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New Two-Stage Drainage Ditch Reduces Costs, Boosts Water Quality

10 January 2014

Ohio State University

Drainage ditches are often a must for growing crops. They help carry excess water from fields. Now, there’s a new, better way to dig a drainage ditch on a farm, thanks to scientists at The Ohio State University.

Research by agricultural engineer Andy Ward and colleagues has produced the innovative “two-stage” ditch design. Compared to conventional ditches, the new design drains water better, reduces flooding, reduces soil erosion, helps take nitrogen and phosphorus out of the water, and needs little mowing, dredging and other kinds of maintenance.

“These benefits translate to cost savings and increased yields for the farmer and to cleaner water for all of us,” said Kent Wamsley, project manager of The Nature Conservancy’s Wabash River Initiative, which is urging farmers to use the design.

Two-Stage Drainage Ditch

The new design features a small main channel at the bottom of the ditch — stage one — and raised, grass-covered “benches” along the channel’s sides—stage two. In essence, the benches create a small floodplain within the ditch.

Among their benefits, two-stage ditches can remove 50 to 2,000 pounds of farm nitrogen runoff from the water per mile per year, depending on several factors, including age. 

(They work better as they get older.) Farm nitrogen runoff can pollute drinking water and is the main cause of “dead zones” in lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.

Two-stage ditches also can remove phosphorus from drainage water, Ward said, but further research is needed to determine exactly how much. phosphorus is the main cause of harmful algal blooms in lakes. To date, farmers and agencies in Ohio, other states, Canada and Europe have installed nearly 50 miles of ditches employing the improved design.

The work earned Ward the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center’s 2013 Innovator of the Year Award. “The concept,” one of his nominators wrote, “is changing long-held perceptions of what constitutes a ‘good’ drainage ditch.” 

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