In the last part of the twentieth century, recognition became widespread of the important effect of agricultural runoff on the health of aquatic ecosystems in the Lake Erie basin and elsewhere. Because of the efforts to remediate Lake Erie, the "dead lake" among the Laurentian Great Lakes, a number of research and demonstration projects were undertaken in the Lake Erie basin to evaluate and foster adoption of conservation tillage and other farming techniques that would reduce runoff while maintaining productivity. In addition, intensive water quality studies of long duration were begun on major tributaries to Lake Erie during this time. The Lake Erie Agricultural Systems for Environmental Quality (LEASEQ) project examined governmental programs, changes in agriculture, and changes in water and soil quality during the period 1975-1995, and sought to evaluate the linkages among these factors. The study area is characterized by extensive agricultural land use of soils developed from glacial materials deposited on Paleozoic sedimentary bedrock, mostly limestone. Tile drainage is extensive, particularly in slow-draining clay-rich lacustrine soils in the lower reaches of the watersheds. This paper introduces the study area, its geology, geography, soils, and agricultural history. In addition, we provide an overview of the LEASEQ concept and introduce the 11 other papers in this series, which provide a detailed exposition of the results of our studies.