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Small Watershed Program

The Small Watershed Program in California - PL 83-566 and PL 73-534

The USDA's Small Watershed Program assists local organizations in conducting watershed surveys and investigations, and in planning and installing structural and land treatment measures for watershed protection and flood prevention. In California, the Watershed Planning and Engineering staffs are responsible for implementation of these programs.

The watershed is the unit of landscape and framework around which to think together about the land and its role in peoples' lives. The lessons learned through the implementation of PL 78-534 and PL 83-566 - the ability to work with private landowners and communities to plan and install conservation measures on a watershed scale - forms the foundation upon which locally-led conservation is built and supported by NRCS.


USDA's Small Watershed Program was authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1944, Public Law 78-534, and the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954, Public Law 83-566.  The original program, PL 78-534, was established for 11 selected watersheds throughout the country, including the Los Angeles River and Santa Ynez River in California.  The subsequent legislation, PL 83-566, was passed to expand the program to all of the nation's watersheds.

USDA's Small Watershed Program has three general purposes:  1) preventing damage from erosion, floodwater and sediment, 2) furthering the conservation development, utilization, and disposal of water, and 3) further the conservation and proper utilization of land.

The program applies to watersheds 250,000 acres and smaller.  At least 20 percent of any project benefits must related directly to agriculture, including rural communities.  A local sponsoring organization is needed to carry out, maintain, and operate works of improvement.

The program has two main components, each of which is funded separately: 1) watershed surveys and planning; and 2) watershed and flood prevention operations and construction.

Status of the Program in California

The PL-566 Program is currently not receiving any funding for initiating new watershed plans.

Project Benefits

Flood Control

The flood control purpose of the program has been used extensively in California to help local communities address flooding problems.

Agricultural Water Management

Water is critical to California agriculture, both in terms of quantity and quality.  The Small Watershed Program has assisted California farmers with installing irrigation and drainage systems to improve water management and protect water quality.

Watershed Protection

Projects are being planned in California, using the Small Water program, with the primary purpose of watershed protection.  These projects address erosion and sedimentation, water quality, fisheries enhancement, riparian area enhancement, and nutrient management.

Project Planning Process

Using the Small Watershed Program, NRCS provides technical specialist from different natural resource and social science disciplines to assist local groups and project sponsors with planning and installing structures,  and land treatment practices.

Rapid Watershed Assessments (RWA)

Rapid watershed assessments provide initial estimates of where conservation investments would best address the concerns of landowners, Resource Conservation Districts, and other community organizations and stakeholders. These assessments help land-owners and local leaders set priorities and determine the best actions to achieve their goals.

These assessments are conducted by watershed planning teams traveling through each watershed, meeting with landowners and conservation groups, inventorying agricultural areas, identifying conservation opportunities and current levels of resource management, and estimating impacts of these opportunities on the local priority resource concerns.

RWAs are valuable for documenting benchmark conditions, identifying conservation opportunities and conceptual-level costs for grant or farm bill program funding targets, as a source for information when developing Resource Conservation District and NRCS business plans and strategies to address resource concerns, or to provide a rallying point for stakeholders to build the partnerships necessary to address and improve resource conditions in a geographic area.


John Harrington, State Conservation Engineer
(530) 792-5622