Reducing Drainage Water Volume for Improved Water Quality
A saturated buffer is an innovative conservation practice with positive impacts on downstream water quality. While this practice has been studied across the Midwest, there is limited research about how this practice performs in northwest Ohio. As a result, Ohio researchers are addressing the benefits, costs, and other related issues of this practice within the topography and soil characteristics of northwest Ohio.
Research being done at the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms and other related sites around the state is helping researchers determine what practices work best for reducing nutrient and sediment loss. Over the last five years, on-farm research has shown that three practices in particular help reduce nutrient and sediment loss:
Following the 4R approach
Reducing soil erosion
Developing a water management plan
Research shows that phosphorus is leaving the farm via water, through both surface and subsurface runoff. Implementing practices that slow, stop and/or treat water before it exits the farm can greatly reduce phosphorus discharge downstream. However, the unpredictability of the weather can make this difficult. In fact, the frequency of rainfall events totaling 1 inch or more has almost doubled in most northwest Ohio towns. These intense rainfall events drive a majority of nutrients downstream each year.
By developing a water management plan, you can begin to identify where nutrients are potentially escaping your farm and determine appropriate solutions, such as drainage water management structures, phosphorus removal beds, two-stage ditches, reconstructed wetlands and filter strips.
What is it: Saturated buffers are a new practice that redirects a portion of field tile drainage water into riparian zones rather than into surface waters like traditional tile outlets. Riparian zones are areas adjacent to streams. Diverted waters then filter through the soil in the riparian zone before entering surface water/streams. Research on saturated buffers is ongoing.
How it helps: The goal of the saturated buffer is to use the riparian zone as a sponge to treat the tile water leaving the field. Once the riparian zone is full of water, or saturated, the water is slowly released through the soil and the nutrients are removed. This process is most effective at reducing nitrogen by causing it to turn into a gas, or denitrify. Phosphorus removal is still highly variable and needs to be studied further.
Drainage Water Management
What is it: Drainage Water Management (DWM) is an NRCS-approved conservation engineering practice that manages water discharge from surface and/or subsurface agricultural drainage systems. A DWM structure holds water in root zones when crops need it and drains it when there’s too much.
How it helps: By adjusting the tile outlet elevation, a DWM structure manages the timing and amount of water discharged from agricultural drainage systems. From a water quality standpoint, DWM provides the most benefit by raising the tile outlet elevation immediately after harvest until early spring. A DWM structure can impact nutrient movement, primarily reducing nitrogen loss.
“If we can get by with free-flowing drainage only three or four months a year we can show that constant drip from the tile going into the steams. We will spend about $4,000 for 50 more acres of controlled drainage structures. If we would get a 5% yield increase in a couple of dry years, it pays for itself.” – Duane Stateler
Sites should be evaluated by SWCD and NRCS professionals to determine if this practice can address the resource concern of the producer. If reduction of phosphorus is the primary resource concern, then the producer should look to other practices that are more efficient at removing phosphorus.
This article was featured in the September/October 2021 edition of Our Ohio Magazine.
Dr. Stephen Jacquemin of Wright State University introduces Saturated Buffer research in Ohio. There are only a few dozen Saturated Buffers across the U.S. This conservation method helps reduce nitrogen and phosphorus-rich water from fields.
How it works: Below the field, nutrient-rich water is collected in perforated drain pipes. Inside the structure, this water is diverted into a lateral ↔️ distribution line, or saturated soil area, where vegetation at the ground level naturally removes the nutrients in the water. Essentially, this practice acts as a sponge to store water leaving the field.