NCERA217: Drainage design and management practices to improve water quality
(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)
NCERA217: Drainage design and management practices to improve water quality
Duration: 10/01/2014 to 09/30/2019
Statement of Issues and Justification
In the North Central Region, most agricultural producers improve drainage on their land to improve trafficability, enhance field conditions for timely planting and harvesting operations, and help decrease crop damage that can result from saturated soil and standing water. Agricultural drainage improvement can also help reduce year-to-year variability in crop yield, which helps reduce the risks associated with production of abundant, high quality, affordable food. Although subsurface (tile) drainage can reduce surface water runoff and associated soil erosion and contaminant losses from soils prone to saturation, these subsurface drainage systems are known to transport nitrate-nitrogen, sediment, particulate and dissolved phosphorus, pesticides, and microbial contaminants to surface water (Carpenter et al., 1998; Scott et al., 1998; Gilliam et al., 1999; Kladivko et al., 1999; Addiscott et al., 2000; Randall and Goss, 2001; Jamieson et al., 2002). Excess nitrate-nitrogen in drinking water can be toxic to humans (Heathwaite et al., 1993), requiring costly treatment of water for human consumption. Excess nitrogen (N) in estuaries and coastal waters enhances algal growth (Ocean Studies Board, et al., 2000) and is implicated in the formation of a hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico (Rabalais et al., 1996). The principal sources of nitrogen to the Mississippi River are agricultural sources from basins within the Midwest Corn Belt (David and Gentry, 2000; Goosby et al., 2001). The need to reduce nutrient loading to the Gulf of Mexico is highlighted by the 2008 Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan which calls for states along the Mississippi River to develop strategies to reduce nutrient loading to the Gulf of Mexico. The Action Plan establishes a goal of at least a 45% reduction in total nitrogen and total phosphorus. Iowa has prepared a Nutrient Reduction Strategy and other states in the basin will be working on their respective state strategies. A major source of nitrate-nitrogen in surface waters within watersheds in the northern Corn Belt is artificial subsurface drainage (David et al., 1997; Goosby et al., 1999). While a common public perception is still that much of this loss of nitrate-nitrogen is from over application of commercial N fertilizer, studies by Keeney and DeLuca (1993) and Willrich (1969) illustrate that considerable N loss was occurring before the wide spread use of inorganic fertilizers and that nitrate-nitrogen leaching loss is more a result of a combination of factors (crop rotation, soil fertility and fertilization, drainage intensity, tillage practices, etc.) than of irresponsible fertilizer use. Within the twelve-state North Central Region, there are more than 41,000,000 acres of drained cropland, with up to 50% of all cropland in some states are tile drained (USDA, 1987). These lands are among the most productive in the world, but only if adequate drainage is provided. Thus, crop production, drainage, and surface water quality within the Corn Belt are intimately intertwined.
Several approaches have the potential to reduce the negative water quality impacts of crop production on tile drained lands. These approaches include the use of alternative crop rotations and cover crops, adjusting the timing and rate of fertilizer application to better match crop uptake, redesign and management of drainage systems to reduce drainage outflows and promote infield denitrification, and installation of drainage water treatment systems that work by enhancing denitrification (i.e. wetlands, bioreactors, saturated buffers, and two-stage drainage ditch design). Currently, researchers across the North Central Region are investigating these and other approaches for reducing nutrient and other contaminant losses from drained croplands. While this research has shown promising results, there is continued need for coordination and interaction among the different state researchers as well as facilitation of Extension products and activities. In addition, there are increasing questions about the role of drainage under increased climate variability, and as a result, a need for increased understanding of the interactions between drainage and climate across the Corn Belt. While in the past, drainage research has primarily focused on drainage water quality and quantity there is a need for research on the role of drainage in the areas of soil quality and health, food and energy security, and greenhouse gas emissions. All of these are areas of growing concern or interest within the agricultural sector, highlighted by the USDA-NRCS soil health initiative, and there is a need to understand the role drainage plays in these areas.
A multistate effort is needed because the large regional nature of addressing the Gulf of Mexico hypoxia and other surface water pollution issues in the Mississippi River Basin require a coordinated effort across the Upper Midwest. This coordination and facilitation of research and Extension activities will be of considerable benefit to farmers, the drainage industry, and the various state departments of agriculture and natural resources who are being charged with identifying and implementing management and infrastructure changes to reduce surface water contamination. The work of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy highlighted the variability in performance of many practices and need for development of new practices and, thus, this multistate coordination of activities will be essential as other states in the Mississippi River Basin prepare state-level Nutrient Reduction Strategies.
To investigate the potential of integrating drainage, cropping and conservation systems and practices in order to sustainably meet yield, water quantity and water quality goals
To improve our understanding of the interactions between agricultural drainage and climate on water quantity and quality due to climate change and variability
To coordinate research on the role of drainage in emerging areas such as soil quality and heath, food and energy security, and greenhouse gas mitigation
To foster collaboration on Extension and outreach programming to maximize impact, create and implement strategies to facilitate communication among scientists and policy makers, and promote partnerships with stakeholders interested in drainage, soil and crop management, and environmental quality in agricultural landscapes
Procedures and Activities
1. Investigate the potential of integrating drainage, cropping, and conservation systems and practices, to sustainably meet crop yield, water quantity and water quality goals.
Research in many of the North Central states is currently underway investigating how drainage, cropping systems, and conservation systems can be integrated to meet crop production goals along with the increasing concerns related to water quality and water quantity. While the committee continues to focus on N losses from drained lands, the committee will also investigate the impact of drainage on phosphorus fate and transport. There is a critical need for researchers from the different states to meet regularly and exchange information about the research and results. Research should be coordinated where possible, so that unnecessary duplication is avoided and the appropriate variables are measured to allow comprehensive comparisons across the Corn Belt. At annual meetings the group will provide updates on current activities in this area so that where possible there can be coordination.
2. Improve our understanding of the interactions between agricultural drainage and climate on water quantity and quality due to climate change and variability.
Much of the Corn Belt is experiencing increased climate variability and with this comes increasing interest and concern on the interaction of drainage and climate change. Specific areas of concern relate to the hydrologic impacts of drainage and how drainage system design might be influenced by climate variability. Since this need spans the Corn Belt there is a need for coordination of research activities and sharing of information to allow for comparisons and increased understanding to disseminate to stakeholders. During annual meetings the group will conduct mini-symposia to increase the understanding of various drainage topics. It is anticipated one of these mini-symposia would focus on drainage and climate variability. When these mini-symposia are conducted stakeholders outside the committee would be invited to attend to broaden the impact.
3. Coordinate research on the role of drainage in emerging areas such as soil quality and health, food and energy security, and greenhouse gas mitigation.
Although the main emphasis of the committee will be on nitrate-N leaching into tile drains, the committee will continue to investigate other emerging issues. Emerging areas include how drainage impacts soil quality and greenhouse gas mitigation. These emerging areas combined with the concerns on drainage water quality and quantity along with the impacts of drainage on crop production have the potential to impact health, food, and energy security due to the importance of drained lands to agricultural production. As a result there is a need for coordinated research efforts in these areas. The committee will facilitate the exchange of information on these emerging issues and help coordinate new research on these topics. It is anticipated that one of the mini-symposia discussed above would focus on some of these emerging issues. When these mini-symposia are conducted stakeholders outside the committee would be invited to attend to broaden the impact.
4. Foster collaboration on Extension and outreach programming to maximize impact, create and implement strategies to facilitate communication among scientists and policy makers, and promote partnerships with stakeholders interested in drainage, soil and crop management, and environmental quality in agricultural landscapes.
With the decline in Extension resources there is a need to collaborate regionally to enhance the impacts of state-level Extension programs. The committee will include extension personnel and an NRCS representative, and will coordinate the development of educational materials for drainage design and management for improved water quality. The committee will work with the Agricultural Drainage Management Systems Task Force (ADMSTF) to assess needs for technical bulletins and other educational material. Many of the representatives on the NCR committee are also participating in meetings of the ADMSTF, which will facilitate communication and coordination between the groups. The ADMSTF is a collaborative effort of USDA-ARS, USDA-NRCS, and Land Grant Universities primarily from Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, New York and North Carolina. The group also includes members from USGS, USEPA, and Canadian scientists. This group also interacts closing with the Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition (ADMC). ADMC is a coalition of the agricultural drainage industry that works at the local and state level to educate farmers, drainage, and conservation groups about the latest technology in the drainage area.
Expected Outcomes and Impacts
- Coordination of research programs on integrating drainage, cropping, and conservation systems and practices, to sustainably meet yield, water quantity and water quality goals.
- Exchange of informatoin about research studies on soil and crop management practices to reduce nitrate-N losses to tiles
- Identification and coordination of key research needed to understand the role of drainage on soil quality and health, food and energy security, and greenhouse gas mitigation
- Publication of joint research articles on methods to reduce nitrate-N losses to tile drains from studies from several states
- New extension materials to support the implementation of improved management practices on drained lands
- Outcome/Impact 6: Increased adoption of methods and practices (i.e. cover crops, drainage water management, bio-reactors, and saturated buffers) that reduce N loss from drained cropland Outcome/Impact 7: Improved water quality resulting from implementation of improved management practices on drained lands
Projected ParticipationView Appendix E: Participation
Extension materials and programs developed or coordinated by the committee will be available through standard channels, and in additional ways identified by the ADMSTF. Each year at the annual meeting the committee will discuss current educational needs in their state and discuss opportunities for joint Extension publication development and joint meetings. In the past these discussions have resulted in members working together on drainage workshops and drainage schools throughout the region. The members would continue to work together on these efforts and expand collaborative training efforts to meet the needs of stakeholders. Membership of the committee includes some of the foremost experts on nutrient transport from subsurface drained agricultural lands. With the new Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force – Land Grant University agreement to increase collaborative efforts it is likely that members of this committee will play a critical role in development of state nutrient reduction strategies and educational efforts surrounding these strategies.
INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL LINKAGES
The committee would include two representatives from each land-grant university, one with a primary research appointment and one with a primary extension appointment, and representatives from USDA-ARS locations in the region. This is essential for coordination of both research projects and new extension materials that the committee proposes. The committee will work with the ADMSTF previously discussed, as well as with NRCS. Selected drainage researchers and others from states outside the region and Canada, will also be invited to participate. The Appendix 2 table lists the proposed members of the committee.
It is expected that as in the past collaboration as part of the multi-state committee will lead to additional collaborative projects. This leveraging of multi-state funds for additional grant dollars will be included in the annual/termination report for inclusion as a project impact.
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