Great Lakes WESS


The Great Lakes Watershed Ecological Sustainability Strategy (GLWESS): Transactions for Agricultural Ecosystem Services

The Watershed Ecological Sustainability Strategy (WESS) is a collaborative effort of the Great Lakes Protection Fund, LimnoTech, Michigan State University and The Nature Conservancy. WESS is designed to guide agricultural watershed management in the Great Lakes for clean, abundant water to meet the needs of people nature. It is deployable from the farm-field to large-scale watersheds.

About the Strategy

WESS transparently enables goal-setting and decision-making for all involved watershed parties, especially the agricultural supply chain and federal/state/local governments, interested in sustaining environmental health and economic activity. WESS was tested in real-world case study transactions to demonstrateg application potential. It has gone ''live'' and is now deployed in early stages of application across parts of the supply chain. At this point WESS is a first generation application, and is expected to improve over time as technology and information management systems advance, adoption expands, and demand grows for clean water from agricultural regions.


The WESS framework is built upon biological response curves to set real-world goals and the use of widely-adopted models to enable the quantification of impacts of management decisions to reach those goals. WESS was tested in real-world case study transactions, including direct farmer payments, county drain assessments, nutrient service provider certification and farm operation certification to demonstrate application potential.

Models and Tools to Inform Trasactions: Developing Science-based ''Currencies'' for Sustainability Transactions. Models were used to inform the establishment of realistic watershed conservation goals. Models and information were also used to support new types of transactions that link conservation management practices to ecosystem improvement outcomes.

Certification Programs. Certification programs for companies or products, farms and agriculture retailers were assessed for their ability to scale and verify conservation actions for improved ecological outcomes.

Farmer Willingness to Provide Environmental Services. Farmer willingness to implement conservation practices that provide ecological benefits drives the impact of performance-based programs. Using four experimental auctions and two large-scale auctions, the team examined which types of conservation payments attract farmers to make bids that give the greatest ecological bang for the buck and what factors encourage farmers to participate in conservation auctions.

Agricultural Drain Management. Agricultural drainage systems are pervasive across the southern Great Lakes grain belt. This project set out to determine whether existing transactions could be amended to better align conservation practices with drain management objectives and public drain fee structures.

Additional Resources

Outreach Materials

  • Change the Conversation info sheet

  • Project components of the GLWESS strategy will be featured in an upcoming special issue of the Journal of the Great Lakes in 2016 (forthcoming).

  • The strategy was presented at a preconference workshop AM-3 Coordinated Approaches to Enhance Ecosystem Services in Watersheds Dominated by Agriculture, at the conference of A Community on Ecosystem Services (ACES), Washington, DC, December 8-12, 2014. Presentations include:


Supply Chain Certification

  • Using Market Based Mechanisms to Reduce Pollution from Great Lakes Agricultural Watersheds. Workshop summary

Agricultural Retailers

  • the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program encourages agricultural retailers, service providers and other certified professionals to adopt proven best practices through the 4Rs, which refers to using the Right Source of Nutrients at the Right Rate and the Right Time in the Right Place. Learn more.

 Company and Product Certifications

 Farm Certification

Farmer Engagement

Drain Management