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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

2019 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 – An unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) mounted with visible, multispectral (green, red, red edge, near infrared), and thermal infrared cameras has now been tested for mapping subsurface drainage systems at over 30 field sites in Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio. This large amount of accumulated imagery is providing insight on field conditions under which UAV obtained imagery does and does not work regarding locating buried agricultural drainage pipes. A side study has been carried out to determine the best time of day, before sunrise to after sunset, to obtain thermal infrared imagery used to map drain lines. A new study has been initiated to evaluate the potential of using UAV multispectral and thermal infrared imagery to locate drainage system outlets in streams and ditches. Ground penetrating radar data has also been collected at many of the UAV survey sites in order to further assess the capability of this technology for detecting buried drainage pipes. A manuscript has now been prepared on the use of satellite imagery for determining drainage practice intensity across agricultural landscapes. Objective 2 – Understanding the role of hydrology and biogeochemical processes on water quality within tile drained landscapes continues. Field and watershed scale data continues to be collected across multiple fields and cropping systems to parse out the role of tile drainage and surface runoff in nutrient transport. Field scale studies are underway at multiple paired edge-of-field sites to quantify nutrient transport in surface and tile drainage. At the watershed scale collaborative efforts with ARS in West Lafayette, Indiana and Heidelberg University (Tiffin, Ohio) are underway to utilize existing data sets to understand the role of hydrology and changes in weather as primary drivers of nutrient transport. Objective 3 – Research is underway at two different field sites to assess the impacts of woodchip bioreactors and phosphorus removal structures. Difficulties with clogging of the phosphorus removal structure continues to be an issue. However, these are being addressed through collaborative efforts with ARS scientists in West Lafayette, Indiana, and re-design of the delivery mechanism. The woodchip bioreactors are proving to be very effective in removing nitrogen. The phosphorus removal structures are showing promise, but the clogging/hydrology issues need to be resolved. Objective 4 – Progress continues on CEAP and the LTAR common experiment. 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 two to seven 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. The 4Rs (right source, right rate, right time, right placement) of nutrient stewardship, cover crops, drainage water management, and structural practices show promise in reducing agricultures footprint in the Eastern Corn Belt. Current research findings have been shared with local, state, national, and international stakeholders 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. CEAP agreements were established with Heidelberg University for watershed scale assessment. Verbal agreement with University of Waterloo has been secured to install and maintain the flux tower requirements of LTAR. Good progress has also been made on LTAR and CEAP ecology research within the Upper Big Walnut Creek watershed, Ohio and the Cedar Creek watershed, Indiana. Ecological responses to improved water quality and conservation practices within these agricultural watersheds continues. ARS scientists (Columbus, Ohio and West Lafayette, Indiana) and university partners (Fort Wayne, Indiana) collaboration on two research projects evaluating the relationships of fish and macroinvertebrate communities with total suspended solids and with sediment nutrient and pesticide concentrations. For both projects the field work has been completed and statistical analyses and writing of the peer review manuscript has begun. Preliminary results indicated that total suspended solids has a greater effect on fish community structure than nutrients, pesticides, or physical habitat in agricultural headwater streams. Additionally, ARS scientists (Columbus, Ohio and West Lafayette, Indiana) and university partners (Bowling Green State University and Purdue University Fort Wayne) are documenting the relative effects of physical habitat quality, water quality, and crayfish density on the severity and frequency of crayfish injuries in agricultural headwater streams.

1. Quantified nutrient balances and water quality impacts from crop production and conservation practices from the Eastern Corn Belt. 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. The binational agreement between the U.S. and Canada calls for a 40% reduction in phosphorus delivery. Using a paired edge-of-field approach, ARS researchers in Columbus, Ohio, in collaboration with Lake Erie stakeholders and partners quantified the surface and subsurface (tile) water quality contributions of various crop production and conservation management practices. Nutrient budgets indicate that farms in Ohio are near neutral, outputs approximately equal to inputs. The combination of legacy phosphorus and discharge significantly contribute to agricultural losses and highlight the need for regionally based conservation management. Promotion and adoption of 4R practices (source, rate, time, and place) and drainage water management could potentially reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint in the Midwest United States. Cover crops have a significant impact on nitrogen losses but not so much for phosphorus. These findings have been shared and delivered to Lake Erie stakeholders and partners (e.g., NRCS, The Nature Conservancy, Lake Erie Foundation) and are being promoted to producers to help address eutrophication of Lake Erie. Adoption of these practices would reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint but would likely not meet the 40% phosphorus reduction goals set for the Western Lake Erie Basin.

2. Ground penetrating radar (GPR) integrated with a Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) proved effective and efficient in mapping agricultural drain pipes. In order to modify or repair subsurface drainage systems, or to evaluate environmental impacts of drainage practices, an effective, efficient, and non-destructive approach is needed for locating pre-existing drainage pipes. Ground penetrating radar integrated with RTK/GNSS was tested for mapping subsurface drainage systems in three agricultural fields; two in Beltsville, Maryland and one in Pataskala, Ohio. The GPR-RTK/GNSS set-up used in this study delineated a complex rectangular drainage pipe system at one of the Beltsville Maryland sites, a herringbone drain line pattern at the second Beltsville, Maryland, site, and random drain lines at the Pataskala, Ohio site. When integrated with RTK/GNSS, spiral or serpentine GPR transects (or spiral/serpentine segments of a GPR transects) were found to provide valuable insight on drain line directional trends. Consequently, given suitable field conditions, GPR integrated with RTK/GNSS can be adopted by farmers, drainage contractors, and watershed environmental coordinators to identify and map existing subsurface drainage systems within agricultural settings, providing considerable time savings for identifying and repairing pipe and providing additional information for water quality assessments.

3. Agricultural drainage pipes can be mapped using a combination of thermal infrared and multispectral imagery obtained with a drone. In order to modify or repair subsurface drainage systems, or to evaluate environmental impacts of drainage practices, an effective, efficient, and non-destructive approach is needed for locating pre-existing drainage pipes. Thermal infrared and multispectral imagery obtained with a drone were tested for mapping drain lines in an agricultural field located near Harlan, Indiana. The combined thermal infrared and multispectral imagery depicted some random linear features potentially associated with drain line locations. Some of these linear features showed up better in the thermal infrared imagery, while others were more well defined in the multispectral imagery. Ground penetrating radar confirmed that these linear features depicted in the drone imagery, did in actuality, represent drain lines. Although more research is needed, ARS researchers from Columbus, Ohio, in collaboration with USGS researchers showed that combined thermal infrared and multispectral imagery obtained with drone can be a useful tool for farmers, drainage contractors, and watershed environmental coordinators needing information on existing subsurface drainage systems within agricultural settings.

4. Quantified that the effect of student-induced disturbance on stream macroinvertebrates differs among habitat types. There is only a limited amount of information on the impacts of educational outreach efforts held by agricultural stakeholders within agricultural streams to teach students about water quality and to promote the conservation of agricultural watersheds. Student instream activity during these educational outreach efforts in agricultural streams may cause substrate disruption and decrease the abundance and diversity of stream macroinvertebrates. A university scientist (Mount Vernon Nazarene University) and ARS researcher in Columbus, Ohio evaluated the environmental impact of education stream classes by sampling macroinvertebrates monthly for one year from riffles, runs, and pools in an agricultural stream used for education purposes and an agricultural stream site unused by the education classes. Macroinvertebrate abundance and diversity was reduced in riffles at the class site during periods with student activity and no differences between site types during periods without student activity. This study is the first to document that impact of stream classes differs among habitat types within agricultural streams. Our results indicate that stakeholders should not repetitively use the same site for their educational outreach efforts to avoid reductions of macroinvertebrate abundance and diversity. Our results show state agencies, federal agencies, non-profit groups, and consulting agencies involved with conservation and management of agricultural watersheds the importance of avoiding repetitive use sites for educational purposes.

Review Publications
Duncan, E.W., Kleinman, P.J., Beegle, D., Dell, C.J. 2019. Nitrogen cycling trade-offs with broadcasting and injecting dairy manure. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems. 114(1):57-20.
Wilson, R., Beetstra, M., Reutter, J., Hesse, G., Fussell, K., Johnson, L., King, K.W., Labarge, G., Martin, J., Winslow, C. 2019. Commentary: Achieving phosphorus reduction targets for Lake Erie. Journal of Great Lakes Research. 45(1):4-11.
Allred, B.J., Wishart, D., Martinez, L.R., Schomberg, H.H., Mirsky, S.B., Meyers, G.E., Elliott, J., Charyton, C. 2018. Delineation of agricultural drainage pipe patterns using ground penetrating radar integrated with a real-time kinematic global navigation satellite system. Agriculture. 8(11):167.
Hanrahan, B.R., King, K.W., Williams, M.R., Duncan, E.W., Pease, L.A., Labarge, G.A. 2019. Nutrient balances influence hydrologic losses of nitrogen and phosphorus across agricultural fields in northwestern Ohio. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems. 113(3):231-245.
Williamson, T.N., Dobrowolski, E.G., Meyer, S.M., Frey, J.W., Allred, B.J. 2019. Delineation of tile-drain networks using thermal and multispectral imagery – implications for water quantity and quality differences from paired edge-of-field sites. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 74(1):1-11.
Gunn, K.M., Allred, B.J., Baule, W., Brown, L. 2019. Investigating maize subirrigation strategies for three northwest Ohio soils. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 74(2):111-125.
Bossley, J.P., Smiley, P.C. 2019. Impact of student-induced disturbance on stream macroinvertebrates differs among habitat types. Scientific Reports. 9(1):1447.
Plach, J.M., Macrae, M.M., Williams, M.R., Lee, B.D., King, K.W. 2018. Dominant glacial landforms of the lower Great Lakes region exhibit different soil phosphorus chemistry and potential risk for phosphorus loss. Journal of Great Lakes Research. 44:1057-1067.
Ford, W.I., Williams, M.R., Young, M.B., King, K.W., Fischer, E.N. 2018. Assessing intra-event phosphorus dynamics in drainage water using phosphate stable oxygen isotopes. Transactions of the ASABE. 61(4):1379-1392.
Williams, M.R., King, K.W., Penn, C.J. 2018. Integrating temporal inequality into conservation planning to improve practice design and efficacy. Journal of the American Water Resources Association. 54(5):1029-1054.
Kleinman, P.J., Spiegal, S.A., Rigby Jr., J.R., Goslee, S.C., Baker, J.M., Bestelmeyer, B.T., Boughton, R., Bryant, R.B., Cavigelli, M.A., Derner, J.D., Duncan, E.W., Goodrich, D.C., Huggins, D.R., King, K.W., Liebig, M.A., Locke, M.A., Mirsky, S.B., Moglen, G.E., Moorman, T.B., Pierson Jr., F.B., Robertson, G., Sadler, E.J., Shortle, J., Steiner, J.L., Strickland, T.C., Swain, H., Williams, M.R., Walthall, C.L., Tsegaye, T.D. 2018. Advancing the sustainability of US agriculture through long-term research. Journal of Environmental Quality. 47(6):1412-1425.