An official website of the United States government.

This is not the current EPA website. To navigate to the current EPA website, please go to This website is historical material reflecting the EPA website as it existed on January 19, 2021. This website is no longer updated and links to external websites and some internal pages may not work. More information »

National Estuary Program (NEP)

Fact Sheet about the Community-Based Watershed Management Handbook

Community-Based Watershed Management: Lessons from the National Estuary Program (NEP) is designed for all individuals and organizations involved in watershed management, including states, tribes, local governments and nongovernmental organizations. This document describes innovative approaches to watershed management implemented by the 28 National Estuary Programs (NEPs). The NEPs are community-based watershed management organizations that restore and protect coastal watersheds.

Drawing on nearly 20 years of experience, readers will learn how the NEPs organize and maintain effective citizen involvement efforts, collect and analyze data, assess and prioritize problems, develop and implement management plans, and communicate results of program activities. While estuaries and their coastal watersheds are the focus of the NEPs, the estuary program experience can also be adapted to non-coastal watershed initiatives.

Each chapter begins with the key management principles from the NEP experience. These broad principles are described and illustrated with examples from the 28 individual NEPs. The examples show how the NEPs address specific problems within identified priority problem areas, such as loss of habitat, polluted runoff and invasive species. In many cases, actions address multiple problems simultaneously, such as land acquisition to reduce polluted runoff and increase habitat.

The examples are found throughout the text and in sidebars, as well as at the end of each chapter. Six appendices provide additional information regarding the NEP watershed approach, including a brief summary of each NEP that includes their website address. The following paragraphs summarize the contents of each chapter:

Chapter 1: The National Estuary Program

Chapter 1 discusses the origin of the NEP and presents the four cornerstones or principles of the NEP:

  • Focus on the watershed.
  • Integrate science into the decision-making process.
  • Foster collaborative problem solving.
  • Include the public.

The chapter also describes the four phases of the NEP process:

  • Establishing a governance structure.
  • Identifying problems and solutions.
  • Developing the Management Plan.
  • Implementing the Management Plan.

The chapter also discusses the applicability of the NEP model to other watershed management efforts.

Chapter 2: Establishing a Governance Structure

Chapter 2 explains how the NEPs develop a governance structure and support the work of stakeholder committees. The chapter describes how the NEPs provide a forum for open discussion, cooperation and compromise that results in consensus. Examples of governance structures are provided that show how the NEPs:

  • set a course for their programs;
  • direct day-to-day operations;
  • coordinate with local governments; and
  • ensure long-term financial support.

Chapter 3: Identifying Problems and Solutions

Chapter 3 describes how each NEP assesses an estuary to determine its health and the effectiveness of existing management efforts. The chapter:  

  • outlines how the NEPs conduct a Technical Characterization that describes the quality of the estuary, defines its problems and suggests possible solutions;
  • describes how the NEPs conduct the Base Program Analysis—an evaluation of the institutional structures that affect the estuary; and
  • discusses how the findings resulting from the Technical Characterization and Base Program Analysis are combined and translated into plain English, telling a story about the estuary and its watershed.

Chapter 4: Developing the Management Plan

Chapter 4 explains how the NEPs use the results of the Technical Characterization and Base Program Analysis to develop management plans that address the problems of the estuary. The chapter discusses how the NEPs involve affected jurisdictions, agencies and other organizations and individuals in the writing of the plan to ensure stakeholder support and a commitment to implement the plan.

The chapter also shows how the NEPs use demonstration projects during plan development to showcase innovative management strategies, involve the public and demonstrate the types of changes that full implementation can bring.

Chapter 5: Implementing the Management Plan

Chapter 5 describes how the NEPs maintain the momentum of their watershed programs as they shift from planning to implementation. The chapter explains how the NEPs:

  • adopt bylaws and other agreements that define participant roles and provide a mechanism for resolving conflicts;
  • articulate a clear and realistic definition of success that includes measurable indicators;
  • seek a variety of funding sources to avoid over-reliance on a single entity; and
  • involve citizens in environmental monitoring and building public support for implementation.

Chapter 6: Conclusion

Chapter 6 summarizes the key principles that run throughout this unique and creative approach to watershed management and highlights how they are applied to achieve success.

You can order paper copies of this publication free of charge through the National Service Center for Environmental Publications (, or (800) 490-9198.

For specific questions, please contact Tim Jones (, Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds (OWOW), or (202) 566-1245.

Top of Page