Drainage Contractor

Forty-year flashback: Michigan will monitor water quality

September 24, 2013  By Drainage Contractor administrator

Sept. 23, 2013 – Drainage Contractor is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and to celebrate, we’re reminiscing with stories that have been published in our pages over the last 40 years. This week’s article, written by (then associate editor) Elinor Humphries, was published in the 1990 issue of Agri-BookMagazine/Drainage Contractor. In the article, Humphries explores the steps the Michigan chapter of the Land Improvement Contractors of America took to monitor water quality. 

Water quality is an important issue for land improvement contractors. With that in mind, the Michigan Land Improvement Contractors of America organization put its money where its mouth is, as MLICA contractors donated time, labor and machinery to a project that will determine the effects of subirrigation on water quality.

Land improvement contractors, agricultural engineering students, researchers and farmers gathered at a site on the Sattler farm near Sebewaing in Tuscola County, Michigan, in early August [1990]. Their purpose was to observe the installation of corrugated plastic tubing, watertable control structures, irrigation water supply facilities, shallow field ditches, dikes and other erosion control practices. These were part of a field study of water quality impacts of subirrigation. The study is part of the Saginaw Bay Subirrigation/Drainage Project and is funded jointly by the USDA Soil Conservation Service and Michigan State University.

The project was carried out on a site that has representative soils and topography most likely to be subirrigated. This site was Tappan loam from zero to 11 inches and clay/loam from 11 to 60 inches. It typically grows sugar beets, wheat, oats, corn, soybeans and dry beans. The site was divided into three areas – one where no improvements were made, one where a subsurface drainage system would be installed and one for a watertable management system with both subsurface drainage and subirrigation. “It was difficult to find a piece of ground with no subsurface drainage in the county,” said president of the Michigan chapter of LICA, Dennis Rector. Each plot or “zone” had a birm of 1.5 to two feet constructed around its perimeter and a surface water ditch. There is a 10 to 11 inch fall across each zone; 1.25 inch per 100 feet of pipe. Non-perforated headstands were installed on the downstream ends of the drained and subirrigated zones. The headstands were to monitor and control the outflows.


For the study, the volume of water flow will be measured. Where this is tile, the flow in the tile will be measured as will the volume of run off from the three ditches. A special bubbler system will be used to measure water flow. It bubbles nitrogen through a small diameter pipe into the surface flume, flow meters and observation well. Field study personnel will run lines with nitrogen into the various areas of the project. The amount of force it requires to push the bubble of air through the line indicates the depth of the watertable in headstands. Water outflow samples will be analyzed for nutrients and pesticides, and some data will be collected by cellular phone.

Little is known about the effects of subirrigation on water quality. The research proposed by this study will provide factual data on the water quality impacts of subirrigation, and data collected will assist agricultural producers to minimize the adverse environmental impacts of watertable management practices. “Of more immediate benefit is the fact that it is good experience for the contractors to get around other equipment and learn different techniques from their fellow contractors,” says John Kemp, past-president of MLICA and, as a local contractor, one of the principals in the study.

Arranging a field day requires a lot of work prior to the event. John Kemp and Dennis Rector started a couple od days ahead to get most of the drainage lines in and to set up tents.

The contractors who volunteers their time and equipment included Rube and Dave Auernhamer of Auernhamer Trenching, Frankenmuth, who provided a 784 Hoes plow and 4×4 maxi roll stringing pickup; John Burnham of Burnham Farm Tiling, East Lansing, with a laser-equipped surveying truck; John Kemp of Kemp Tiling in Sebewaing, supplied a D8H Cat dozer/wedge plow; Matt Wackerle of Wackerle Farm Drainage, Linwood, had a Hollanddrain plow; and Jim Wurst of J.O. Wurst Co., Pigeon, supplied a Steiger tractor and Krac trenchless plow. Michigan Tractor supplied a Cat backhoe and AIS furnished a John Deer excavator, backhoe and dozer. Bill Foser of Foster’s Trenching Service in Ashley, Norman Hamilton of Almont and Walter Zaleski of Zaleski Farm Tiling in Merrill also helped on the site. ADS and Hancor supplied drainage supplies.

Other key players in the study are Bud Belcher of MSU; Homer Hilner, state conservationist; Bill Hartman, assistant overseeing Saginaw Bay Subirrigation Project and Jerry Malone, field co-ordinator.

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