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Deep dive: Drainage water recycling

The support behind the new conservation practice of drainage water recycling.

November 23, 2020  By Jessika Guse

Contractors play a major role in the development of a system because every acre of land is different and with that comes its challenges. Photo courtesy of Clark Farm Drainage.

Drainage water recycling is here to stay as more research around the new conservation practice continues to pour out.

Support surrounding this next-level water management system is growing — with no signs of slowing down.

“You learn so much about design, installation, and even working directly with landowners to recognize the value of this type of investment for them,” says Charlie Schafer, president of AgriDrain who’s been in the drainage business since the late ‘70s. Schafer adds that working directly with farmers allows one to see how the farmer views the investment in the long term, and how willing they are to invest into these types of on-farm conservation practices.

These days, a good chunk of farmers are having trouble with expanding their farm due to the cost of land rising at a rapid rate in their areas. Add in the increasing amount of weather variability, and Schafer says more farmers will likely be turning towards drainage water recycling as a way to achieve greater yields without purchasing more land.


Thomas Van Wagner, USDA-ARS staff with Lenawee County Conservation District, echoes Schafer’s thoughts on the cost of land, and says now is the time to get farmers on board. He adds that contractors play a major role in the development of the system because every acre of land is different and with that comes its challenges.

“[Drainage water recycling] is 50 percent science and then it’s going to be 50 percent the art of managing it,” Van Wagner says.

“[Drainage water recycling] is 50 percent science and then it’s going to be 50 percent the art of managing it,” Van Wagner says.

Being one of the developers for the system that was on display recently at the Michigan Land Improvement Contractors of America (LICA) field day, he adds they’re going to learn a lot from it over the next five years. The system will provide more information on management, economics, and the increase in yield.

“I have visions of having a system where you have sensors in the soil, and when the water moisture sensor [goes off] the pump kicks on to start subirrigation. Or, if it gets too wet, and we’d be sensing that automatically, and then the variable pump slows down and tries to match the evapotranspiration of the crop.”

When it comes to tricks for this new trade, Bob Clark II, national president of LICA and Clark Farm Drainage, points to automation. Though it might take time for engineers to create the perfect sensor as mentioned by Van Wagner for example, it’s still being talked about by those at the forefront.

“I do think it’s gonna take some time . . . this isn’t going to happen in a year or two, but ultimately, (I believe) in 10 years, because technology gets better all the time,” Clark says.

“A lot of these drainage water recycling systems can already be monitored and controlled remotely, at the farmer’s office on [their] desktop or on [their] laptop in the truck . . . I do believe with the right soil, and all the weather variability the farmer has, why not try to remove the guessing game as much as possible all while you’re improving water quality.”

Resources at your fingertips

The great thing about starting something new that’s both innovative and challenging, is that along the way you’ll find other people wanting to help. Ben Reinhart, project manager for TransformingDrainage.org says although the funding for the multi-state project will wrap up in the earlier part of 2021, the site will continue to be live for contractors to use it. One of the many resources found on the site is dubbed EDWRD, which stands for Evaluating Drainage Water Recycling Decisions.

“A lot of times, when you might be approaching a project, you know, one of the initial questions is, ‘well how big of a pond do I need? Or how big of a reservoir do I need?’ and so, EDWRD is a tool that runs a water balance for drained fields, as well as for a reservoir,” Reinhart says. He adds that the calculation estimates the amount of water coming from the field to the pond and it takes into consideration a range of different reservoir sizes that a user would input.

One of the many resources is dubbed EDWRD, which stands for Evaluating Drainage Water Recycling Decisions. It helps answer common installation questions. Photo courtesy of TransformingDrainage.org.

“Once it estimates the amount of water coming in, it can estimate how much water can be stored in that pond and then it goes one step further in terms of when it’s supplying irrigation, how much water is used from the pond, back up onto the field.”

Reinhart says it simulates the flow of water within a drainage water recycling system to get an idea of:

  • How much irrigation can I apply?
  • How much tile drainage can I capture?
  • How much nutrients can I capture and reuse?

Along with other resources found on the site, Reinhart teases there will soon be a full three-part video series that will have an overview of drainage water recycling, going over the wants and needs for site selection, and lastly examining the construction and management portion of creating the system.

Schafer suggests it’s tempting for all contractors to “stay status quo and take the path of least resistance” but if contractors as an industry embrace new opportunities, the conservation practice will have less pushback and gain momentum among other states and provinces.

“[If we] try to transform what the old 24/7 gravity flow drainage system used to be, into a new kind of a vibrant water management system and look beyond the field scale on the farm scale, and start to think about watershed scale improvements, [it’s a win for everyone],” Schafer adds.

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