The Framework

The Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework (ACPF) is a concept for agricultural watershed management supported by high-resolution data and an ArcGIS toolbox, which are used to identify site-specific opportunities to install conservation practices across small watersheds. This non-prescriptive approach provides a menu of conservation options to facilitate conservation discussions on farms and in community halls. The framework is used in conjunction with local knowledge of water and soil resource concerns, landscape features, and producer conservation preferences to provide a better understanding of the options available in developing a watershed conservation plan.

The ACPF is made up of three different components:

  • A framework based on a sequence of conservation priorities from in-field to edge-of-stream practices that, in combination, can improve watershed health
  • Databases of core data and watershed data available for HUC12 watersheds across the upper Midwest
  • A toolbox for use within Esri’s ArcGIS (Version 5 is compatible with ArcGIS Pro 3x, Version 4 is compatible with 10.5-10.8.2 and ArcGIS Pro 2.7-2.9) along with the provided databases and high resolution topographic data to generate detailed output maps identifying a broad range of conservation practice opportunities available


The small watershed approach is a collaborative conservation implementation process integrated at the scale of subwatersheds around 10,000-40,000 acres or hydrologic unit code (HUC) 12 in size. The approach differs from the farm-by-farm approach or large scale watershed strategizing, although it may be integrated with these smaller and larger scale activities.

The HUC12 watershed is a workable size for identifying and prioritizing projects, engaging local stakeholders, and understanding the hydrologic processes and impacts of projects. Even when working with individual landowners, the watershed approach helps conservationists address farm scale issues in the context of the upstream and downstream implications of a project.

The ACPF supports this watershed approach by analyzing hydrology at an actionable scale and generating a broad range of specific conservation practices that can be installed at the field-level. This landscape-specific information gives landowners the ability and confidence to decide what actions are most effective in addressing local water quality and quantity concerns on their land.

The watershed approach involves engaging diverse stakeholders who have a variety of skills and interests to identify problems and potential solutions. The ACPF, used in combination with a systems-thinking approach, is important for understanding the community’s capacity for addressing water issues and for understanding the hydrology to identify and prioritize key pollutant sources and transport.


Conservation pyramid diagram

Click the image for the article by Tomer et al on combining precision conservation technologies into a flexible framework to facilitate agricultural watershed planning.

The ACPF conceptual framework is based on the conservation pyramid which emphasizes soil conservation as the foundation to agricultural watershed management.

Well-managed soils lose less water to runoff and leaching, which improves production, and enables additional practices to effectively treat losses that occur due to the natural ‘leakiness’ of agricultural lands. These additional practices, which control water flows and trap and treat nutrient losses, can be implemented or stacked in fields, at field edges, and in riparian zones.

The ACPF framework identifies locations where specific landscape attributes are favorable for implementing certain conservation practices and includes methods to help prioritize these locations according to their susceptibility to runoff and erosion.

Looking for more information on ACPF? Check out the ACPF Summary Factsheet for an overview of how watershed coordinators can use ACPF and what is needed to run the toolbox.