Determining Cost-Effectiveness of Best Management Practices in Sustainable Watershed Management: A Decision-Making Tool for Restoring Bullrun Creek

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2004: $9,910.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Matching Federal Funds: $8,000.00
Grant Recipient: University of Tennessee
Region: Southern
State: Tennessee
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
Joanne Logan
University of Tennessee

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, rye, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Additional Plants: native plants
  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, grazing - rotational, manure management, pasture renovation, preventive practices, watering systems
  • Crop Production: nutrient cycling
  • Education and Training: decision support system, display, focus group, technical assistance, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns, feasibility study, whole farm planning
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, grass waterways, habitat enhancement, indicators, riparian buffers, riverbank protection, soil stabilization, wildlife
  • Production Systems: holistic management
  • Sustainable Communities: public participation, sustainability measures


    Analysis of water quality data collected from Bullrun Creek showed decreasing trends in both sediment and Escherichia coli (E. coli) concentrations over the past four years. The decreases in these pollutant concentrations followed a series of best management practices installed within the watershed, although a direct correlation could not be established. Hydrologic modeling and GIS analysis determined that pasture improvements with riparian establishment were the most cost-efficient practices to reduce sediment and Escherichia coli in Bullrun Creek. Data from this study was utilized in the development of a Watershed Management Plan by the Bullrun Creek Restoration Partnership.


    The Role of Best Management Practices

    There is increasing concern over degrading water quality in the United States, as water quality problems still affect over 40% of our national waters, such that many of these waters are too deteriorated for most uses (EPA, 2004). Further, non-point source pollution is implicated as a major source of degradation, thought to represent more than half of the nation’s water quality problems (Copeland, 1999). After years of virtual stagnancy, water quality reform was keenly addressed by the Clinton Administration in 1997 with the Clean Water Action Plan, which was designed to remediate pollution and health hazards through the control of non-point source pollution and the development of management on a watershed basis. The Plan called for interagency collaboration at the state and federal levels, and also specifically called for public representation in the decision-making process of watershed management (62 Federal Register 60447-60449). U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that work in conjunction with the CWAP paradigm include the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act (P.L. 83-566), which is delivered through the Natural Resource Conservation Service (USDA 2003).
    Such efforts in watershed management are largely based on the integration of a variety of best management practices (BMPs). Two major factors generally determine the adoption of a BMP; effectiveness and cost (Gitau et al., 2003). BMP effectiveness is largely based on the reduction of pollution, or increase in water quality that can be attributed to a BMP. Effectiveness is often maximized through the prioritization of target sites (White et al., 2003). Optimizing costs of BMP implementation is much more ambiguous. Factors that influence the success of a BMP include profitability, net returns, and the espousement of values and external costs, which vary greatly with perspectives of landowners and the general public (Gitau, et al., 2003). Many BMPs serve not only to improve environmental quality, but the health and productivity of farms and livestock as well. A study by Willms, et al. (2002) demonstrated that improved quality of waters consumed by cattle led to greater calf weight at birth and increased grazing. Moreover, they showed that improved water quality and forage conditions can optimize productivity. The CWAP and the USDA programs mentioned above benefit watershed management efforts through cost share programs, many of which are specifically designed for BMP construction and implementation (USDA, 2003).
    BMP cost effectiveness may be readily approximated by comparing overall costs to predicted increases in water quality. What is increasingly difficult, however, is the determination of the real impact of a BMP on any particular site, and the interaction between combinations of BMPs, either successive within a site or within the watershed as a whole. Similarly, hydrologic dynamics are complex, ambiguous and inconsistent. Strategic management approaches, therefore, are often based on potential impacts and involve many assumptions. According to Gitau et al. (2003), the solution lies in “optimizing selection and placement of BMPs in order to determine the highest pollutant reduction at the least cost”. The study by Gitau et al. is one of few studies to undertake the task of predicting potential cost effectiveness of BMP implements, and serves as an archetype to the management ventures proposed for Bullrun Creek Watershed.

    Best Management Practices in Bullrun Creek
    Bullrun Creek drains a long narrow watershed in northeastern Tennessee. The 104 square mile tract runs NE to SW, parallel to the ridge and valley undulations of East Tennessee. The creek headwaters form in Grainger County and flow through Union, Knox and Anderson Counties before merging into Melton Hill Lake. Bullrun creek is currently classified by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) as partially supporting (per CWA 313(d)), and has an initiated a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program. Water quality reports reflected impairment by sedimentation, channelization, habitat alteration and the presence of pathogens (TDEC 2000). Preliminary water quality data was observed by TDEC through a series of sampling events from September 2001 through October 2002. A review of this water quality data supported the suspect pollutant contributions (Burr 2003, pers. comm.)
    Concern over the creek’s deteriorating water quality prompted the formation of the Bullrun Creek Restoration Partnership (BCRP). The BCRP is a stakeholder conglomerate that formed in 1999 with the goal of identifying and resolving sources of degraded water quality in Bullrun Creek. The Integrated Pollutant Source Identification (IPSI) model developed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) suggests runoff from degraded pastures as a primary source of impairment, particularly for sediment and Escherichia coli (2002). Pastures account for nearly 25% of the landuse in Bullrun Creek Watershed, and the majority (85%) of these pastures are considered to be only poor to fair in quality (Hagerman, 2003). Pollutant additions from livestock operations are complicated in that pathogens may be delivered directly to waterways, but also when attached to soil particles. This leads to complex modes of delivery of pollutes from these sources, and erosional processes subsequently become pathogenic contributions (Glover 1996).
    The BCRP, in conjunction with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other governmental organizations, has assisted in funding the implementation of various best management practices (BMPs) through cost share programs. To date, 27 farms in the Bullrun Creek Watershed support over 125 BMPs (NRCS, 2003). The goal of the BCRP and its partners is to continue funding BMP implementation to help realize further water quality improvements. Programs set forth by the BCRP have also included technical and economic reports, public meetings and workshops. Currently, the BCRP is fostering the formation of a citizen stakeholder committee which will serve to represent the general public in the decision making process.
    Effective best management practice planning mandates a holistic approach. Technical, economic, and social factors must be considered. The purpose of this study was to provide the BCRP with appropriate information to aid in decision making. Major importance was given to the continuation of stream data collection, and efforts to verify the cost effectiveness of BMPs. Primary objectives for this study involved an evaluation of water quality through stream sampling, indicators of BMP success, comprehensive modeling and BMP cost analysis.

    Project objectives:

    1. Water samples from eight target sites in the watershed were collected and analyzed quarterly and following storm events in order to assess spatial and temporal trends in pollutant concentrations, and to help assess the viability of recent restoration efforts.

      Land-use changes and water quality benefits resulting from three BMP implements were modeled using IPSI to assist in watershed scale management planning.

      BMP scenarios that offered the most water quality benefits when modeled in IPSI were evaluated for practicality, cost-efficiency and overall optimality.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.