Western Lake Erie Conservation Assessment Project

History of The Project

The St. Joseph Watershed Project: Developing an implementation plan for protecting and restoring wildlife habitat and water quality using a cooperative conservation approach.
This project is intended to operate in the context of an ecosystem approach to conservation in the region at a landscape scale, through the complementary efforts of area conservation organizations, government agencies and local communities.

Goals of the Project:

  • Formalize a local network of stakeholders in the St. Joseph River Watershed by utilizing local knowledge and established groups found in various sub-basins of the watershed, establishing an all-encompassing St. Joseph River Implementation Advisory Committee.
  • Pinpoint specific locations in the watershed that will result in the most significant conservation gain through the use of wetland restoration activities
  • Pinpoint specific locations in the watershed that will result in the most significant conservation gain through the use of riparian corridor establishment and protection activities
  • Establish demonstration sites of restored wetlands and riparian corridor: the goal is 30 acres of unique remnant wetlands and 1.5 miles of riparian corridor. These demonstration projects will be used to build consensus and educate the local  public on benefits of strategically placed protection activities
  • Develop a financial and resource analysis for watershed managers, public officials, and interested constituents that will prioritize sites and identify primary funding sources for implementation.
  • Work with advisory committee and partners to secure partnership agreements and participate in outreach activities that will raise local awareness of these critical issues.


The Nature Conservancy’s Upper St. Joseph River Project is implementing this project, along with partners The St. Joseph River Watershed Initiative and the Indiana State Department of Agriculture under a funding agreement from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. This project is supported through funding from the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. 

Project Setting

The Western Lake Erie Basin, containing the Maumee River, presently bears little resemblance to the dense deciduous forests, oak savannas, wet prairies, scattered glacial kettle lakes and pocket wetlands that existed prior to European settlement.  Land conversion to agricultural and urban uses obliterated all but a few very diverse, relatively high quality ecosystems, all of which are dependent on the existence of abundant clean water.

Although conservation efforts have been actively pursued in the watershed in the past, this project will focus on a widespread approach to restoring wetlands, creating buffer zones, and restoring forested riparian corridors that will affect much larger segments of the watershed and also reach a greater number of landowners to educate them about the need for conservation measures, as well as the availability of federal and private funds to help them implement conservation practices.

The St. Joseph River

Located in northeast Indiana, northwest Ohio and south central Michigan, the St. Joseph River watershed encompasses 694,400 acres. With its headwaters in Hillsdale County, Michigan, the St. Joseph River flows in a southwestern direction through Ohio and Indiana before converging with the St. Mary’s River in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to form the Maumee River.  Tributaries Cedar Creek and Fish Creek in Indiana contribute significant waters to the St. Joseph.
The watershed is primarily agricultural, with approximately 64% in cropland and 15% in pasture or forage.  Woodlands and wetlands are found on 10% of the area, while the remaining 11% consists of urban landscape, farmsteads, rural residences, airports, golf courses, industry and similar land uses.
The St. Joseph River is used to irrigate farms and pastures, and also provides the drinking water for nearly 250,000 people in Fort Wayne and New Haven, Indiana. Fort Wayne’s Three Rivers Filtration Plant processes 34 million gallons of water daily from the St. Joseph River.
Historically, the floodplain of the St. Joseph River consisted of a dense forest and wetland complex, with the ability to filter and store large amounts of nutrients, sediment and water.  Presently, all but a narrow band of trees exist along the river and most wetlands have been drained for agricultural production, eliminating the buffering effect that a floodplain should provide.


Fortunately, despite other demands, the St. Joseph River also provides aquatic habitats that contain some of the best remaining examples of the river communities once very common in the western Lake Erie basin.  Forty three species of fish and 31 species of mussels, three of which are federally endangered, have been found in various reaches of the St. Joseph River.  Perhaps the best known species, the federally endangered White Cat’s Paw Pearly Mussel (Epioblasma obliquata perobliqua) survives only within the project area.  The St. Joseph also supports three other aquatic federally imperiled species, the endangered Clubshell mussel (Pleurobema clava), the endangered Northern Riffleshell pearly mussel (Epioblasma torulosa rangiana), and the threatened Copperbelly water snake (Nerodia erythrogater neglecta).  It also supports nine other mussel species considered imperiled in at least one of the three states.


Floodplain areas are attractive to farmers principally because they are highly productive, due to natural processes that have deposited layers of sediment annually, creating rich soils over time. They also provide adequate groundwater for plants because the water table is shallow due to its proximity to the river. This poses a direct threat to water quality because fertilizers and pesticides are applied directly to land that is subjected to seasonal flooding, and these compounds are then carried downstream with flood waters.  Converting this land back to forests and wetlands creates a buffer zone that removes contaminants from upland areas, thereby protecting and improving water quality in the river.


Wetlands not only hold water and recharge groundwater, but they also have the ability to filter and process nutrients and other chemicals from the water.  Strategic placement of wetlands and other conservation practices can significantly contribute to overall water quality in the watershed.

Project Goals and Objectives

The focus of this project will be to develop an implementation plan which targets specific restoration sites for wetland and forest restoration based on historical land use trends, existing hydrology, spatial GIS information, water quality data, and landowner interest within the St. Joseph River watershed.  The objective is to stimulate interest from willing landowners to restore this critical habitat by presenting a scientifically and publicly endorsed plan, as well as identifying public and private funds available to implement these practices in a cooperative approach to conservation.
The implementation plan will identify resources that can be used to implement practices in priority sites. The resources are a combination of private, state and federal funding that can be used to provide landowners the appropriate compensation for the public and environmental benefit of improved water quality.
The Nature Conservancy will provide the leadership and oversight for the project team as it organizes a stakeholder advisory committee, identifies the restoration demonstration projects, and develops the Implementation Plan.

Project Success

This project will have its greatest success if it serves as an example of successful restoration in an agricultural setting, engages landowners and maximizes the federal funding available for the region. 

The Rapid Watershed Assessment (RWA)

A broad range of partners participated in the development of this rapid assessment method, including a technical committee which incorporated representatives of the county Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Natural Resource Conservation Service district conservationists, The Nature Conservancy, and Fish & Wildlife Service biologists.  Retired Tri-State University biology professor Dr. Pete Hippensteel directed the project. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) assistance was provided by the St. Joseph River Watershed Initiative subcontractor Scott Gibson, research assistant with the IPFW Biology Department’s Center for Reptiles and Amphibians.

An extensive review of existing data resources was made for the assessment process.  These included the 2001 National Land Cover Dataset, National Hydrography Dataset high resolution stream layers, HUC sub-watershed boundaries; historic water quality data (bacteria, turbidity, and Atrazine) from the St. Joseph River Watershed Initiative’s monitoring program; and species occurrence data from the National Heritage Database. 

The digital land cover database was utilized to obtain three data sets: The amount of cropland (row crops) in each subwatershed, the amount natural vegetation within each subwatershed, and the amount of woodland within a 30-meter buffer on each side of the stream. Each dataset was used as a ranking layer. (For further information regarding this process, see the St. Joseph CCPI Methodology in the Project Files section.)

Watersheds are delineated, located and sized by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in Hydrologic Unit Codes (HUC).  Both the HUC-11 subwatersheds and the smaller HUC-14 subwatersheds were ranked for this conservation study, using available data in a process that compared them to each other. The St. Joseph River watershed contains nine HUC-11 watersheds and 55 HUC-14 subwatersheds. The ranking process results in the most highly polluted or degraded watersheds having the highest scores.  Ranking of the St. Joseph HUC-11 watersheds found Fish Creek and the West Branch in the best shape, and the Middle St. Joseph subwatershed having the most problems.

Ranking of the HUC-14 watershed utilized only the land use data since water quality and species data are not equally available for all of these subwatersheds.  Using the three ranking criteria of cropland in the watershed, natural vegetation in the watershed and woodlands in the buffer zone, the fifty-five HUC 14 subwatersheds were compared to each other.  The watershed map below shows the result of this ranking process.

More detailed, interactive maps in pdf format, organized by subwatershed and by county, are available under the Project Files section of this page. The maps have layers of cities, streams and roads that can be clicked on and off.

Using the RWA for Conservation Placement

The final selection of sub-watershed for the placement of conservation practices can be based on a variety of natural resource management approaches. One such approach is to “protect the best and restore the rest.” Whether the plan focuses on the highest quality subwatershed for protection (of the best) or the lowest quality subwatersheds for restoration (of the rest), conservation investments should be based on practices that provide the most water quality and habitat benefits. Since most of the land in this watershed is privately owned, willing landowners and available resources also influence the selection process.

Additional decisions about conservation planning can be completed at the local level. County conservation districts know many of their rural landowners and can use aerial mapping and windshield surveys to further refine areas in need of, for example, conservation buffers.

Local Ranking

With some additional analysis, local entities such as the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, can determine potential benefits of various conservation practices and sites. The following chart outlines the critical criteria for evaluating the placement of riparian buffers in the priority watersheds.

Riparian buffers are vegetated plots, 20 to 60 feet in width, along the side of a waterway. The buffer serves as a barrier between cropland and the waterway, effectively filtering out agricultural chemicals, nutrients and sediment before storm runoff reaches the stream. The relative values on the following chart are based on information from the review of numerous scientific articles.

Criteria for buffer placement:







Stream Order:

1st or 2nd






Current Land Use:

Row Crops


Hay or Pasture




Type of Tillage:

Reduced Till


Mulch till




Soil Type: ____________



>.28K value


< .28K


Slope in Buffer Zone



2 to 6%


< 2%


Stream or Ditch

Direct surface




Berm or
spoil pile


In-Field Hydrology

No tile inlets


Visible tile


Extensive tile drains


Connectivity – expansion of existing habitat

Forests or wetlands






Livestock type: ____________

Observed stream impact


Fenced Out


Nutrient Plan


Total of all selected values:

58 - 42


41 - 25


24 - 8


Criteria used in this analysis can be evaluated from quality aerial photographs from NRCS or Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices, or sometimes from county GIS websites. Google Earth has adequate photos for some portions of the United States. Potential priority sites can be further examined with the landowner to fine tune the design of the conservation practice.

For further review and discussion, contact The Nature Conservancy’s Upper St. Joseph River Project Office (260-665-9141).

Livestock Survey

A survey instrument was created by the SJRWI and the technical advisory committee to support a windshield survey of livestock in the watershed. Funding was supplied by the Ohio DNR as part of the overall St. Joseph Conservation Planning effort.

Although livestock data is available from the USDA Ag Statistics, it is organized by county rather than by watershed.  Because of this, the livestock data by watershed is not easily determined. In order to capture this information, the advisory committee devised an instrument that included a spreadsheet connected to a GIS mapping product. This instrument was used to count or estimate numbers and record types of livestock operations, as well as mark their location on a watershed map.  No landowner names were used on the survey, only general locations of and types of animals that could be viewed from a windshield tour were recorded onto a laptop computer. 

Every roadway in the watershed was driven by SJRWI ag technician Jason Buuck and/or St. Marys Watershed coordinator Clint Nester (Allen County).  SWCD employees in each county accompanied these two staff members, guiding the road-by-road watershed tour and supplementing information observed in the field with local knowledge of their counties.  Types of observed livestock and their estimated numbers were recorded, along with their general location vis-à-vis the roadway, on a GIS map referenced to the spreadsheet.

This livestock database was used to create a map that graphically shows the location and density of various types of livestock and other domesticated animals.  Pets (dogs, cats) were not counted in this survey.

St. Joseph River Watershed Livestock survey map

What does the livestock map tell us?

The survey data and maps are useful for NRCS, conservation districts, and conservation organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and the St. Joseph River Watershed Initiative, to help target educational outreach and financial support to livestock operators in order to improve land and water quality. Conservation practices that might be encouraged for livestock owners and landowners include nutrient management planning, rotational grazing, fencing livestock from streams and waterways, devising alternative watering facilities, proper application of manure, and buffering of heavy use areas.

Interesting results of the survey included the number of non-traditional animals in the watershed. Besides the traditional livestock operations of horses, beef cattle, dairy cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, donkeys, chickens, ducks and turkeys, the survey found alpaca, llama, emu, buffalo, pheasant, pigeon, reindeer, deer, elk, and one zebra.  

Of the estimated total of 55,047 animals counted during the survey, 99% were traditional types of livestock for the Midwest area.  Beef cattle made up approximately 22% and dairy cattle, slightly over 15%. Horses and donkeys accounted for nearly 12%, and pigs for just over 43% of the total. Goats and sheep were at nearly 6%, and poultry at 1.6%.

By county, the animal counts varied widely. Very small portions of Defiance (Ohio) and Branch (Michigan) counties are located in the St. Joseph watershed; these accounted for less than one percent of the animals.  Hillsdale County (MI) had the most animals, approximately 31.4%. DeKalb County (IN), which lies almost entirely within the St. Joseph watershed, accounted for 26% of the animals.  Williams County (OH) accounted for 21.2%, Allen County (IN) 13.8%; Steuben County (IN) 4.5%, and Noble County (IN) 2.1% of the animals.  Livestock operations in Amish communities, mainly in Allen, Steuben and Hillsdale Counties accounted for nearly 25% of the total animal count.

By subwatershed, the largest numbers of animals live in the Nettle Creek, the Bear Creek, and the West Branch.  The Lower St. Joseph watershed is mostly urban.



No. Animals


East Branch



West Branch



Nettle Creek



Fish Creek



Middle St. Joseph



Bear Creek



Upper Cedar



Lower Cedar



Lower St. Joseph


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