Deep Trouble Down In The Ground  


​In my local newspaper column, I harp and carp about what I think is an overuse of farm field tile drains. Our local Ohio farming depends heavily on tile drainage for good crops so being critical of it is precarious. But now there is an uproar in Iowa indicating that perhaps I’m not so far off base. For those of you unfamiliar with tight clay soils, drainage systems using clay or concrete tile or now mostly plastic, to carry the water away underground, are necessary for profitable yields if the land is to be kept in a high state of cultivation. Surface water seeps down through the soil into the tile system and is funneled away into creeks and ditches. Without such drainage, the soil would “lay wet” too long in spring and after rains. Much of this kind of soil is very fertile, so it pays to drain it. In earlier years, just the wettest areas of fields were tiled. (I’ve told this story before but can’t help it. As a child I watched my grandfather digging ditches and installing clay tile by hand. He said the water coming out of a tile outlet was good for a body, especially when it carried little particles of iron rust in it. Then one day he noticed that some of those specks of rust wriggled.) Today, whole fields are crisscrossed systematically every 50 feet or so with tile about two to three feet underground. The result is that after heavy rains, the water flushes out faster, creeks and rivers overflow faster, and flooding on country roads and on city streets seems to be worse although how much of this can be blame directly on tile is disputed. One result that I find almost amusing is that on rural roads drifts of cornstalks now float out of the fields after heavy rains. Worse than snow drifts.

​Now, in Iowa, another problem is being blamed on tile. The water used by Des Moines has nitrate levels running too high, 30 milligrams per liter where the safe drinking level is put at 10 mpl. The Des Moines Waterworks has filed suit against 10 Raccoon River watershed districts, seeking monetary damages under federal law to help build new filtering systems to render the water safe. Des Moines claims that the problem is stemming from extensive tile drainage systems installed in recent years. That is a truly new development. Like my grandfather, most farmers have always believed that when rainwater filters down through soil into the tile drains, it comes out almost as pure and undefiled as holy water in a Baptismal font. Now it appears this water, with or without “rust specks,” is carrying in it dangerous concentrations of nitrates. Historically, government regulations have agreed with grandfather. Tile drainage is a good thing so tile outlets just can’t be point sources of pollution, perish the thought. So battle lines are drawn. I hear that the same issue is being raised in parts of Illinois where extensive tile drainage systems are also going in hand over fist.

​I have a hunch that Des Moines will win and farmers are going to have to help cities pay for cleaner water. Maybe that’s fair. And if farm size keeps going up, who is going to protest if a 50,000 acre executive farmer has to pay.

​But it seems to me that urban areas ought to work into their nitrate equations the amount of fertilizer that is coming from lawns. (Maybe they do.) How many millions of acres of lawns are being saturated with fertilizer to no purpose but the satisfaction of homeowners or factory owners who like to keep nice meadows around their buildings. Or if you really want to get a bad pollution headache, how many millions of septic tanks are not functioning correctly and contributing to the nitrate problem? And how much more nitrogen and phosphorus can be removed from treated city waste water if the money was committed to doing it? Life is just too complicated. But at least there is a way to lessen nitrate runoff from farmland. Grow less corn for piston engines to drink and put that land into more legumes. That would decrease the amount of nitrogen fertilizer needed and provide a whole lot more environmentally friendly hay and grass for livestock.

​ Here in Ohio our lakes, including Lake Erie, are being overrun with polluting algae from too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the runoff water. Spreading animal manures improperly on the land is considered one of the main culprits, not tile water. I wonder exceedingly. There are surely fewer farm animals in Ohio now than there was eighty years ago when thousands of little farms all kept animals. There were no polluting algal blooms on our lakes then. What if the real problem is water seeping down into the tile from fertilizers injected into the soil, which are exempted from the new runoff laws.




I’m having trouble getting my head wrapped around how so many leaders in Agronomy and farming got thing so wrong for so many generations. Early adopters of “bad technology and practices” were successful. These folks were/are not stupid. What drivers pushed them to the “wrong” solutions? Why is today different? What enables a better approach today? Are these practices sustainable?


Just to stick an oar in here: Perennial grain crops or corn or beans that like their feet wet sound like a long-term solution to intensive cropping and drainage. These might be best developed by genetically modifying the plants…..

My pleasure, Roof. I hope more farmers find the bravery to make the change. Cover cropping isn’t enough, we must stop tilling. There are farmers in areas with much more rain than in Bismark, N.D., that are adopting these practices without having drainage problems. It’s a very typical argument … “yeah, it may work where you farm, but not where I farm.” But, the techniques are applicable in every climate. It’s simply a mimic of nature.

Dan Grubbs, thank you so much for the link. I’m glad they posted the contact info at the end of the presentation. I’d certainly enjoy taking a road trip up to North Dakota to investigate for myself, and it’s a breath of fresh air to hear of people getting all Louis Bromfield on the soil. The Browns are pretty smart people. It was good to see they realized the important piece was creating a market for their products. It’s sad that food consumers don’t have a clue.

i think it is monoculture. in wet spots raise caTTAILS OR CRESS AND EAT THEM.
INSTEAD OF FORCING THE EARTH TO BOW TO US [WHICH, IN THE END, it won’t do] we should read the earth like a book and plant what it will support without fuss.
sorry about caps. little finger has a life of its own.

Wow! Just wow, Dan Grubbs! Every farmer should watch this.

how about bamboo. filters water. takes up where there is too much water.
there are noninvasive subspecies of bamboo but don’t know if they survive up here in the snowy north.

Excellent article.

I’m from Illinois, where we also have issues. I agree with Gene–farmers and city dwellers alike should be working on this problem. Speaking as an urban regenerative gardener, excess synthetic fertilizer use is so bad, for so many reasons, starting with how it messes with the biology of the soil. While the mixed farms Gene mentions had animals, it seems to me that the massive CAFO’s could be real contributors to the nutrient problem–and who is mentioning that?

In Illinois, a Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy went into effect in June specifically to help farmers reduce nitrogen and phosphorus levels in runoff.

Drain tiles seem to be contributors to excess , as well as the practice of applying fertilizer in fall. Some solutions include cover crops, increased use of native plants as buffer zones, and creating wetlands around drainage ponds.

I’m reminded of Alan Savory’s lectures wherein he points out how healthy well-managed grazing lands tend to heal themselves in regard to water quality and flow regulation. It seems to me that the real issue is not soil water alone because all plants and animals need it, but with poor drainage plant roots can’t breathe well. It seems to me that what is needed is a method or combinations of methods which allows water to be stored in soil but still allows air to be in the soil as well.

Not to dismiss what Gabe Brown is doing but he repeats in his videos that his area receives 16″ of precipitation per year. If he received 30 +” of precipitation or irrigated heavily I suspect he would also encounter problems with lack of drainage. Certainly his advocacy of cover crops year around coupled with grazing is commendable and does much to ameliorated soil health problems on the lands under his stewardship, Unfortunately in agriculture as in many other professions, applying a set of practices across the board is not necessarily wise, because in regard to soils and climate,one management size does not fit all. People who do not farm extensively or are only familiar with their own plots should realize that every region of the country is different, indeed every field is different and even within single fields there are often soil types with differing properties.

In regard to Nitrate runoff, synthetic fertilizer merchants and their affiliates often advocate use of substances which modulate the rate of Nitrogen dissolving in the soil solution in order to hopefully meet crop plant needs without leaching of Nitrogen. If this practice is effective, then less Nitrogen is theoretically lost to non-crop use such as tile drain or surface run-off.

Perhaps Nitrate tracking technology such as Nitrogen isotope tracking could indeed help pinpoint sources of excessive nitrate in water, but pointing fingers is, in my opinion, counter productive. What is needed is for both farmers and urbanites with green lawns to manage the land under their stewardship such that runoff is minimal and deep percolation is low in Nitrogen because healthy, deep plant roots have extricated the majority of the Nitrogen for plant use. Isotope tracking could then become a tool to improve Nitrate management as opposed to a tool for pointing fingers of blame

Barring that, an alternative is to eliminate tile drainage and simultaneously develop a corn variety that can grow in wet areas like cattails and bulrushes grow. Of course keeping such corn weeded and harvested could be a problem because a tractor, sprayer or combine would just sink in the muck while mosquito and midge population could really flourish in such wet areas thereby leading to more problems with insect borne diseases such as West Nile VIrus.

Gene makes a good point with the comment about nearly every small farm in the areas under discussion keeping livestock in the past yet Nitrate levels were probably much reduced from current levels. . However, without long term comparable data to compare current Nitrate trends with past concentrations it would be difficult to scientifically establish the veracity of that concept. Perhaps small farmers of today who keep livestock could track Nitrate levels in their wells and tile drain runoff and surface runoff to determine what practices help the most.with Nitrate management..

There is a solution and it actually reduces farmers’ overhead, gives them comparable yields and increases their profitability. But, rather than me write long paragraphs explaining the solution, watch this video of Bismark, N.D., farmer, Gabe Brown explain how he changed his practices and is happier than ever.

Good article, Gene. Farmers here in the Blanchard Valley don’t want the Corps of Engineers to build a levee and diversion channel to lessen flooding in Findlay on their or their neighbors’ farm land, but I have long wondered just how much the farmers’ field tiling is adding to the problem.

And here I thought it was the Chesapeake Bay watershed that was having all the water quality problems. Sorry (but not surprised) to hear it’s a real issue elsewhere. In Virginia, you better believe lawn fertilizers are being labeled as at least partly to blame. Our farms are carrying their own part of the burden, though, and rightfully so.

As an Iowan and a landowner, this case in Iowa has great importance to us all. First, it is important to understand there are many water quality initiatives taking place in Iowa. However they are not happening fast enough. An example is cover crops, there were10000 acres in cover crops last year. A pittance of the millions of acres cropped here in Iowa. Second is an interesting twist with the Farm Bureau Federation. FB has been requesting Des Moines Water Works work with farmers vs. suing the water districts. DMWW has refused and progresses with the lawsuit. Basically, Farm Bureau will not admit that current farming practices are contributing to this issue nor will they state these practices are not the cause. The money and political leverage FB is putting behind this is huge, which I interpret is they have something to hide (just my humble opinion). Lastly, Iowa State University testing of these same water districts performed by a masters student show that tile nitrates exceed the legal limit.

Farmers agree this is an issue but cannot correct the issue without tax payer help. I have a better idea. Let farmers have special depreciation on any water quality expenses vs. making their income disappear with the Section 179 and bonus depreciation they now take for equipment purposes. It’s no cost to the tax payer because they are writing off the income anyway and not paying tax against it. This way the tax payer stay’s whole and farmers now have an incentive to ramp up spending on water quality initiatives.

In any event, we will see how much influence the Farm Lobby has over this case. Do currently live in a democratic society with the rule of law or are we under the control of lobbyist?

Should be interesting to watch this case unfold.

I totally agree with your observation. I grew up in a valley with a large creek running through it. Only one field was in that valley with tile when I was small. At that time I could drink the water from the shallows in that creek. After I left that valley it was tiled and planted in corn. In short order the creek was full of sediment and algae with few fish left. Recently the DNR bought all that property up for a protected watershed and the creek of my childhood is coming back quickly.
Let the wetlands be wetlands and let the crops nourish people and animals, not cars and trucks.

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