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Forty-year flashback: Drainage can improve the environment


August 26, 2013
By Drainage Contractor

Aug. 26, 2013 – Drainage Contractor magazine is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2013, and we’re taking a look back at what made the headlines 40 years ago with Forty-year flashback, a series of articles from the magazine’s first few editions. The following article, originally published in the 1975 edition of the magazine, counters the thought that drainage is harmful to the Earth, and explains how it can benefit the environment.

 


It is unfortunate that drainage has recently been criticized by certain environmental groups who, apparently, do not understand the benefits of drainage for agricultural production and for many other important purposes. Drainage actually can improve the environment in many ways, and we will look at some clear examples. 

In the Midwestern region o the United States there is a rich agricultural area known as the “Black Swamp,” covering more than nine million acres of Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. The area is part of an ancient lake plain formed by melting glaciers thousands of years ago and extending over large sections of states around the Great Lakes and Southern Ontario.

Early explorers found this area so wet that it was almost uninhabitable, as reported in the diary of an explorer named Long in 1823. One day he wrote,

“Near to this house we passed the state line which divides Ohio from Indiana. The distance to Fort Wayne is 24 miles without a settlement. This country is so wet that we scarcely saw an acre of land upon which a settlement could be made.

Having found a small patch of grass, we attempted to stop and pasture our horses, but this we found impossible on account of the immense swarms of mosquitoes and horse flies.”

Malaria, carried by mosquitoes, was a serious health problem in the area for many decades, extending well into this century and it was not brought under control until extensive drainage projects had been completed. 

Thousands of miles of open ditches were first needed to drain off surface water in the Black Swamp and similar areas to improve the environment for people. This was followed by intensive surface and subsurface drainage to provide a proper environment for food production. Good drainage provides numerous benefits for valuable crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat and oats. These benefits include:

  • Better soil aeration that permits deeper and more intensive root development and a more favorable environment for beneficial soil micro-organisms.
  • Better soil moisture conditions, permitting more efficient operation of tillage, planting and harvesting equipment. With good drainage, there is less chance of destroying soil tilth due to working soil when it is too wet. 
  • Longer growing season de to earlier possible planting dates and earlier warming of the soil. 
  • An increased supply of nitrogen from the soul through removal of excess water. 
  • Removal of certain toxic substances and disease organisms due to better drainage and better soil aeration. 
  • Deeper root development that enables plants to better withstand summer droughts. High water tables in the spring, without good drainage, cause shallow root development and a smaller soil volume from which roots can obtain moisture and plant nutrients. 
  • Increased crop yields and improved crop quality due to more favorable soil moisture and aeration conditions. 

During the past century vast areas of we soils in the Midwestern states and Canada have been extensively drainage, and they provide great quantities of grain, vegetables, fruit and livestock products to feed a growing population at home and abroad. Most soils with the highest yield potentials require drainage. 

One such soil is Brookston silty clay loam, an excellent soil that is common in Ohio and Indiana.

A group of Midwestern soil scientists reported, in the February 1970 issue of Crops and Soils magazine, that Brookston soil has a corn yield potential of 132 bushes per acre and a soybean yield of 43 bushes per acre. They also estimated crop yield potentials for 86 other Midwestern soils.

While some farmers meet or exceed the estimated yield potentials on Brookston and the other soils, average yields are well below the potentials, often because of inadequate drainage.

Where drainage is a limiting factor in crop production, much of the investment in fertilizer, seed, machinery and other production inputs is wasted. The rapidly rising cost of nitrogen fertilizer, fuel and other energy-related items further emphasizes the importance of good drainage.

Drainage of wet soils is beneficial to agriculture in a number of ways besides crop production. In hilly areas, for example, soil erosion due to slips and slides can be reduced or prevented by draining off excess water. Valuable water supplies to support livestock on pasture can be obtained by draining hillside seeps. Sheet erosion can be reduced by draining wet, erodible soils, since drainage increases the capacity of the soil to store rainfall.

Drainage provides many environmental benefits for urban and suburban people and for non-farm people living in the country. A wet basement, for example, can be a nuisance and cause damage to walls, furniture, floor coverings and equipment.

Wet yards make the homesite less useable and prevent proper growth of trees, shrubs, grass and flowers. Waterlogged soils are unsuitable for home sewage disposal. Problems like these can be avoided by careful selection of the lot and by drainage around the house foot and in the yard when the house is built.

Drainage contractors have an important role, not only in the installation of adequate drainage systems to improve crop production and human environments, but in advising people about the need for drainage and the importance of good materials and workmanship.

Millions of acres of potential productive soils in the United States and Canada need better drainage. It is obvious that contractors have a big drainage job ahead to help meet growing demands for food and fiber at home and abroad.


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