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Water: Watershed Central

Build Partnerships - Develop Indicators

Indicators are direct or indirect measurements of some valued component or quality in a system. Indicators provide a powerful means of communicating the status of the watershed to various audiences and demonstrating the progress being made toward meeting goals. Work with your stakeholders to select indicators that will be used to measure the current health of the watershed and provide a way to measure the progress toward meeting the watershed goals you have identified.

Indicators can be categorized as environmental, programmatic and social. Environmental indicators are a direct measure of the environmental conditions that you hope to achieve through implementation of your watershed plan. Programmatic indicators are indirect measures of resource protection or restoration (i.e., the number of management practices or the number of point source permits issued). Social indicators measure changes in social or cultural practices, such as increased awareness of watershed issues, and behavior changes that lead to implementation of management practices and subsequent water quality improvements.

The indicators you select should be quantitative and consider the impacts, impairments, or parameters of concern in the waterbody and the types and pathways of watershed stressor sources that contribute to those impacts. Select indicators that will help to communicate these concepts to non-technical audiences. If a total maximum daily load (TMDL) exists, important indicators have already been defined and you can incorporate them when selecting appropriate management actions to implement the load reductions cited in TMDL. If no TMDL exists, select indicators that are linked to your water quality restoration or protection goals, such as pollutant concentrations or other parameters of concern (e.g., channel instability, eroding banks, channel flow, flow cycles). Examples of quantitative indicators are illustrated below in Table 4-1 below.

Table 4-1. Coal Creek Sediment Loading Indicators and Target Values (EPA's Handbook)

Sediment Loading Indicator

Target Value

5-year mean McNeil core percent subsurface fines 6.35 mm

35 percent

5-year mean substrate score


Percent surface fines 2 mm

20 percent

Clinger richness


The indicators you select will be refined, added to and modified throughout the watershed planning and implementation process (see Table 4-2 below). As you complete the characterization phase and develop goals and management objectives, you will shift your indicators from those which assess current conditions to those which quantitatively measure progress toward meeting your goals.

Table 4-2. Use of Indicators Throughout the Watershed Planning and Implementation Process

Planning Step

Description of How Indicators are Used

Assess Current Conditions

Indicators are used to measure current environmental conditions, e.g., water quality, habitat, aquatic resources, land use patterns

Develop Goals

Indicators are used to determine when the goal will be achieved, e.g., reducing nutrient loads to meet water quality standards

Develop Pollution Load Reduction Targets

Indicators are used to measure the targets for load reductions, e.g., phosphorus concentration

Select Management Strategies

Indicators are used to track the implementation of the management measures, e.g., number of management practices installed

Develop Monitoring Program

The monitoring program measures the indicators that have been developed as part of the management strategies and information/ education program

Implement Watershed Plan

Indicators are used to measure the implementation of the watershed plan, tracking dollars spent, resources expended, management practices implemented, and improvements in water quality


A Landscape Approach for Detecting and Evaluating Change in a Semi-arid Environment, San Pedro Watershed (U.S./Mexico) - The entire text of the document is presented.

Mississippi Gulf Coast Stormwater Management Toolbox - Section 2: Best Management Practices (PDF) Exit EPA Disclaimer (45 pp, 870K, About PDF) - Full document is available.

CT Rapid Bioassessment in Wadeable Streams and Rivers by Volunteer Monitors - The RBV program is a standardized screening method that keeps the equipment, expertise, and time commitment to a minimum while simultaneously identifying sections of streams with pollution sensitive organisms. You can find the monitoring protocol here.

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