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Guest Column: Where do we go from here?

What is stopping us from implementing innovative drainage?

May 2, 2018  By Jacqui Empson Laporte

There has been a lot of work in Ontario to establish relationships and partnerships between the drainage community, local agricultural groups and conservation authorities.  The intended goals of these partnerships have been to dispel myths about drainage, promote the adoption of innovative drainage techniques, and to use the knowledge and skills of tile drainage and erosion control contractors in achieving improved water quality and soil health.

For example, municipal drainage superintendents and environmental specialists presented on innovative drainage topics at the Latornell Conservation Symposium. LICO and the Drainage Superintendents Association annual conferences always include an environmental component. Larry Brown, a professor and drainage water management researcher at Ohio State University, spoke to representatives from local conservation authorities, engineers from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, certified crop advisers and researchers in January. And in March, a meeting was held at a 40-acre demonstration farm in Clinton, ON, as a collaborative effort between the County of Huron, lakeshore residents and the Huron Soil and Crop Improvement Association.

The point of these meetings was to challenge existing beliefs about drainage, explore innovative drainage ideas and discuss how organizations can balance agricultural productivity and the need for improved water management. Yet, discussions about tile and communal drainage are polarized as ever. At any event and you will hear comments from both ends of the spectrum, from “tile drainage is essential for agricultural productivity and improving soil health” to “tile drainage is responsible for degraded water quality in the Great Lakes.” In reality, the answer is not at the ends but somewhere in the middle.

Perhaps these opposing views of drainage impact the adoption of innovative drainage designs that would benefit agriculture and the environment. Could entrenched beliefs contribute to a lack of innovation and adoption? What else is preventing research and development into innovative drainage technology?


First, risk management is a huge barrier. Farmers don’t want to take the risks of unpredictable production in fluctuating economic systems. Contractors want to be associated with “innovation” but not the project that “fails” in the eyes of the agricultural community. Municipalities and regulatory agencies don’t want to take risks on innovative projects with taxpayer funds, when predictability of the outcomes are demanded. Grant programs rarely fund innovation, when the success of receiving the grant money is dependent on predictable effectiveness; for example, the amount of kilograms of phosphorus removed.

Somehow, we – farmers, contractors, designers, engineers, and regulatory agencies – need to find a way to address a risk-averse society if we want to encourage innovation in drainage. Can we affordably use technology to improve efficient use of the system (for example, to measure soil moisture levels and anticipated weather events to control water levels in real time and use of remote operation)?

Second, the upstream and downstream practices of adjacent farmers can pose both challenges and opportunities for innovative drainage projects. In Huron County, Ausable Bayfield Conservation and Maitland Conservation have been successful in encouraging farmers in two priority watersheds to implement a series of best-management practices such as biofilters, windbreaks, water and sediment control basins (WASCoBs) and cover crops. Positive results include reduced erosion, improved water management during storm events and collaborative projects among landowners. Innovative drainage must be a component of a watershed-based drainage and erosion control design, in order to achieve cumulative benefits.

Third, agricultural economics and precision agriculture could play a role. While drainage can improve the productivity of farm or increase the value of a field, it will not be the complete answer to farm finances. Precision agriculture may assist us in determining more accurate costs of production and find a balance between agricultural production and those areas that can be used for water retention and storage. Innovative drainage must be part of a whole-field stewardship design involving cropping practices, erosion control and overall water management.

Fourth, the options for innovative practices must be based on the local conditions. Ontario has not consistently experienced drought to an extent that would influence the economic necessity and feasibility of controlled drainage. The complex topography may affect the success of contoured drainage techniques, but broad implementation would have to address existing drainage systems.

Technology can address some of the barriers, but we have to move away from entrenched beliefs and be willing to invest in it. We have focused on partnerships with agricultural and stewardship groups to improve water quality, but we need to invite LICO members to the table. While they have been part of project construction and design, we need to make sure they are part of broader discussions about water quality and soil health. Finally, while agriculture is inherently a competitive business environment, perhaps it’s time to return to our rural community society and work together to find solutions to problems of poor water quality.

Jacqui Empson Laporte is an environmental specialist and a member of the drainage team for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. She is also a director on the board of Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario, and is responsible for managing projects related to Lake Huron water quality. Her interest is the design of environmental programs.

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