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This program is just one example of an integrated Research, Education and Extension project that has positively impacted water quality. Please check back periodically for other highlighted programs.

Experimental Manipulation of Entire Watersheds through Best Management Practices (BMPs): Nutrient Fluxes, Fate, Transport and Biotic Responses

Situation Actions Impacts


Runoff from agricultural lands containing soil and nutrients poses a potential threat to water quality. The environmental effects of agricultural runoff on surface water bodies, including eutrophication and sedimentation, are serious local, regional and national issues. A dilemma for governmental leaders in agricultural areas is that their most important economic industry, agriculture, may also be the cause of environmental degradation. For farmers, difficulties are further exacerbated by the high profile increase of governmental regulation on agricultural operations. The agricultural industry needs scientific evidence that they are capable of being part of the solution not just part of the problem.

Conesus Lake is the smallest of the Finger Lakes in New York State. Its 70 square mile watershed contains seven municipalities and is a source of drinking water to about 15,000 residents inside and outside of the watershed. As of 1999, about one-half of the land use within the Conesus Lake watershed was agricultural. The lake is used recreationally by many for swimming, boating, fishing and aesthetic enjoyment.


The members of the agriculture community that farm the hills above Conesus Lake are also concerned land stewards. The Conesus Lake Watershed Group (CLWG) was formed in 1999, and includes members from different areas of the agricultural community such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Farm Service Agency, and the Conesus Lake Watershed Inspector, as well as members from the Livingston County Health and Planning Departments, Cornell Cooperative Extension and the State Universities of New York at Brockport and Geneseo . In 2001 the CLWG worked together to develop a research plan that blends the needs of the agricultural community, the lake community, and managers to address non-point source pollution from agricultural land use. A collaboration among all groups within the CLWG with SUNY Brockport as the lead institution, this multi-dimensional project represents an integrated approach of academics, extension and farming interests to conduct hypothesis-based research at the watershed level. The project will examine the effectiveness of Best Management Practices (BMPs) at mitigating non-point sources of nutrient and soil loss.

The goals of the Conesus Lake Project are to:
Demonstrate, through the experimental watershed approach external link, that implementation of BMPs in agriculturally dominated watersheds will preserve soil and reduce nutrient loss from a series of subwatersheds;
Evaluate the impact of instituted BMPs by considering the impacts on the downstream lake community at the watershed scale; and
Evaluate fate and transport of nutrients over space and time



To determine the effect that implemented management plans have on soil and nutrient retention within the watershed, total farm planning and implementation of at least one BMP occurred in experimental watersheds. BMPs included the elimination of winter manure practices in highly erodable and hydrologically sensitive areas and the use of gully plugs to decrease soil erosion.

The project utilizes the experimental watershed approach , where BMPs are implemented in a number of experimental watersheds. Soil and nutrient monitoring results from experimental watersheds are then compared to results from control watersheds where BMPs have not been implemented. Small experimental subwatersheds (33 to 325 ha) were chosen for this study because they are predominantly in agriculture (over 70%) and are farmed by only one or two landowners. This approach ensures that any effects on downstream systems (stream, stream mouths and nearshore of the lake) will be a result of implemented BMPs; that is, results will not be confounded by other land use practices often observed in large watershed approaches.


Observable impacts and outputs of this project to date include:

A demonstration by the CLWG and the Finger Lakes community of the effectiveness of implemented BMPs, allowing regional policy makers and managers to develop optimal strategies for improving land usage in watersheds while significantly improving water quality and decreasing the abundance of nuisance plant species in downstream ecosystems.

Significant decreases in particulate forms of nutrients and a 94% decrease in soil loss during the fall season.

Significant decreases in phosphorus, nitrate and total Kjeldahl nitrogen losses to the watershed as a result of changes in manure application on a collaborating farm. This farm will be featured in the Northeast Dairy News in an article that emphasizes cost savings of about $5000 from reduced fertilizer purchases and improved manure management while maintaining crop yields.

Significant reductions in total coliform bacteria and the percent cover of metaphyton near experimental stream mouths.

A session, hosted by the CLWG, on the manipulations of watersheds at the 47th Annual conference for the International Association of Great Lakes Research.

An extension brochure produced by Nathan Herendeen of Cornell Cooperative Extension and distributed to regional agricultural groups.

A project website that disseminates outreach information, scientific presentations, up-to-date hydrologic data from seven watersheds, and other information related to the Conesus Lake Project.


For more information on the Conesus Lake Watershed Manipulation and papers about project results, view the project description on the NIFA Current Research Information System here , visit the project website or contact Dr. Joseph Makarewicz of SUNY at Brockport.