Drainage Contractor

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Building the next generation of water management systems

Conservation practices like drainage water recycling and water control structures will be on display at the upcoming Michigan LICA field day.


August 31, 2020
By Stephanie Gordon

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One of the benefits of a drainage water recycling system is having a reservoir of water to irrigate with during the growing season to improve crop yields. Photo courtesy of Ehsan Ghane.

What does the next-generation of water management systems look like? That’s exactly the type of question an upcoming farm drainage field day in Riga, MI hopes to answer.

The Michigan Land Improvement Contractors Association (LICA) will be hosting a free farm drainage field day on September 1 and 2. The event will run from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on both days and exhibitors will be on hand displaying equipment and supplies relating to the drainage and excavating industry.

Field demonstration on both days will include:

  • Subsurface drainage installation with tile plow
  • Installation of water control structures
  • Demonstration of drainage water recycling

There will also be speaker sessions on conventional drainage, controlled drainage, drainage water recycling, cover crops and soil health, and nutrient management.

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The field day was originally scheduled for 2019, but wet fall weather delayed the event.

Adam Cook, president of Soil and Water Management Systems and president of Michigan LICA, is helping to organize the event. Cook shares that there will be extra measures in place to limit the spread of COVID-19, including extra sanitizer, equipment sterilization procedures, and a dedicated safety officer on site. There will be no people movers but visitors can bring their own side-by-sides or stay in their vehicles for the event.

Despite all the extra precautions, the highlight of the event is still the installation of drainage tile for a full drainage water recycling system.

“It’s a revolutionary system that recycles all of the water that is drained through drainage tile into a retention pond, and then over the summer we put it back onto the field so there is no water runoff from that field,” Cook says.

“It’s a revolutionary system that recycles all of the water that is drained through drainage tile into a retention pond, and then over the summer we put it back onto the field so there is no water runoff from that field,” Cook says.

He says the closed loop system will limit the nutrient runoff – phosphates and nitrates – that contribute to algal blooms in water bodies like Lake Erie.

“We’re [hosting the event] to show the general public and contractors that there are different ways of doing drainage systems,” Cook explains. “I don’t think phosphate and nitrate runoff is 100 percent due to underground drainage . . . but generally speaking the sole purpose of LICA is to show people how to do things in the best way possible and I see these newer practices such as drainage water recycling and water control structures as good tools to help us do our best job being stewards of the land.”

The drainage water recycling system was designed by Tom Van Wagner with Lenawee Conservation District.

A closer look at drainage water recycling

Ehsan Ghane, who teaches within the biosystems and agricultural engineering department at Michigan State University (MSU) alongside being a drainage specialist with MSU Extension, says the drainage water recycling system is a top attraction of the event.

Drainage water recycling is a fairly new conservation drainage practice, but there are some farmers in Michigan that have these systems. The system being installed along Samaria Road in Riga, MI is near completion, with mains, laterals and a pond already in place. At the time of the interview, a sump system was being installed.

What is it?

Ghane explains that a drainage water recycling system captures water coming from a subsurface drainage system and stores the water in a reservoir or pond. A sump system is used to push the water from the drainage outlet to the reservoir. The pond is usually located on the edge of a farm.

The size and design of the pond depends on environment. For the upcoming field day, the entire project takes up approximately six acres out of a 98-acre field. Pond sizes range. They can be deeper and cover less surface area, or shallower and cover more surface area. The Evaluating Drainage Water Recycling Decisions tool can be used to compare the irrigation and water quality advantages gained with various sizes of a water storage reservoir.

The stored water then can be used during the growing season to irrigate crops. There are two ways to irrigate with the system: a sub-irrigation system or a center pivot pressurized irrigation system. The field day uses the former – a sub-irrigation system to add water back onto the field.

The water that is used on the crops is the same water that left the drainage outlet. There are no extra treatments or filtering, so the pond water contains nitrogen and phosphorus, which provides benefits to the crop.

However, according to a factsheet on TransformingDrainage.org put together by several researchers and extension staff across the Midwest, pesticides applied to the field that drains into the pond could be a concern if the irrigation is applied to a crop not labeled for that product. The factsheet says that this is not likely to be a problem if the water in the pond is drained from one field and recycled back onto the same field, but if several fields drain into the pond, there may be a potential for application to a crop that would be harmed. To answer this question fully, more research is needed.

Benefits of a system

Ghane describes two main benefits of a drainage water recycling system.

“One of the benefits of the drainage water recycling system is increased crop yield,” Ghane says. The closed loop system allows a producer to have a reservoir of water to irrigate during the growing season.

“One of the benefits of the drainage water recycling system is increased crop yield,” Ghane says. The closed loop system allows a producer to have a reservoir of water to irrigate during the growing season.

At three Ohio sites over 37 years, the average corn yield increase in sub-irrigated fields was 19 percent with a 29 percent increase in dry years. For soybeans, the yield increase was 12 percent overall and 25 percent in dry years.

At a Missouri site, after 14 years of operation, drainage water recycling increased average corn yields by more than 15 percent when compared with subsurface drained soil. Soybean yields were six percent greater than subsurface drainage only. Overall, both research studies concluded that crops respond strongly to drainage as well as irrigation.

“These systems are most beneficial in sandy soils where the water holding capacity of the soil is low,” Ghane adds.

“With climate change, predictions are that there will be extreme weather. If there is a drought during the summer, the water that is stored is going to be very precious during the growing season because it can be used for irrigation,” Ghane says. “It is a way to build resiliency against drought.”

You can view the full factsheet on TransformingDrainage.org, and Ghane says that the site also has many tools on design and system explanation. There is currently research ongoing that will come up with design procedures for these systems. To install one isn’t difficult, Ghane says, but the research will narrow down optimal sizing.

“The second major benefit is that it improves water quality,” Ghane continues.

The drainage water with soluble nutrients – instead of running downstream into the lake – is stored in the reservoir.

The drainage water with soluble nutrients – instead of running downstream into the lake – is stored in the reservoir. This prevents nutrient runoff which has been linked as a contributor to algal blooms.

Pond sizes range. They can be deeper and cover less surface area, or shallower and cover more surface area. Photo courtesy of Ehsan Ghane.

Field day advantage

At the upcoming field day on September 1 and 2, drainage contractors can see the drainage water recycling system in person. Ghane says installing a system like this could be something contractors can add to their offering.

“The contractors can see the magnitude of the system, and the different components including the pond and sump system,” Ghane says, adding that it will also allow contractors to reflect on the associated costs of a system.

Some of the associated costs with a drainage water recycling system include pond construction, building the conveyance, pump, irrigation system, and also accounting for the costs associated with taking land out of production (for the farmer) and miscellaneous costs like maintenance and plumbing.

Water control systems

AgriDrain Corp will be providing water level control structures for the drainage water management and sub-irrigation system too.

Charlie Schafer, president of AgriDrain Corp, explains that this will consist of manual inline water level control structures, and automatic inline water level control structures with two-way telemetry and automatic remote control.

A user will be able to monitor water levels and flow rates remotely.

“So rather than the farmer having to manually add and subtract stop logs, now they can manage these devices remotely on their computer, tablet or smartphone,” Schafer explains.

“So rather than the farmer having to manually add and subtract stop logs, now they can manage these devices remotely on their computer, tablet or smartphone,” Schafer explains.

The water level control structures allow a landowner to determine flow rates and where the water is held within the soil profile during the growing and fallow seasons. The control structures are throughout the system and allow you to hold onto the water or drain it into storage.

“The water level control structures keep the water from just flowing out of the system and they hold it to whatever level you decide is going to be best for your crop,” Schafer says.

Controlling the water can limit the loss of nutrients to surface waters and increase the water availability and nutrients to the crop during the growing season. Water control structures aim to maximize yield and minimize negative environmental impact.

These control structures will be installed during the field day.

“[Field day visitors] will be able to learn how they can modify a traditional gravity flow 24/7 subsurface drainage system into a system that provides the maximum benefit for economics, for yield, and also minimizes any negative environmental downstream effects,” Schafer says.

“If you think about it, it’s like adjustable depth drainage or variable rate drainage. We call it a ‘smart drainage system,’” Schafer continues.

“If you think about it, it’s like adjustable depth drainage or variable rate drainage. We call it a ‘smart drainage system,’” Schafer continues.

Adoption

Schafer explains that water control structures are not as prevalent now, but they are growing.

“The adoption rate has not been as high as it could be, or should be, because of people’s awareness of the practice and how it works,” Schafer says.

“People are concerned that if you hold water in the tile system, you may actually create pressure and have blowouts or damage the drainage system. But that’s really not the case, because with a perforated drainage system you have the same pressure on the outside of the pipe and you have on the inside,” Schafer explains.

He also adds that not many people are as familiar with the systems to be able to recommend them to landowners or assist with managing them once they’re installed. Schafer says he’s part of a company, Ecosystem Services Exchange, that is currently working on a decision support tool to make the installation process easier. Ecosystem Services Exchange is a technical service provider to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the company provides USDA-compliant design services for drainage water management and segregation systems, including saturated buffers and bioreactors.

With the decision tool, the hope is that producers will be able to input site specific information and cropping practices to generate a water management system that makes the most sense. The tool is still in development and the company is working with the University of Illinois.

“It is a large capital investment. But once people understand how automatic systems can function efficiently, they realize that rather than investing in additional land they can invest a fraction of the cost into their existing land and increase production and reduce risk and get a higher rate of return than they can with just buying additional land.”

For contractors, Schafer says there are resources available to better their knowledge of these systems. Contractors can reach out to the USDA, state university extension staff, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition, a technical service provider, or reach out to Schafer directly through AgriDrain or Ecosystem Services Exchange.

“I believe that professional drainage and water management contractors can function as trusted advisors to landowners to make science-based recommendations for specific systems.

“I believe that professional drainage and water management contractors can function as trusted advisors to landowners to make science-based recommendations for specific systems.

“Contractors are in a wonderful position to advance these technologies and bring on this new generation of manageable drainage systems,” Schafer says, adding that the future brings automation and technology that allows landowners to treat water as a resource they can manage.