Why tile drains may pollute lakes & rivers
Eric Young, soil scientist. He'll be conducting a study on tile drains. Photo: Miner Institute.
If you're not a soil scientist, water quality specialist, or a farmer, you're probably wondering what on earth a tile drain is.
Hint: it has nothing to do with your bathroom floor.
Tile drains are basically a system of slotted pipes that farmers install about 4 feet under their crops. Water collects in the pipes and flows to the nearest ditch. Tile drains can have major advantages for farmers: draining water faster means a longer growing season and higher crop yields.
But tile drains are controversial. They provide a direct route for rainwater to filter more quickly through the soil, and potentially carry nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen with it to a waterway. Case in point: agricultural runoff from farms in the western Vermont and northeast New York usually ends up in Lake Champlain. Sometimes, tile drains make the nutrients head towards a body of water faster — although there's tons of debate over whether that's better or worse than regular surface runoff.
Either way, phosphorus levels in Lake Champlain remain really high. And with lots of farms on both sides of the lake, tile drains are certainly a piece of the water quality puzzle.
When I reported on tile drains earlier this year, I spoke with Eric Young, a soil scientist at the Miner Institute in Chazy. He was trying to figure it if there's a middle way. What if you could use tile drains to drain fields, but slow down the water flow? He's been comparing normal tiled drained fields and tile drained fields where the water table is held back and controlled.
And now, his experiment has a lot more oomph. The Miner Institute just received $330,00 from the USDA and the Lake Champlain Basin program to conduct a 6-year study on tile drains and "edge-of-field" management studies.
Young plans to grow corn. In the first two years, the two adjacent fields will be freely drained — in other words, just using tiles. After that, one of the fields will have its water table held back. The study will monitor run-off, nutrient loss and erosion for 4 years.
Young says the length of the project — and the weather that will come to the region during that time — is a huge plus.
"The weather has such a huge effect on not only crop yield but water run-off, pollution transport, things like that," he said.
The result will be "a rich data set" that may offer more information about Lake Champlain's phosphorus problem.
The study is the first of its kind in New York. Young plans to get started this spring.
Tags: agriculture, environment, farming