U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of Research and Development
National Center for Environmental Research
Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Program


Recipiets List

Development of Watershed Classification Systems for Diagnosis of Biological Impairment in Watersheds

Opening date: October 1, 2001
Closing date:  January 30, 2002

Program Summary
Specific Areas of Interest
Standard Instructions for Submitting an Application

Access Standard STAR Forms and Instructions (https://www.epa.gov/ncer/rfa/forms/index.html)
View NCER Research Capsules (https://www.epa.gov/ncer/publications/topical/)
View research awarded under previous solicitations  (https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncer_abstracts/index.cfm/fuseaction/research.search/rpt/abs/type/3)


Program Title:  Development of Watershed Classification Systems for Diagnosis of Biological Impairment in Watersheds and Their Receiving Water Bodies

Sorting Code: 2002-STAR-B1

Synopsis of Program: This solicitation seeks the development of regionalized watershed classification schemes that can be used within the context of a national framework for determining ecosystem vulnerability, designing monitoring systems, and identifying watershed restoration opportunities.  Regionalized classification schemes should be based on a strong conceptual understanding of watershed processes, as well as illustrating quantitative linkages among watershed attributes, loadings, and ecological responses.

Contact Person(s):
 Bill Stelz;  Phone: 202-564-6834;  email: stelz.william@epa.gov

Applicable Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) Number(s): 66.500

Eligibility Information
 See full proposal for eligibility information

Award Information

  •  Anticipated Type of Award: Grant
  •  Estimated Number of Awards:  Approximately five
  •  Anticipated Funding Amount: Approximately $4 million
  •  Potential Funding per Grant per Year: $150,000 - $300,000/yr ($450,000- $900,000 per grant) total costs for up to 3 years, depending on whether new field data is collected.

Deadline/Target Dates

  •  Letter of Intent Due Date(s):  None
  •  Application Proposal Due Date(s): January 30, 2002



The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Research and Development solicits grant applications for establishing watershed classification schemes in different regions of the U.S. to support the design of efficient monitoring strategies, diagnose the causes of biological impairment, and prioritize watersheds for restoration activities.   This will involve defining both the structural characteristics of a classification strategy (geographic dependence vs. independence, scale, hierarchy, discrimination of natural features from anthropogenic alteration), functional characteristics (theoretical basis for defining categories), and pragmatic aspects of implementation (regional and national relevance, ease of application, flexibility, accuracy, and nature of technical transfer products).

In risk assessments, classification schemes serve as an aid for boundary definition in problem formulation and as a tool for extrapolation of exposure-effect relationships in risk characterization (US EPA, 1996).  Ultimately, watershed classification systems can serve a broad array of uses such as: (1) a basis for stratification in monitoring strategies to detect responses to nonpoint source pollution, (2) a tool to assess watershed vulnerability and diagnose potential causes of biological impairment, (3) a method to prioritize watersheds for restoration activities, and (4) a tool used to extrapolate results of empirical or mechanistic models of watershed response to other similar watersheds, potentially across entire regions.  Classification can, therefore, reveal to watershed managers increased opportunities for risk prevention and locally appropriate goals and methods for watershed restoration.

This RFA builds upon earlier STAR grants in aquatic ecosystem classification by exploring relationships between watershed attributes and aquatic ecosystem condition.  In addition, this RFA goes beyond the development of methods to assess current condition by addressing the development of methods to assess differences in ecosystem vulnerability to stressors and differences in restoration opportunities within a watershed context.   The EPA is interested in building on current classification work by developing the strong underlying basic science that establishes a conceptual understanding of how baseline aquatic ecosystem condition relates to watershed attributes (physical, climatic, and terrestrial) and how anthropogenic activity alters baseline conditions.   Research completed through this RFA will enhance the ability of state, tribal, and local agencies to protect the nation's waters.


This solicitation seeks the development of regionalized watershed classification schemes that can be used within the context of a national framework to determine ecosystem vulnerability and watershed restoration opportunities.  Regionalized classification schemes should be based on a strong conceptual understanding of watershed processes, as well as demonstrating quantitative linkages among watershed attributes, loadings, and ecological responses.  The outcome of the research will help address these questions:

  • How can regionalized watershed classification schemes be developed within the context of a national framework to determine ecosystem vulnerability and opportunities for watershed restoration?

  • To what degree can ecologically relevant flow-regime metrics, including those describing base-flow and peak-flow conditions, be predicted based on watershed characteristics?

  • How can functional relationships between watershed attributes and hydrological, water quality, and biological responses at different scales be incorporated into a hierarchical classification scheme to predict regional, watershed, and water-body scale sensitivities to aquatic nonpoint source stressors?
  • To what degree can the sensitivity of aquatic ecosystems to the effects of anthropogenic changes to watersheds be predicted based on the inherent biophysical characteristics of watersheds?
  • To what degree can relationships be quantified between hydrologic regime and nonpoint source pollution processes, such as sediment yields, nutrient loadings, aquatic thermal regimes, riparian and in-stream habitat structure and quality, in a watershed?

Successful applications will address all of  the following attributes of watershed classification frameworks:

(a) Geographically-dependent vs. independent frameworks: Existing land classification schemes can be characterized as either geographically-dependent [e.g., Omernik 1987, Maxwell et al. 1995] or geographically-independent [Anderson et al. 1976, Richards 1990, Poff and Ward 1990, Rosgen 1996, Detenbeck et al. 2000].
  • Geographically-dependent classification schemes have categories that describe specific places or regions; these classification frameworks are usually based on the premise that areas of similar climate, landform, and geology exhibit similar ecosystem potential and vulnerability to stressors.  Geographically dependent frameworks tend to cover broad geographic regions at a pre-determined scale or nested scales.
  • Geographically-independent schemes have categories that describe similar features occurring at many locations, and are not limited to a specific scale, place or region.  Geographically-independent frameworks are usually determined by watershed attributes that can be defined independently of a geographic region, e.g., surface-water storage or runoff characteristics, or valley or stream-channel morphology.
(b) Scale: Classification frameworks are sought that apply to a wide range of spatial areas, e.g., watersheds, of 5 to 10 square miles to large watersheds such as that defined by the 8-digit HUC scale (Seaber et al. 1987).  Proposals should explain when and why classification criteria may need to vary across scales of analysis.

(c) Hierarchy: Geographically-dependent and independent schemes can be either nonhierarchical or hierarchical in nature: a hierarchical approach could be preferable in that it is appropriate for a range of management issues that must be addressed at different scales.  Proposers should specify whether a scheme will be useable for classifying only parts of a watershed (e.g., able to classify just the headwaters catchment portion) vs. the entire watershed in an hierarchical fashion.

(d) Regional relevance: National or regional-scale classification schemes are sought; however, proposals of more limited scope are acceptable if they demonstrate “proof-of-concept” at subregional (e.g., large watershed) scales in different ecological areas.  Proposals to develop a classification framework for only one region of the country should explain how the regional approach would fit into a national framework.

(e) Relationship to impairment: Many of the stressors affecting aquatic ecosystems today are nonchemical in nature such as hydrological modification, sedimentation, eutrophication, and habitat loss or degradation.  Proposals must address how the classification framework addresses these types of impairments, and distinguishes them from classes related to natural variation in background condition.

(f) Basis for developing categories: A priori vs. a posteriori approaches to classification development.  In general, an a priori classification scheme will be most immediately usable by watershed managers.  If an a posteriori approach is used to empirically develop a watershed classification scheme (e.g., Jones et al. 1997), proposals should either outline a systematic approach to this process that regional managers could adopt, or show how this could be translated into an a priori classification scheme using readily available data.

(g) Basis in theory: Classifications must adhere to the classical requirements of classification theory, i.e., 100% of the area of interest should be classifiable with be no overlap between categories. Each watershed can be in only one category, and the traits of each category should be thoroughly described.

Responses to this solicitation must also address how classification schemes and response models will be tested, either through analysis of existing data, or through collection of new data.  Preferably, collection of new data will be linked to existing monitoring programs, through collaboration with local, state, or tribal agencies, or watershed management or other nonprofit organizations.  Proposers must discuss how difficult, expensive, or practical it would be for others, specifically state monitoring programs, to apply the classification methodology themselves.  Ideally, watershed classification schemes will rely on the use of readily available GIS data, or attributes that can be readily derived from such data so that they can be applied in the near term by public agencies.  Proposals must include a means to assess the level of accuracy associated with a watershed classification system. Quality assurance plans will need to address how a classification system will meet proposed data quality objectives for a given Quality Assurance Program Plan (QAPP) management entity (https://www.epa.gov/quality/qa_docs.html).  This will help facilitate coordination with existing regional, state, or tribal monitoring organizations.  Proposals must specifically address how the watershed classification schemes will support more efficient monitoring efforts, improve diagnosis of causes of biological impairment, and/or prioritize watershed restoration efforts. The nature of products must be clearly defined, e.g., whether the proposals will result in a solid, easily applied classification methodology, a classified set of watersheds for a given region, a data base, and/or an expert system tool for classification.


In addition to consideration of the scientific quality of proposals and relevance to Agency issues, selection of proposals will consider the geographic balance of funded proposals across different regions of the country, as well as complementarity to other EPA and federal programs.  Thus, preference will be given to understudied regions or systems.  Preference will also be given to those proposals demonstrating linkages to existing monitoring and/or outreach programs.  Finally, cross-disciplinary efforts, e.g., those linking hydrology/geomorphology with aquatic ecology, will be viewed favorably.

Proposal budgets must include provisions for travel funds for annual STAR program progress reviews, and a final workshop to report on results.


Anderson, J.R., E.E. Hardy, J.T. Roach, and R.E. Witmer.  1976.  A land use and land cover classification system for use with remote sensor data.  U.S. Geological Survey Prof. Paper 964; 28 pp.

Detenbeck NE, Batterman SL, Brady VJ, Brazner JC, Snarski VM, Taylor DL and Thompson JA (2000)  A test of watershed classification systems for ecological risk assessment. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 19:1174-1181.

Jennings ME, Thomas WO, Jr., Riggs HC. 1993. Nationwide Summary of U.S. Geological Survey Regional Regression Equations for Estimating Magnitude and Frequency of Floods for Ungaged Sites, 1993.  94-4002. USGS Water Resources Investigations Report. Reston, VA, USA.

Jones, K.B., K.H. Ritters, J.D. Wickham, R.D. Tankersley, R.V. O’Neill, D.J. Chaloud, E.R. Smith, and A.C. Neale. 1997.  An Ecological Assessment of the United States Mid-Atlantic Region: A Landscape Atlas.  EPA/600/R-97/130. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Las Vegas, NV.

Maxwell, JR, Edwards CJ, Jensen ME, Paustian SJ, Parrott H, Hill DM. 1995. A hierarchical framework of aquatic ecological units in North America (neartic zone). NC-176:1-76. Technical Report. US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington, DC, USA.

Omernik, J.M. 1987.  Ecoregions of the Conterminous US.  Annals of the Association of American Geographers 77(1):118-125.

Poff NL, Ward JV. 1990. Physical habitat template of lotic systems: Recovery in the context of historical pattern of spatiotemporal heterogeneity. Environ Manage 14:629-645.

Richards RP. 1990. Measures of flow variability and a new flow-based classification of Great Lakes tributaries. J Great Lakes Res 16:53-70.

Rosgen DL. 1996. Applied River Morphology. Wildland Hydrology, CO.

Seaber, P.R., F.P. Kapinos, and G.L. Knapp. 1987.  Hydrologic Unit Maps.  U.S. Geological Survey Water Supply Paper 2294.  U.S. Dept of the Interior, Geological Survey, Washington, DC.

U.S. EPA. 1996. Proposed guidelines for ecological risk assessment. EPA-630/R-95-002B. US Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, USA.

Whiting PJ, Bradley JB. 1993. A process-based classification system for headwater streams. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 18:603-612.


It is anticipated that a total of approximately $4.0 million, including direct and indirect costs, will be awarded, depending on the availability of funds.  EPA anticipates funding approximately five grants under this RFA. The projected award range is $150,000 to $300,000 per year ($450,000-$900,000 per grant) total costs for up to 3 years, depending on whether new field data is collected.


Academic and not-for-profit institutions located in the U.S., and state or local governments, are eligible under all existing authorizations. Profit-making firms are not eligible to receive grants from EPA under this program.  Federal agencies and national laboratories funded by federal agencies (Federally-funded Research and Development Centers, FFRDCs) may not apply.

Federal employees are not eligible to serve in a principal leadership role on a grant. FFRDC employees may cooperate or collaborate with eligible applicants within the limits imposed by applicable legislation and regulations.  They may participate in planning, conducting, and analyzing the research directed by the principal investigator, but may not direct projects on behalf of the applicant organization or principal investigator.  The principal investigator's institution may provide funds through its grant from EPA to a FFRDC for research personnel, supplies, equipment, and other expenses directly related to the research.  However, salaries for permanent FFRDC employees may not be provided through this mechanism.

Federal employees may not receive salaries or in other ways augment their agency's appropriations through grants made by this program.  However, federal employees may interact with grantees so long as their involvement is not essential to achieving the basic goals of the grant.1 The principal investigator’s institution may also enter into an agreement with a federal agency to purchase or utilize unique supplies or services unavailable in the private sector. Examples are purchase of satellite data, census data tapes, chemical reference standards, analyses, or use of instrumentation or other facilities not available elsewhere, etc.  A written justification for federal involvement must be included in the application, along with an assurance from the federal agency involved which commits it to supply the specified service.

1EPA encourages interaction between its own laboratory scientists and grant principal investigators for the sole purpose of exchanging information in research areas of common interest that may add value to their respective research activities. However, this interaction must be incidental to achieving the goals of the research under a grant. Interaction that is “incidental” is not reflected in a research proposal and involves no resource commitments.

Potential applicants who are uncertain of their eligibility should contact Jack Puzak in NCER, phone (202) 564-6825, email: puzak.jack@epa.gov.


A set of special instructions on how applicants should apply for an NCER grant is found on the NCER web site, https://www.epa.gov/ncer/rfa/forms/index.html, Standard Instructions for Submitting a STAR Application. The necessary forms for submitting an application will be found on this web site.

Sorting Codes

The need for a sorting code to be used in the application and for mailing is described in the Standard Instructions for Submitting a STAR Application. The sorting code for applications submitted in response to this solicitation is  2002-STAR-B1.
The deadlines for receipt of the applications by NCER are no later than 4:00 p.m. ET, January 30, 2002.


Further information, if needed, may be obtained from the EPA officials indicated below. Email inquiries are preferred.

Bill Stelz (202)564-6834