Conservation drainage management that can reduce runoff from fields and protect water quality could qualify for federal assistance that was earmarked in the Inflation Reduction Act for climate-smart farming practices, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service has decided. 

Practices such as bioreactors that utilize wood chips to reduce nitrate leaching are among those that could qualify for NRCS funding, the agency's deputy chief for programs, Karen Woodrich, said at the Conservation Drainage Network’s recent annual meeting in Easton, Maryland.

She told attendees that practices designed to increase crop efficiency and reduce nitrogen runoff may be eligible for funding, if they are directly connected to a conservation system approach that addresses climate mitigation priorities. Drainage management can support conservation practices that already reduce GHG emissions and improve carbon storage. 

The IRA included $17 billion in new funding for four farm bill conservation programs, plus $1 billion for conservation technical assistance. 

Drainage water management is already an approved NRCS practice, but the IRA conservation funding is targeted toward climate change benefits, so the remarks were encouraging to those who want to see farmers address the issue of managing drainage and reducing runoff.

Dennis Todey.JPGDennis Todey, USDA's Midwest Climate Hub

CDM can be an important tool to meet those goals. Climate change is creating wetter springs and falls in the Midwest, said Dennis Todey, director of USDA’s Midwest Climate Hub. “Most of us, and especially in the eastern part of the U.S., we're seeing precipitation in bigger events,” he said.

 CDM supporters want to see more farmers managing and recycling the water that drains from the fields. New methods are being developed to control and reuse the water, reducing nitrogen runoff and cutting down on emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. 

“We need to switch from the mindset that water is the enemy,” said Chris Hay, conservation design scientist at the Iowa Soybean Association. “It’s a resource.”

Alex Echols, a program strategist for agriculture with the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment, which organized the conference, said all new drainage systems should be managed.

“In my view, there shouldn't be another foot of pipe put in the ground if it’s not managed,” he said after the meeting.

CDM practices, however, only cover a fraction of the landscape.  Kathy Boomer, scientific program director at the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, estimated at the meeting the figure is less than 5%, but Echols said it could be lower than 1%, based on conversations he’s had with contractors who install the systems.

The biggest target in terms of GHGs in agriculture is nitrous oxide, or N2O, which comprises the vast majority of greenhouse gases from the sector. “Unlike the other [industrial] sectors, none of the emissions from agriculture are from carbon dioxide,” said Iowa State soil scientist Mike Castellano. 

In the U.S., ag accounts for about 10% of all GHG emissions, according to the EPA’s latest report on GHG emissions. But in Iowa, Castellano said, ag contributes about 31% of GHG emissions. And in the Midwest, he said, about 65% of GHG emissions come from application of nitrogen fertilizer, which researchers say is often overapplied.

“Shallow and controlled drainage could … reduce N2O emissions: in cereal cropping systems, N fertilizer is the primary source of N2O and most N2O emitted to the atmosphere is produced from denitrification at or near the soil surface,” a paper authored by Castellano and other researchers in 2019 says.

Noting progress made in other sectors to reduce GHGs, Castellano said, “We really have a challenge going forward that we have to think about and make some significant reductions, because all that’s going to be left standing [for potential reductions] is agriculture,” Castellano said. “So we’ve got to get out in front of this.”

Barriers, however, exist, including cost and farmers’ general reluctance to try something new unless it can be shown to benefit their bottom line.

Also, drainage is underground, out of sight.

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“One of the reasons why conservation drainage hasn't gotten so much attention is it's a little obscure,” Echols said. “You drive through the countryside, you don't see tile lines that are buried under it. You do see buffers and cover crops. And it's like, the world's falling in love with cover crops. Well, I like cover crops, but they don't always work.”

Conservation drainage systems have the advantage of being permanent and measurable, speakers said.

Gary Sands, an extension engineer and professor at the University of Minnesota said in an interview after the meeting that despite the “great work” being done in the Midwest and around the country refining new technology and demonstrating the benefits of proper drainage management, “It just feels like we need so much more, to really get enough practices on the ground to even come close to addressing our state nutrient reduction goals. It's a tall order.”

Harmful algal blooms caused by excess nutrients flowing into waterways are a widespread problem. A decades-long effort has been underway to reduce the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, which in 2021 was larger than the average measured in the previous five years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The hypoxic zone – an area with low oxygen – “begins innocently enough,” NOAA said. “Farmers use fertilizers and manure to increase the output of their crops so that we can have more food on our tables and more food to sell to the rest of the world.

“But it is this excess agricultural nutrient pollution combined with urban runoff and wastewater that brings excessive amounts of nutrients into waterways that feed the Mississippi River,” the agency said.

“I just think we need a paradigm shift of some sort” to get practices on the ground, Sands said.

Despite some frustration about the slow pace of progress, Sands is excited about a project for which he and colleagues from multiple Midwestern states are seeking $10 million in NIFA funding, entitled “Drainage Water Recycling: A Climate Smart System for Agricultural Resiliency.”

The idea is to capture drained water, store it, and then use it to irrigate.

“You recycle in that way and you have a closed loop,” Sands said. “And theoretically, you don't lose any nutrients from that system.”

“So, there will be another practice that will know a whole lot more about if that work is funded,” Sands said, adding, however, that “it will face the same challenges in terms of adoption.”

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