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

Note: Project reports published on the INRC website are often revised from researchers' original reports to increase consistency.

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.