Iowa State research proposes ‘sustainable intensification’ of Iowa drainage network

Drainage tile helps keep farm fields dry, but Iowa’s system needs a more sustainable upgrade (via Creative Commons).

Julia Poska | October 9, 2019

Agronomy researchers at Iowa State University have proposed ideas for an ambitious and much-needed update to Iowa’s agricultural drainage system. Their study makes suggestions for mitigating the effects of altered precipitation patterns due to climate change while reducing pollution to air and water.

The concept of “sustainable intensification” (the authors define this as “producing more food from the same amount of land with fewer environmental costs”) is at the core of the research. ISU agronomist Michael Castellano led the study in partnership with University of Kentucky and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH-Zurich.

Artificial drainage systems are comprised of underground pipes, tiles and drains that move water off farmland, discharging it into ditches that flow into natural surface waterbodies. Without this network, most of Iowa’s land would be too waterlogged to farm, but drainage systems increase runoff of nutrient and bacterial pollution from fields into waterways.

The increasing frequency of both intense rain events and draught in Iowa due to climate change is also putting extra pressure on those systems, which were designed before Iowa agriculture became so intense.  The study, published in Nature Sustainability, describes several solutions. “Controlled drainage,” or installing gates that can temporarily open/close at the ends of drains, could allow farmers to increase drainage during wet springs and retain more water during dry summers.

Installing narrower, shallower drains could further reduce nutrient concentration in drainage water, the authors claim. They say it could also reduce needed fertilizer inputs and decrease greenhouse gas emissions from the soil.

The study also describes the need to increase on-farm conservation practices, like returning some farmed land to wetland, in conjunction with updating infrastructure.


CGRER 25th Anniversary Profiles: Rick Cruse

Dr. Richard. M Cruse is a professor in the Agronomy Department at Iowa State University. (Iowa State University)
Dr. Richard. M Cruse is a professor in the Agronomy Department at Iowa State University. (Iowa State University)

Nick Fetty | August 21, 2015

Rick Cruse, a professor in the Agronomy Department at Iowa State University, has been involved with CGRER for the past six years. Much of Cruse’s research focuses on soil and agriculture, specifically erosion and tillage. While the University of Iowa and Iowa State University are rivals on the field, court, and mat, Cruse said he’s been happy to see the two entities come together for collaborations such as CGRER.

“I don’t know if it’s brought on by tight budgets but nonetheless the link between the strengths that the two institutions bring together has a synergistic effect and that synergy is really critical,” he said.

In addition to bridging the gap between the two public universities, Cruse also attempts to bridge the gap between academics and the general public through community education and outreach efforts. He works with the Soil and Water Conservation Club, a student organization at Iowa State, on a publication they call “Getting into Soil and Water.”

“This annual statement explains various water- and soil-related issues that are relevant to the people in Iowa,” he said.

Cruse said that while he serves an advisory role, students are responsible for much of the writing, editing, and designing of the publication. In addition to CGRER‘s research component, Cruse said the center has also been key in developing synergies between researchers and policy-makers.

“Often times we struggle linking what we do in science with the legislature, with people that make policy decisions. The link with State Senator Joe Bolkcom and other connections provides an avenue we wouldn’t otherwise have.”

This article is part of a series of stories profiling CGRER members in commemoration of the center’s 25th anniversary this October.

Professor Richard Cruse speaks on Iowa’s topsoil

Richard Cruse is an Agronomy professor at Iowa State University. His research focuses on soil and crop management. One of his most recent projects involved leading a research team that created a system to more realistically estimate the amount of soil erosion occurring in Iowa. Cruse talked with Iowa Environmental Focus about this project, and about the importance of preserving Iowa’s topsoil.

Why Iowa needs its topsoil:

Topsoil is a basis for our economy, the basis for international trade and the basis for food production worldwide. The science related to soil erosion is that when soil erosion proceeds, soil’s productivity potential drops. That occurs in Iowa, and it occurs basically anywhere in the world. Continue reading

ISU: Second warmest RAGBRAI yet

Graph courtesy of the ISU Department of Agronomy

Last week’s bike ride across Iowa had the second highest heat index ever, according to the Iowa Environmental Mesonet at Iowa State University.

Read more below:

The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) took place last week and was a quite warm for participants. This 6 day long trek across Iowa starts on the Missouri River and ends on the Mississippi River. Assuming that the weather reported by the Des Moines station is representative of the state, the featured chart presents the average heat index and westerly wind for the six day period each year that RABGRAI occurred on since it started in 1973. This year’s average heat index was second to 1999. The bottom chart looks at a simple average of the westerly wind component during daylight hours. A wind from the east (negative values) would mean a head wind for bicyclists generally heading from the west to east. Easterly winds are typically associated with cooler weather, so you can pick your poison or a headwind or hot weather!