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USA - Big Benefits from Experimental Watersheds

Scientific insights from the Agricultural Research Service’s long-term study sites underpin dozens of models and research methods that guide global land management and conservation practices.

During the mid-1930s, in the wake of devastating Dust Bowl–era storms, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) established a series of experimental watersheds to better understand how erosion, runoff, and water quality vary in response to different agricultural practices. In the 1950s, USDA expanded this program to create the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Experimental Watershed Network.

More than a half century’s worth of high-resolution observations from within this network have led to unprecedented understanding of watershed processes. As Goodrich et al. highlight, long-term knowledge gained from the ARS network now underpins dozens of models and research methods that guide billions of dollars’ worth of conservation measures and infrastructure investments.

The network’s objectives initially focused on quantifying effects of soil conservation practices and collecting data to guide the design of water conservation structures. In the 1970s, following passage of the Clean Water Act, this scope expanded to include water quality issues. As climate change issues grew in importance, some network sites also began monitoring water–energy–carbon fluxes and collecting long-term, high-frequency hydrometeorological measurements.

The data collected within the ARS Experimental Watershed Network are noteworthy for the long time period they cover and their impressive reach. More than 10,000 peer-reviewed publications have been based on data collected in the hundreds of watersheds that at various times have been included in this network.

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