NCERA217: Drainage design and management practices to improve water quality

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Approved Pending Start Date

NCERA217: Drainage design and management practices to improve water quality

Duration: 10/01/2024 to 09/30/2029

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Non-Technical Summary

Artificial drainage is a critical aspect of crop production on at least 57 million acres of highly productive agricultural land in the US. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution of surface water from nonpoint sources is a pervasive problem nationwide and is exacerbated by artificial drainage. There is a critical need to develop improved drainage designs and management strategies that maintain crop production benefits to meet the supply of a safe and abundant food supply while reducing nutrient loss to our nation’s waters. A renewal of NCERA-217 is needed due to the many critical issues and questions that remain concerning drainage impacts on water quantity and quality. The main goal will be to develop supporting data and materials for the relationship between the various drainage management practices and the corresponding reduction in contaminant loading. The objectives are to evaluate management strategies and their potential to reduce nutrient loss from drained farmland, assess the role of drainage in emerging areas (e.g., soil health and emerging contaminants), improve the understanding of the effects of climate-smart agricultural practices on drainage water quality and quantity, and foster Extension collaboration to bridge communication between multiple interest groups. The target audience will include agricultural producers, drainage contractors and engineers, water resource planners and managers, local, state, and federal agencies, and non-governmental organizations that provide technical or financial assistance for agricultural conservation. They will benefit from the committee’s activities through regular interaction at meetings, research-based recommendations, Extension materials, and usable tools for improving drainage design and management. 

Statement of Issues and Justification

Statement of Issues and Justification:

Nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) pollution of surface water from nonpoint sources is a serious problem nationwide, particularly in the Midwest USA. Much of this region is characterized by land use dominated by row crop agriculture (i.e., corn, soybean, small grains), and by the extensive use of subsurface drainage systems (a.k.a., tile drainage) and maintained ditches to manage soil water conditions. Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico has been a serious problem since the mid 1980’s and is largely attributed to nutrient enrichment of marine waters by N and P entering the Gulf from the Mississippi River (Alexander et al., 2008). A federal task force recommended a 45% reduction in N and P loads entering the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River to reduce the long-term average area of the Gulf hypoxic zone to 5,000 km2 or less (Greene et al., 2009). The twelve states of the task force have responded to the need to meet nutrient reduction targets by developing individual State Nutrient Reduction Strategies (EPA, 2013) that contain tailored methods for reducing nutrients in their state. Four states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Minnesota) have gone further by developing nutrient reduction strategies based on scientific and economic assessments of practices with the potential to achieve their state’s nutrient reduction goals (IDALS, IDNR, & ISU, 2013; MPCA, 2014, 2020; IEPA & IDOA, 2015; ISDA & IDEM, 2021).

These serious environmental water quality issues are exacerbated by the prevalence of artificially improved drainage in the Midwest and across other regions of the country (e.g., Great Lakes region, Carolina coastal plain, and Delmarva Peninsula). Agricultural producers install artificial drainage (tiles and ditches) on their land to improve trafficability while reducing compaction, allow for timely planting during wet spring periods and increase crop yields. Approximately 57 million acres of artificially drained agricultural land exists in the United States, with 41 million acres of drained cropland present in the Midwest alone, which corresponds to as much as 50% of all cropland in some states being subsurface drained. These lands are among the most productive in the world, but only if adequate drainage is provided. Achieving new and ongoing water quality goals while maintaining adequate drainage systems for these highly productive areas will be a necessary but monumental task.

A renewal of this committee is needed because many critical issues and questions remain concerning drainage impacts on water quantity and quality, particularly on the relationship between the various drainage management practices that may reduce contaminant loading. In addition to critical research needs, there is continued need for coordination of Extension products and activities to significantly advance towards crop production and water quality goals. Specifically, there is a critical need to develop improved drainage designs and management strategies that maintain crop production benefits to meet the supply of a safe and abundant food supply while reducing nutrient loss to our nation’s waters. Several approaches have the potential to reduce the negative water quality impacts of crop production on subsurface drained lands. These approaches include the use of alternative crop rotations and cover crops, adjusting the timing and rate of fertilizer application to better match crop uptake, redesign and management of drainage systems to reduce drainage outflows and promote in-field denitrification, installation of drainage water treatment systems that work by enhancing denitrification (i.e., wetlands, bioreactors, saturated buffers, and two-stage ditch design), and drainage water capture and use for supplemental irrigation using on-farm reservoirs. Currently, researchers across the North Central Region are investigating these and other approaches for reducing nutrient and other contaminant losses from drained croplands. While research has shown promising results, there is continued need for coordination and interaction among the different state researchers as well as facilitation of Extension products and activities. Given the critically important function and the large regional nature of the Gulf of Mexico’s hypoxia, as well as the freshwater eutrophication across the Midwest and the nation, multistate research and extension effort is required. This research will involve diverse stakeholder engagement from university researchers, state and local agencies, and producers across the North Central Region.

Accomplishments of NCERA217:

The current project has developed a number of new and effective drainage design and management options, all of which reduce nutrient delivery to our nation’s waters, while maintaining strong crop productivity. For example, the committee studied the effectiveness of conservation drainage practices across the Midwest, NY, NC, and Canada and worked with USDA-NRCS to establish and improve design standards for these practices (e.g., Conservation Practice Standard (CPS) #554 “Drainage Water Management”; CPS #604 “Saturated Buffer”; CPS #605 “Denitrifying Bioreactor”; and CPS #447 “Irrigation and Drainage Tailwater Recovery”). The importance of these CPSs cannot be overstated. Each standard details the official federal design specifications required for any cost-shared instance of the given practice. Impressively, this means that the committee’s work has informed every single instance of these practices across the country. The existence of these standards means farmers can apply for cost-sharing of these practices, dramatically increasing producer interest.

The $5M USDA-funded Transforming Drainage project, led by NCERA-217 members, ended in 2021. The project established 38 research sites, created a database on drainage research data that has more than 200 site years of data, and developed 8 open-source tools to aid in drainage decision-making. The created project website ( has logged 33,000 users and 121,500 page views and continues to be an important resource for drainage water storage practices.

The committee’s applied research and outreach has importantly led to many of our recommendations being adopted by the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force and by many of the Mississippi basin states in developing their state strategies for nutrient reduction as required by USEPA. In these ways, our work is moving beyond the field to positively influence policy and the adoption of improved practices.

More overtly, in the past four years, we have generated more than: 134 peer-reviewed publications; 47 Extension and non-refereed publications; 167 presentations to farm, research, and state/federal agency audiences; reached 6,000 stakeholders; and received six national ASABE Educational Aids Blue Ribbon Awards. Committee members led the development and planning of the 11th International Drainage Symposium held in Des Moines, IA with over 200 attendees representing 11 countries and 23 states (86 oral and 18 poster presentations). Collaborative efforts among committee members resulted in several multi-institutional and cross-disciplinary projects. NCERA-217 was involved in the formation and continues to provide leadership in the Conservation Drainage Network (CDN), a formalized collaboration between researchers, Extension, industry, federal and state agencies, and other stakeholders ( The first annual CDN meeting was held in 2020 and has attracted 570 participants from 17 states and 6 countries since its inception. NCERA-217 has continued strong positive momentum since being awarded the 2018 Experiment Station Section Award for Excellence in Multistate Research.


  1. Evaluate alternative drainage designs, drainage conservation practices, soil and crop management practices, and overall drainage management to reduce nutrient loss from drained farmland.
  2. Assess the role of drainage in emerging areas such soil health, food, energy security, and emerging contaminants (e.g., microplastics, PFAS, pathogens, pharmaceuticals).
  3. Improve our understanding of the interactions of climate-smart agricultural practices and drainage water quantity and quality.
  4. Foster Extension/outreach collaboration to maximize impact and to facilitate communication between scientists, conservation professionals, landowners, and policy makers/implementers.

Procedures and Activities

Objective 1: Evaluate alternative drainage designs, drainage conservation practices, soil and crop management practices, and overall drainage management to reduce nutrient loss from drained farmland. Research in many of the North Central states is currently underway to develop and evaluate different drainage design (e.g., shallow drainage), drainage conservation practices (e.g., controlled drainage, denitrifying bioreactors, saturated buffers, constructed wetlands), and drainage management (e.g., controlled drainage, drainage water recycling and ditch management). Research is also being conducted on subsurface drainage to evaluate different in-field management practices for reduction of nutrient losses into tiles, including the use of cover crops, fertilizer practices, tillage, and crop rotation. While the committee continues to focus on N losses from drained lands, the committee will also investigate the impact of drainage on P fate and transport. This objective mainly addresses water quality issues related to drinking water, freshwater lakes, and the Hypoxic zone in the northern Gulf of Mexico. There is a critical need for researchers from different states to meet regularly and exchange information about their research findings.

Objective 2: Assess the role of drainage in emerging areas such soil health, food, energy security, and emerging contaminants (e.g., microplastics, PFAS, pathogens, pharmaceuticals). Although the main emphasis of the committee will be on crop yield impacts and nutrient leaching into subsurface drains, the committee will continue to investigate other emerging issues. Emerging areas include but are not limited to nutrient cycling, soil health, and transport of emerging water quality contaminants. These emerging areas combined with drainage water quality/quantity and crop production have the potential to impact health, food, and energy security due to the importance of drained lands for agricultural production. As a result, there is a need for coordinated research efforts in these areas. The committee will facilitate the exchange of information on these emerging issues and help coordinate new research on these topics.

Objective 3: Improve our understanding of the interactions of climate-smart agricultural practices and drainage water quantity and quality. Much of the North Central region is experiencing increased climate variability and with this comes increasing interest in and concern about the interaction of drainage and climate change. There is also increasing interest in carbon markets and discussions on how to improve climate mitigation and resiliency in these agricultural landscapes. Specific areas of concern relate to the hydrologic impacts of drainage and how drainage system design might be able to help improve climate resiliency. Although annual precipitation is roughly in balance with crop water use in the Midwest, rainfall does not always occur when it is needed by the crops. Excess water in the spring makes artificial drainage essential for allowing timely field work. Excess water can negatively impact soil aeration of the root zone in the early growing season, while water deficit during the summer causes reduced crop yields. Since these issues span the Corn Belt, there is a need for coordination of research activities and sharing of information. Although the impacts of a changing climate may be similar across the region, the strategies and practices for mitigating these impacts and building resiliency may need to be “tweaked” based on local/regional factors. A coordinated effort would attempt to devise local to regional strategies for implementation and management of such practices and systems.

Objective 4: Foster Extension/outreach collaboration to maximize impact and to facilitate communication between scientists, conservation professionals, landowners, and policy makers/implementers. This objective promotes partnership with stakeholders interested in drainage, soil and crop management, and environmental quality in agricultural landscapes. Moreover, regional water quality goals (e.g., Mississippi River Basin) mean regional collaboration is needed to enhance the impact of state-level Extension programs. The forward-thinking extension programming for our multi-state committee will have an emphasis on modern technology and tools to aid design, assessment of drainage systems, and decision support for managing drainage water. The committee will include extension personnel and an NRCS representative to coordinate the development of educational materials for drainage design and management for improved water quality and quantity. The committee will work with the Conservation Drainage Network (CDN) to assess needs for technical bulletins and other educational material. Many NCERA-217 members also participate in CDN meetings, which facilitates communication and coordination between the groups. The CDN is a national partnership network with the goal of improving drainage practices to meet future demands of crop production while reducing adverse environmental impacts of drainage. The group was formed out of the Agricultural Drainage Management Systems (ADMS) Task Force which operated between 2002 and 2019. This group also interacts closely with the Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition (ADMC), which is an industry led organization that educates farmers, policy makers, and drainage and conservation groups about the latest technology in the drainage area.

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

  • Coordination of research programs in drainage design, management, and conservation practices for reduced contaminant losses in subsurface drains.
  • Exchange of information and data about research studies on nutrient and water recycling, soil health, crop yield, and climate impacts as they pertain to agricultural subsurface drainage.
  • Identification of key research needed to improve water quality from drained lands in the North Central region and other critical drained areas of the US.
  • Joint research articles based on coordinated and collaborative research efforts across the NCERA region and beyond.
  • New extension materials, decisions-support tools, and data sharing (e.g., new and existing databases) to support the implementation of improved drainage and cropping management practices on drained lands.
  • Improved water quality resulting from implementation of improved management practices on drained lands.
  • Enhanced resiliency of agroecosystems through improved water use efficiency and associated ecosystem services benefits (e.g., carbon sequestration).

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan

Extension materials and programs developed or coordinated by the committee will be available through standard channels (e.g., University Extension systems, and regional Extension networks such as the North-Central Region Water Network), and in additional ways identified by the Conservation Drainage Network (CDN).

The team consists of 23 core members (agricultural engineering, agronomy, crop, plant and soil sciences) from 15 institutions (Land-Grant University and non-Land-Grant University), USGS, USDA-ARS and USDA-NRCS, and other collaborators (state and federal government agencies, industry, and NGOs). We work closely with the CDN and ADMC on activities related to drainage research, Extension, communication and drainage practice adoption. Our joint annual meeting with the CDN includes presentations from all these groups to provide a comprehensive update spanning research, outreach, policy, and industry issues. Moreover, we include a graduate student poster session to encourage younger scientists and continue our momentum into the future. NCERA-217 works closely with SERA-46 “Framework for Nutrient Reduction Strategy Collaboration: The Role for Land-Grant Universities” on drainage issues within the Mississippi watershed. We are strongly integrated with the drainage industry. For example, industry members formed the ADMC (see above) to work with this committee in developing and promoting new technologies for reducing tile drainage nutrient losses.



The recommended Standard Governance for multistate research activities include the election of a Chair, a Chair-elect, and a Secretary. All officers are to be elected for at least two-year terms to provide continuity. Administrative guidance will be provided by an assigned Administrative Advisor and a NIFA Representative.

Literature Cited

Alexander, R.B., R.A. Smith, G.E. Schwarz, E.W. Boyer, J.V. Nolan, and J.W. Brakebill. 2008. Differences in phosphorus and nitrogen delivery to the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River Basin. Environ. Sci. Technol. 42(3):822-830.

EPA. 2023. Hypoxia Task Force Nutrient Reduction Strategies. Retrieved from 

Greene, R. M., J. C. Lehrter, and J.D. Hagy III. 2009. Multiple regression models for hindcasting and forecasting midsummer hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. Ecological Applications 19:1161–1175.

IDALS, IDNR, & ISU. 2013. Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy: A science and technology-based framework to assess and reduce nutrients to Iowa waters and the Gulf of Mexico. Retrieved from

IEPA & IDOA. 2015. Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. Retrieved from

ISDA & IDEM. 2021. Indiana’s State Nutrient Reduction Strategy: A framework to reduce nutrients entering Indiana’s waters. Retrieved from 

Mitsch, W. J., J. W. Day Jr., J. Wendell Gilliam, P. M. Groffman, D. L. Hey, G. W. Randall, and N. Wang. 2001. Reducing nitrogen loading to the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River Basin: Strategies to counter a persistent ecological problem. BioScience 51(5):373-388.

MPCA. 2014. The Minnesota Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Retrieved from

MPCA, 2020. 5-year Progress Report on Minnesota’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Retrieved from

Mulla, D. J.  2008.  Effect of nitrogen best management practices on water quality at the watershed scale.  Ch. 6. In: A. Fares and A. I. El-Kadi (eds.), Coastal Watershed Management.  WIT Press, Southampton, Boston.

Randall, G. W. and D. J. Mulla.  2001.  Nitrate-N in surface waters as influenced by climatic conditions and agricultural practices. J. Environ. Qual. 30:337-344.


Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

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