Small Watershed Program
The Small Watershed Program: Coming to a Stream Near You
by Roxane S. Palone
Watershed Specialist, USDA-FS, Morgantown, WV

Kennett Square, Chester County, Pennsylvania, is considered by many to be the "mushroom capital of the World." Approximately 100 mushroom operations in this area produce more than 85 percent of the mushrooms grown in the United States. This portion of southeastern Pennsylvania is located in the Red and White Clay Creek Watershed — the source of the municipal water supply for the city of Wilmington, DE. When the Chester County Conservation District became concerned about mushroom producers, other farmers, and developers contributing to the nonpoint source pollution entering Red and White Clay Creeks, they turned to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Harrisburg for assistance. Help is available in the form of the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act (Public Law 83-566), commonly known as the "Small Watershed Program (PL-566)." The PA Bureau of Soil and Water Conservation approved the District's application for assistance, and the Chester County Conservation District subsequently became a project sponsor. A plan was written in cooperation with other partners and submitted to the USDA for implementation funds.


Mushroom farming is done indoors and requires special compost and lots of water.

How the Program Works

Back in the 1940's, the federal government was mainly concerned about flood control. It was the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build large dams for that purpose. In the 1950's, Elmer Peterson created quite a stir with his book titled "Big Dam Foolishness." The book caused the government to begin to look at upland treatments as part of watershed protection. Small watershed pilot projects were developed and implemented. In 1954, the pilot projects were expanded nationwide by the passage of Public Law 83-566. Initially, it had only two components — 1.) Erosion and sediment control, and 2.) Flood prevention. Today, the program is very flexible.

The Small Watershed Program, authorized and administered by the Department of Agriculture, helps communities plan and implement projects to improve the quality of life for those living in the watershed. For the purposes of this program, a small watershed must be less than 250,000 acres in size. The NRCS and the Forest Service provide technical, financial, and credit assistance to the residents of the watershed. Federal, state, and local agencies assist the sponsors in writing a watershed plan that will be used to accelerate the implementation of ongoing programs.

The law has the following three general purposes:

Preventing damage from erosion, floodwater, and sediment;
Furthering the conservation, development, utilization, and disposal of water; and
Furthering the conservation and proper utilization of land.

Cost-sharing can be used to accomplish several purposes under the program. These include:

Watershed protection — Land treatment of watershed areas for the primary purpose of reducing offsite soil- and water-related problems such as erosion, sedimentation, and agricultural nonpoint source pollution. This purpose makes the small watershed program unique from other federal programs. Some of the practices to be implemented on Red and White Clay Creeks are critical area plantings, livestock exclusion, cropland nutrient management, conversion of cropland to trees, tree planting, and riparian forest buffer establishment. It may also include acquisition of flood plain and wetlands easements.

Flood prevention — These may be structural and/or nonstructural measures. Structural measures include building levees, dams, dikes, or floodways. Nonstructural measures include zoning, floodproofing structures, land acquisition, relocation, and flood warning and response systems.


Housing developments can add to the nonpoint source pollution of streams in the area.

Agricultural water management — These practices are used to conserve water and increase water use efficiency. They include such practices as drainage systems, construction of diversion dams and water supply reservoirs, and irrigation sprinkler systems.

Non-agricultural water management — This includes practices that enhance public fish and wildlife development and public recreation. Measures for wildlife may include restoration of wetlands, fish ladders, fish shelters and marsh development, and nesting areas for waterfowl. Recreation facilities can be developed to provide opportunities for boating and fishing. Construction of boat ramps, fishing piers, swimming beaches, picnic areas, and sanitary facilities is also possible.

Groundwater recharge — These measures, used in areas where there is a shortage of groundwater, include water storage impoundments, diversions, injection wells, and other water-spreading techniques.

Municipal and industrial water supply — Developments for supplying water for municipal or industrial use can be included in the plan when feasible. Pipeline construction for way conveyance from a stream or reservoir to a water treatment plant may also be included.

Plan implementation costs are paid for by the federal government and by the local sponsors. Cost-share rates depend on the type of measures that are incorporated into the plan. Measures can be classified as land treatment, nonstructural, or structural. Cost-share for land treatment is currently 65 percent, and cost-share for conservation easements is 50 percent. Construction and engineering costs for flood prevention are 100 percent cost-shared.

Role of Forestry Agencies

During the planning stage, the Forest Service assists in the preparation of an Environmental Assessment (EA). The Forest Service roles and responsibilities are defined in Memorandums-of-Understanding (MOUs). The Forest Service is responsible for forestlands and rangelands associated with the National Forest System and state and private lands. The Forest Service serves on a technical team that regularly meets with the sponsors to document problems in the watershed, formulate a plan, and develop alternatives for implementing the plan. The Forest Service works closely with the local State Forester's staff to write a report that addresses forest resources concerns, forest resources opportunities, and sources of additional funds that can augment the PL-566 program.


In order to qualify for assistance through Public Law 83-566, watershed size must be less than 250,000 acres.

The state forestry agency is involved in deciding what forestry practices can be implemented in the watershed, how much landowner participation to expect, how much funding will be needed, and if additional personnel will be needed for techncial assistance. Once the plan is approved by the state agency, it is sent to Washington for approval by the NRCS. The Forest Service obtains funds for the plan's forestry practices and passes them to the State Forester.

In Red and White Clay Creek Watershed, several hundred acres of cropland will be converted to trees, and riparian forest buffers will be established. The Forest Service and the PA Bureau of Forestry worked together to decide how much technical assistance, expressed in dollars and time, would be needed.

The State Forester and his staff are important partners in the Watershed program. The State Forester is part of the Governor's cabinet, and the Governor's office or designated representative must approve applications for projects. Forestry knowledge is critical to the planning and implementation of projects.

Most of the small watersheds contain large acreages of forestlands. In other watersheds, reforestation is a key conservation practice needed to implement water quality improvements. Most watersheds are located in rural areas that contain state and/or national forests. Watersheds in the East are comprised mainly of non-industrial private forestlands. Some structures built using PL-566 funds are located on state forestlands. It is the responsibility of the State Forester to maintain, operate, and replace these structures. In some cases, the State Forester may want to sponsor a project.

Conservation Districts play a big role in implementing small watershed plans. They work with local communities to conduct public meetings and with local landowners to install practices. They produce valuable educational materials and newsletters for residents of the watershed. Some Conservation Districts employ their own foresters.

Each state has a different mechanism for approving PL-566 projects for planning. In our states, the following entities approve applications for assistance under the law:


Many small watersheds contain large acreages of forestland.

The National Watershed Coalition

The National Watershed Coalition, headquartered in Lakewood, Colorado, advocates using the watershed approach to identify natural resource problems. It supports the use of the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act as one of the best vehicles for planning and implementing water resource management and development projects. Started in 1989, it is a non-profit group made up of governmental, environmental, and industrial entities. It replaced the old Watershed Congress that started in the 1950's. The Watershed Congress held an annual meeting that promoted and discussed the Small Watershed Program. Highlights of the meeting included awards for Watershed of the year and Watershed Conservationist of the year. In 1989, members of the Congress and other groups, including environmental and conservation groups, met and founded the National Watershed Coalition. The first meeting was held in Oklahoma City. Now, the coalition has a national meeting every other year. In 1997, the meeting will be held in Reno, NV. In the years that there is no national meeting, the coalition sponsors a technical workshop relating to watershed planning and project implementation.

These are tough times economically for most government agencies, and very few federal activities are scrutinized as closely as this program is. For every dollar spent by the federal government to solve water resources problems, society gets $2.20 in benefits. As the government reduces its federal funding, the National Watershed Coalition is becoming more involved. The Coalition works to support other programs, such as EPA section 319 and state watershed programs. It is the task of the coalition to decide how to continue effective programs in light of less federal funds. In the area of technical assistance, the federal government no longer is the sole provider of specialists. More and more work is being shifted to local conservation districts and private consultants.

Funding for the program has shifted since its inception. The federal share of funds for flood control structural projects went from 65 to 75 percent, with the local residents putting in 25 or 35 percent.


White Clay Creek is an "Approved Trout Waters," which means it meets requirements of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission for trout fishing. The public benefits from the improved water quality that the Small Watershed Program offers.

Today, the focus is on nonstructural projects, and the investment ratio has shifted to 60/40 and, in some cases, 50/50. Actual funding needs around the country are close to $250 million annually for implementation. Until the mid-1980's, the federal government allotted $10-15 million for planning and $170-200 million for implementation. That level of funding could not address all the concerns, but it was enough to run an effective program. Recently, implementation funds have declined to $75-100 million annually. It has been difficult to do an adequate job at this level of funding. Local sponsors are waiting longer and longer for federal funds to be awarded.

For the future, there is some concern that the federal government may distance itself financially and technically from the program. Sponsors feel this would be unwise. Though projects have local and regional benefits, water quality benefits are cumulative and national in scope. Other countries have begun using our program and concepts as a model for solving their water resources problems. They like the program because it is flexible and relevant to their particular situations. The Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act is the perfect marriage of government and local people working together. It is the task of the Coalition and its partners to keep this marriage strong.

For more information, contact the District Conservationist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in your county, or John Peterson, National Watershed Coaltion, 703-455-4387.