Drainage water management (DWM) offers great promise to improve environmental performance and farm economic viability on tile-drained cropland. In-field experience and on-farm research have demonstrated crop production and nutrient loading reductions can be compatible goals when DWM is applied in a conservation systems approach. In the Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Basins alone, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has estimated 29.2 million cropland acres are potentially suitable for the implementation of DWM. The absence of DWM on these cropland acres represents an opportunity forgone for both farmers and the environment. That is, water quality benefits are not optimized, crop production and resilience are diminished, and full farm income potentials are not achieved absent the implementation of DWM using a conservation systems approach.
Adoption of DWM has lagged far behind its potential. A review of NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program on-line data for fiscal years 2009 through 2019 shows only 98,344 acres benefitted by the adoption of 2,340 new DWM systems over these 11 fiscal years nationwide – – not even one percent of the potential 29.2 million acres. Our challenge is bringing site-specific planning and adoption of DWM and companion conservation practices “to scale.” We seek the full commitment and coordinated leadership and involvement of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to work in concert with us and the many other public and private sector entities to seize this opportunity for greater conservation and farm viability by enhancing support for this voluntary effort of farmers.
USDA has been instrumental in helping to foster science/technology development and program opportunities in support of DWM and companion conservation practices implementation. NRCS developed and improved conservation practices standards for denitrifying bioreactors, saturated buffers, edge-of-field water quality monitoring, and other water management practices. A conservation activity plan (CAP) framework was developed for DWM and a new conservation practice scenario was added to support financial assistance for innovative automated drainage water management (ADWM).
Further innovation has been fostered by NRCS through Conservation Innovation Grants and coordinated programs and initiatives on a landscape and watershed basis through both the Farm Service Agency and NRCS. Vitally important research has continued through the Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, along with the broader research community.
Regrettably, these efforts from USDA, along with those from producer organizations and other public and private sector entities have hardly moved the “dial” on adoption of DWM. We believe there are multiple reasons for the tempered producer adoption, including the barriers to adoption of manual DWM, the lack of a site-specific decision support tool to provide farmers a practical science basis to actively manage these systems, and the limited and dispersed information on crop resilience and yield impacts. Innovative automated drainage water management (ADWM) addresses many of the long-standing barriers to adoption, and we have identified a path forward to develop the needed prototype site-specific decision support tool for farmer use. However, there is a significant need for improved and harmonized documentation of the on-farm economic benefits, and the peer-reviewed scientific materials that bring additional credibility to observed results.
Overcoming barriers to the adoption of DWM and creating a strengthened partnership commitment and momentum is critical if this conservation measure is to see widespread adoption. USDA can be an even stronger contributor with a specific charge from both the Farm Production and Conservation and Research, Education, and Economics Under Secretaries to their respective agencies. We request USDA work with stakeholders to develop a collaborative, multi-year action strategy to foster widespread adoption of DWM/ADWM in a conservation systems approach. We believe the Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Basins, plus the Red River Valley, should be the principal areas of geographic focus although other areas can and will benefit also.
We recognize there is no single solution nor prescription to improve tile drainage water quality associated with the suitable cropland acres in the Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Basins, plus the Red River Valley. However, a collaborative and committed partnership with coordinated actions at the small watershed level will:
- Optimize efficient use of technical and financial assistance and concentrate efforts on highly suitable cropland that can have an aggregated water quality improvement,
- Establish on-farm economic results,
- Facilitate coordinated monitoring and assessment at the field, farm, and small watershed scales,
- Create opportunity for greater collaboration and synergy among partners,
- Provide farmers, partners, and stakeholders with a clear line of sight between water quality results and DWM/ADWM adoption,
- Supply more extensive and richer data to support modeling and for use with continuous improvement and adaptive management, and
- Improve USDA’s effectiveness in fostering adoption of the available suite of conservation practices.
We request that drainage water management and automated drainage water management, along with other conservation drainage practices be considered for the Agriculture Innovation Agenda. Working together in a strategic and coordinated manner, we are confident the benefits of DWM/ADWM can be more fully realized and provide lasting results when adopted as a key component of a conservation systems approach.