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From the ADMC: Barriers to adoption of conservation drainage practices

August 8, 2022  By Keegan Kult

Advances in the science of conservation drainage systems can allow producers to meet their water management needs while delivering on economic, environmental, and sustainability goals. But despite the proven benefits of conservation drainage practices, producers have yet to demand the practices on a wide enough basis to make a meaningful impact. Members of the Conservation Drainage Network Growth Committee conducted a survey of agricultural drainage service providers over the 2021/2022 winter to better understand their familiarity with, implementation of, and barriers to the various conservation drainage practices. 

Katie Dentzman, assistant professor of rural policy and rural sociology at Iowa State University, assisted in the generation of the survey, evaluation, and writing of the report that is now posted on the Conservation Drainage Network and Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition website. Ryan Arch, executive director of the Illinois LICA chapter, provided key insights in the development of the survey and led the efforts in distribution. 

The survey received 64 responses; 40 (from 19 states) were usable for this assessment. They were asked about their familiarity with woodchip bioreactors, saturated buffers, drainage water management, constructed wetlands, subirrigation and drainage water recycling. Drainage water management was the most familiar practice with 75 percent of respondents reporting familiarity. Drainage water recycling was the least familiar practice with only 23 percent reported familiarity.

Half of the respondents reported a medium or high demand for drainage water management, which was surprising when considering current implementation levels and warrants more investigation. A reported 37 percent of respondents said they had medium or high demand for subirrigation. 


Contractors said the highest barriers for clients were cumbersome state and federal programs, cost and the (the biggest barrier) ROI, with 81 percent and 82 percent respectively reporting this as either an extreme or moderate barrier to adoption. This shows that more work needs to be done to improve on practice delivery mechanisms. The successful Polk County (IA) saturated buffer project, where 51 saturated buffers and bioreactors were installed the summer of 2022, provides an example that landowners were willing to adopt a practice, that has mainly downstream benefits, if the practice delivery mechanisms are changed to benefit all stakeholders involved. 

ADMC and its partners believe that a large-scale investment in a turnkey pilot program is warranted to determine if practice delivery for structural water management practices can be improved to deliver at scales to meet watershed goals.

A smaller turnkey pilot is showing success in Minnesota where NRCS is partnering with a qualified Technical Service Provider (TSP) to conduct outreach, site reviews, designs, and to facilitate the payment to a qualified contractor. This approach could be expanded to involve local conservation districts to provide administration, engage NRCS’s TSP program for site review and design, and utilize LICA contractors to construct the practices in streamlined fashion. 

While the Conservation Drainage Network Growth Committee survey of drainage contractors yielded many insights, a comprehensive, science-based social assessment of farmers is needed to better understand their level of understanding and their perceived barriers to implementation. Moving forward the group is looking to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of farmers’ perspectives on conservation drainage so barriers can be benchmarked and improvements can be made to increase adoption.

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