized in and beyond the local communities. Such recognition contributed to a “halo effect” which can skew the perceived value of watershed improvement projects. Owing to the current patchwork of programs, funding and incentives for water quality improvement and conservation program implementation, the researchers found little to no long-term advantage in organized projects, which drew significant public and private investment and accolades, over ad hoc or individual efforts utilizing public and private funding.

Watershed Study Final Report - March 2021

Other accomplishments: An Iowa Learning Farms webinar was conducted on this topic.

June 2020

Researchers completed the summary of conservation practices implemented with state and federal cost-share databases and land use data for each of the watershed pairs was summarized. A search for watershed project reports, white papers and publications related to the watershed pairs was conducted and inventoried. The listening sessions were analyzed and a literature review was completed before the COVID-19 shutdown redirected efforts to other projects.

December 2019

Researchers analyzed the listening session transcripts for themes (i.e. mental models) for each of the watersheds and applied a modified systems thinking analysis. Data analysis continued for the practices over time in both the targeted watershed and nearby control watersheds. This section is slated to be completed in January 2020, and researchers expect to complete the white paper by March 1, 2020.

August 2019

A second survey was sent on 6/15/2019 to all the folks who did not respond to the initial survey. The updated response-rate numbers, as of 7/9/19 (based on those who farmed/owned land and filled out the survey): Farmers Creek (22%) 93 surveys; Hewitt Creek (27%) 99 surveys; Crooked Creek (26%) 155 surveys; Black Hawk Lake (23%) 296 surveys. (The overall numbers include blank survey returns, deceased recipients, requests for removal and returned surveys that do not farm, etc.). The watershed and conservation practice data for the project watersheds has been gathered and team members are consulting on its analysis with the ISU Stats Lab. A systems-thinking model is being created by plugging in problems, casual loops and pinpointing leverage points based on the data from the listening sessions. This will form the basis of a white paper that will be submitted to INRC and state agencies. Researchers are also working on a publication to submit to Human Organizations. Once the white paper is completed, we will begin to present findings via an ILF webinar, podcast, blogs and other presentation.

December 2018

Farmer listening sessions are being reviewed for patterns and mental models. Researchers will take that information into any listening session with agency folks to get their response to what farmers are saying. An agency listening session is planned for March or April.

Mailings were sent to the four watersheds on 12/27/2018. Black Hawk Lake watershed received a repeat of the community assessment that was mailed to them seven years ago. The other three watersheds received a similar survey that was being sent to Iowa Learning Farm 15-year study respondents. This way,  the number of practices reported by a more general population can be compared with landowners in these watersheds. The following number of surveys were mailed to each watershed (several mailings are planned to assure a reasonable response rate):

  • Farmers Creek: 691
  • Hewitt Creek: 596
  • Crooked Creek: 865
  • Black Hawk Lake: 1,285

Jamie Benning and Laurie Nowatzke are continuing to gather watershed and conservation practice data for the project watersheds.

June 2018

Four listening sessions with farmers were held in the following watersheds: Hewitt Creek in Dubuque County, Black Hawk Lake in Carroll and Sac Counties, Farmer’s Creek in Jackson County, and Crooked Creek in Washington County. The sessions included only farmers from the watersheds who were involved in the watershed projects. All of the listening sessions were taped and transcribed. 

Attendance was low: 

  • Crooked Creek Listening Session, Washington, July 12 – 11 attendees
  • Hewitt Creek Listening Session, July 16, New Vienna – 9 attendees
  • Farmers Creek Listening Session, July 19, Maquoketa – 8 attendees
  • Black Hawk Lake Listening Session, July 26, Lake View – 7 attendees

Listening sessions with watershed coordinators at the Iowa Watershed Academy were also completed and  additional sessions planned with agency and organization stakeholders. Researchers began analyzing the listening session from a systems thinking framework. Surveys will be sent to all farmers in the four watersheds at the end of December to learn what in-field conservation practices they are currently using. A strategy was developed to extract and analyze conservation and water quality practice data from the state and federal cost share databases maintained for INRS progress tracking.  Plans are underway to conduct data analysis  for the four watershed pairs. The BMP Mapping Project digitizing and quality control is nearly complete for all HUC 8 watersheds that include the project watershed.  This dataset is focused on structural management practices and will complement the INRS cost-share data to give a more comprehensive view of practice adoption over time.

March 2018

A fourth HUC 12 watershed has been added to the study. Locations now will be Hewitt Creek in Dubuque County, Black Hawk Lake in Carroll and Sac Counties, Farmer’s Creek in Jackson County and Crooked Creek in Washington County. Listening sessions with farmers in the selected watersheds, plus leading stakeholders of watershed improvement plans across Iowa, will be held in July 2018. Mailing lists for landowners in the four counties that hold the watersheds have been compiled, and questions to be used during the sessions are being finalized. In addition, a community assessment of Black Hawk Lake is planned for comparison with a survey done seven years ago.

December 2017

This quarter, the project team collected and reviewed watershed reports, news and journal articles and other project documentation for watershed projects that have been completed for at least five years. Three HUC 12 watersheds in eastern Iowa were selected as the case-study watersheds — Hewitt Creek in Dubuque County, Farmer’s Creek in Jackson County and Sand Creek in Delaware County. Potential HUC 12 watersheds that will serve as the non-intervention pairs were evaluated. Team meetings were held to refine data collection methods for key technical personnel, farmers and landowners in the intervention watersheds and the non-intervention pairs. A draft of interview and listening session questions was created.