Skip to main content
ARS Home » Midwest Area » Columbus, Ohio » Soil Drainage Research » Research » Research Project #432087

Research Project: Agricultural Water Management in Poorly Drained Midwestern Agroecosystems

Location: Soil Drainage Research

2018 Annual Report

The overall objective of this project is to address the hydrologic, biogeochemical, and ecological processes and impacts of crop production agriculture and conservation practices in the poorly drained Midwestern US while sustaining increased productivity. Specific objectives include: Objective 1: Develop technology to identify the location and density of tile drainage systems. Objective 2: Characterize the coupling of hydrologic and chemical/biogeochemical processes in tile drained landscapes and its impact on water quality in the Mississippi River and Western Lake Erie Basins. Objective 3: Develop water management and treatment technologies for subsurface drainage that provide strategies to help farmers, ranchers, and other land managers adapt to climate variability and change at a variety of spatial and temporal scales. Objective 4: As part of the LTAR network, and in concert with similar long-term, land-based research infrastructure in the Midwest region, use the Eastern Corn Belt LTAR site to improve the observational capabilities and data accessibility of the LTAR network and support research to sustain or enhance agricultural production and environmental quality in agroecosystems characteristic of the Midwest region. Research and data collection are planned and implemented based on the LTAR site application and in accordance with the responsibilities outlined in the LTAR Shared Research Strategy, a living document that serves as a roadmap for LTAR implementation. Participation in the LTAR network includes research and data management in support of the ARS GRACEnet and/or Livestock GRACEnet projects.

Water quantity and quality continue to be major natural resource concerns in the United States. As the pressure to produce more food, feed, fiber and fuel from our agricultural lands increases, the need for protecting soil and water resources and ecosystem services within poorly drained watersheds accelerates exponentially. In the Midwestern United States, excess water is rapidly removed through subsurface drainage and agricultural drainage ditches to facilitate agricultural crop production. Excessive levels of nutrients exported with drainage water from agricultural landscapes contribute to downstream algal blooms and hypoxic zones. Sediment, nutrient and pesticide mixtures found in waterways adjacent to agricultural production may also disrupt stream ecosystem function and have deleterious effects on aquatic biota. Information on the primary transport pathways of nutrients and the temporal delivery through these pathways at the field and watershed scales is sparse. Conservation practices (i.e., 4Rs, cover crops, drainage water management, grassed filter strips) are being implemented at a rapid rate across many watersheds to mitigate the effects of agricultural production, but their effectiveness has not been fully evaluated. The research consists of location specific and cross location research projects that investigate the impacts of agricultural land use, production management, and conservation practices on edge-of-field water quality (surface and subsurface flow pathways) and aquatic biota. Additionally, technologies and approaches to address these issues under a changing climate will be evaluated. The research will primarily be conducted in three high priority watersheds in Ohio: 1) Upper Big Walnut Creek; 2) Grand Lake St. Mary; and 3) Western Lake Erie Basin. Understanding the watershed scale transport pathways, timing, and ecological impact within these agricultural landscapes will facilitate the identification, design, and implementation of conservation practices to mitigate or reduce the environmental impact of agricultural land use

Progress Report
Objective 1 – Ground penetrating radar was tested at field sites in Indiana, Iowa, and Maryland to evaluate the effectiveness of this technology for locating buried drainage pipes. An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) mounted with visible, near infrared, and thermal infrared cameras was tested for mapping subsurface drainage systems at twenty field sites in Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio. Objective 2a – Fertilizer placement treatments were identified and implemented in the plot areas of the instrumented fields. Rainfall simulations were completed on the plots and data collected to assess the impacts of different fertilizer placement strategies. The data has been summarized and a manuscript has been published. Objective 2b – Test site locations have been determined and equipment procured for soil profile nitrate leaching field studies. Objective 3a – Existing data on controlled drainage and subirrigation crop yield data have been secured. Objective 3b – Batch tests and column experiments were conducted to compare drainage water phosphate removal capabilities of steel slag versus an iron oxyhydroxide. Two test site locations have been instrumented and data are currently being collected to assess the impact of end of tile steel slag filters as well as woodchip bioreactors. Additional test site locations have been determined and equipment procured for testing subsurface drainage water treatment systems. Objective 4a - Paired edge-of-field (EOF) water quantity and quality research sites have been established across 20 different private farms in central and northwest Ohio. Sites range in age from 1 year to 6 years. Collaborative partnerships have been established with university partners, agencies, and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) to share and interpret the findings. To date, the EOF network and before-after control-impact design has permitted the evaluation of several management practices to address the excess phosphorus issues in Ohio with several additional practice assessments underway. Current research findings have been shared with local, state, national, and international stakeholders in an effort to identify crop production practices that can address the excess phosphorus transport that is leading to harmful and nuisance algal blooms in Lake Erie and other inland waters. The research efforts have led to opportunities for collaboration on several grants aimed at expanding the research network and scope. Goal 4b – A common experiment and observatory research location were identified as part of the ARS Long Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) network. The common experiment location consists of twelve plots located on a university partner research farm. One paired edge-of-field (EOF) research site within the northwest Ohio research network was identified as the observatory. Through collaboration with University of Waterloo, the observatory network is scheduled to be installed later this summer. Objective 4c,d,e - Good progress has been made on LTAR and CEAP ecology research within the Upper Big Walnut Creek watershed, Ohio and Cedar Creek, Indiana evaluating ecological responses to improved water quality and conservation practices within agricultural watersheds. Specifically, all joint ecology milestones within the first year of the project plan have been met. ARS scientists (Columbus, Ohio, and West Lafayette, Indiana), and Purdue University Fort Wayne (Fort Wayne, Indiana) faculty members continue their collaboration on two new aspects of the research project evaluating the relationships of fish and macroinvertebrate communities with total suspended solids and with sediment nutrient and pesticide concentrations. These two projects complement the existing project evaluating the relationships among total suspended solids, sediment nutrient and pesticide concentrations, and sediment grain size. Additionally, a new research project evaluating the impacts of planting grass filter strips on snake communities and populations within riparian habitats of agricultural headwater streams. This new research project will provide insights on the impacts of a commonly used conservation practice on terrestrial animals within agricultural watersheds, and will complement results from ongoing long-term evaluation of grass filter strips on fishes within agricultural streams.

1. Quantified various Midwest agricultural production practices and approaches to address water quality concerns. Nutrient loss, particularly phosphorus, from crop production agriculture has been linked to harmful and nuisance algal blooms in Lake Erie and other freshwater systems in Ohio. Using a paired edge-of-field approach, ARS researchers in Columbus, Ohio quantified the surface and subsurface (tile) water quality contributions of various crop production practices. Tile drainage was identified as a significant pathway for phosphorus transport while legacy phosphorus pools and hydrology, specifically high-intensity rainfall events drove delivery. Adoption of 4R practices (source, rate, time, and place) significantly reduced the potential for phosphorus loss from production agriculture fields. The importance of hydrology in offsite transport also highlights the need for and implementation of water management practices. Promotion and adoption of these practices has reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint in the Midwest US.

2. Mapped agricultural subsurface drainage pipes using thermal infrared imagery obtained by an unmanned aerial vehicle. Effective and efficient methods are needed for locating pre-existing drainage pipes in order to modify or repair subsurface drainage systems, and to also assess environmental impacts of drainage practices. A preliminary drainage pipe mapping case study was conducted by ARS researchers in Columbus, Ohio and University of Tennessee faculty at an Ohio farm field using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) mounted with visible, near infrared, and thermal infrared cameras. The thermal infrared imagery proved successful in delineating 60% of the drainage pipes present within the field. Although more investigation is needed, thermal infrared imagery obtained by a UAV exhibits promise for drainage pipe mapping, which will in turn provide benefits for farmers and land improvement contractors involved with repairing/modifying subsurface drainage systems, while also helping research scientists and regulatory personnel assess the environmental risks of drainage practices within agricultural landscapes.

3. Identified controlling factors for nutrient delivery from agriculture dominated watersheds. Nutrient loss and transport from agricultural production areas continues to be an environmental concern. Using edge-of-field and in-stream data, ARS researchers in Columbus, Ohio and West Lafayette, Indiana) in partnership with University of Kentucky collaborators demonstrated the importance of transport pathways, processes, and upland and in-stream controls on nutrient transport from subsurface (tile) drained agricultural watersheds. Nutrient delivery was primarily a result of the subsurface tile network, while concentrations and loading were controlled by both upland management and in-stream processes depending on specific nutrient and season. Findings highlight the necessity to identify nutrient specific conservation practices that consider both upland and in-stream practices.

4. Quantified the effect of outdoor education classes on stream substrate movement and trends in macroinvertebrate diversity and abundance. Human usage of agricultural streams for education has the potential to lead to substrate disruptions that could negatively impact the biodiversity of aquatic organisms living within agricultural streams. ARS researchers in Columbus, Ohio in collaboration with Mount Vernon Nazarene University determined that substrate movement was greater in sites subjected to outdoor education stream classes than the undisturbed site. Also, the diversity and abundance of aquatic macroinvertebrate colonizing the rocks was less in the site subjected to outdoor stream education classes than the undisturbed site. However, no difference in diversity and abundance of macroinvertebrates was observed diurnally or daily within the impacted riffle. These results indicate that stakeholders that use streams for educational outreach efforts should avoid repeatedly using the same stream site for their educational efforts to avoid negatively impacting aquatic macroinvertebrates. These results will assist state agencies, federal agencies, non-profit groups, and consulting agencies involved with conservation and management of agricultural watersheds.

Review Publications
Bossley, J.P., Smiley, P.C. 2017. Effects of outdoor education stream classes on substrate movement and macroinvertebrate colonization. Journal of Freshwater Ecology. 32(1):727-740.
Allred, B.J. 2017. Batch test screening of industrial product/byproduct filter materials for agricultural drainage water treatment. Water. 9(10):791.
Bossley, J.P., Smiley, P.C. 2017. Short-term disturbance effects of outdoor education stream classes on aquatic macroinvertebrates. Journal of Environmental Protection. 8:1333-1353.
Allred, B.J., Eash, N., Freeland, R., Martinez, L.R., Wishart, D. 2017. Effective and efficient agricultural drainage pipe mapping with UAS thermal infrared imagery: a case study. Agricultural Water Management. 197:132-137.
Pease, L.A., King, K.W., Williams, M.R., Labarge, G.A., Duncan, E.W., Fausey, N.R. 2017. Phosphorus export from artificially drained fields across the Eastern corn belt. Journal of Great Lakes Research.
Baule, W., Allred, B.J., Frankenberger, J., Gamble, D.L., Andresen, J., Gunn, S., Brown, L. 2017. Northwest Ohio crop yield benefits of water capture and subirrigation based on future climate change projections. Agricultural Water Management. 189:87-97.
Allred, B.J., Martinez, L.R., Gamble, D.L. 2017. Phosphate removal from agricultural drainage water using an iron oxyhydroxide filter material. Water, Air, and Soil Pollution.
Pease, L.A., Fausey, N.R., Martin, J., Brown, L.C. 2017. Projected climate change effects on subsurface drainage and the performance of controlled drainage in the Western Lake Erie Basin. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 72(3):240-250.
Smiley, P.C., King, K.W., Fausey, N.R. 2017. Influence of different habitat factors on creek chub (Semotilus atromaculatus) within channelized agricultural headwater streams. Northeastern Naturalist. 24(8): 18-44.
Pease, L.A., Fausey, N.R., Martin, J.F., Brown, L.C. 2018. Weather, landscape, and management effects on nitrate and soluble phosphorus concentrations in subsurface drainage discharge in the western Lake Erie basin. Transactions of the ASABE. 61 (1): 223-232.
Batte, M.T., Dick, W.A., Fausey, N.R., Flanagan, D.C., Gonzalez, J.M., Islam, R., Reeder, R., Vantoai, T.T., Watts, D.B. 2018. Cover crops and gypsum applications: soybean and corn yield and profitability impacts. Journal of American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers. 2018:43-67.
Ford, W.I., King, K.W., Williams, M.R. 2018. Upland and in-stream controls on baseflow nutrient dynamics in tile-drained agroecosystem watersheds. Journal of Hydrology. 556:800-812.
King, K.W., Williams, M.R., Smith, D.R., LaBarge, G.A., Reutter, J., Duncan, E.W., Pease, L.A. 2018. Addressing agricultural phosphorus loss in artificially drained landscapes with 4R nutrient management practices. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 73:35-47.
Harmel, R.D., King, K.W., Busch, D., Smith, D.R., Birgand, F., Haggard, B. 2018. Measuring edge-of-field water quality: Where we have been and the path forward. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 73(1):86-96.
Williams, M.R., King, K.W., Duncan, E.W., Pease, L.A., Penn, C.J. 2018. Fertilizer placement and tillage effects on phosphorus leaching in fine-textured soils. Soil and Tillage Research. 178:130-138.
Smith, D.R., Wilson, R., King, K.W., Zwonitzer, M., McGrath, J.M., Harmel, R.D., Haney, R.L., Johnson, L. 2018. Lake Erie, phosphorus and microcystin: Is it really the farmer's fault? Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 73(1):48-57.
Williams, M.R., Livingston, S.J., Penn, C.J., Smith, D.R., King, K.W., Huang, C. 2018. Controls of event-based nutrient transport within nested headwater agricultural watersheds of the western Lake Erie basin. Journal of Hydrology. 559:749-761.
Spiegal, S.A., Bestelmeyer, B.T., Archer, D.W., Augustine, D.J., Boughton, E., Boughton, R., Clark, P., Derner, J.D., Duncan, E.W., Cavigelli, M.A., Hapeman, C.J., Harmel, R.D., Heilman, P., Holly, M.A., Huggins, D.R., King, K.W., Kleinman, P.J., Liebig, M.A., Locke, M.A., McCarty, G.W., Millar, N., Mirsky, S.B., Moorman, T.B., Pierson, F.B., Rigby, J.R., Robertson, G., Steiner, J.L., Strickland, T.C., Swain, H., Wienhold, B.J., Wulfhorts, J., Yost, M., Walthall, C.L. 2018. Evaluating strategies for sustainable intensification of U.S. agriculture through the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research network. Environmental Research Letters. 13(3):034031.
Gunn, K.M., Baule, W.J., Frankenberger, J.R., Gamble, D.L., Allred, B.J., Andresen, J.A., Brown, L.C. 2018. Modeled climate change impacts on subirrigated Maize yield in Northwest Ohio. Agricultural Water Management. 206:56-66.