Standing up for Iowa’s Tile Drainage System

March 27, 2012

The following editorial appeared in the Iowa Farm Bureau “Spokesman” last year. It was written by Dirck Steimel and was re-posted with his permission.

Along with many of Iowa’s Farm Bureau county presidents, I recently got a firsthand look at one of the world’s engineering wonders – the Panama Canal.
The canal, opened nearly a century ago, continues to serve its purpose, saving billions in transportation costs. It was amazing to see the towering cargo ships as they edged through the canal’s narrow locks and then into the open waters of the Pacific.
Right here in Iowa is another century-old engineering wonder, the state’s vast network of drainage tile.
Interestingly, the two great engineering projects were both completed in the early part of the 20th century. And, as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey noted recently, the total cost of digging the trenches, placing drainage tile under some 9 million acres and hooking it into outlets was roughly the same as constructing the Panama Canal.
Like the Panama Canal, our tile drainage system is still hard at work, draining excess water from Iowa’s rich soils. As Iowa farmers know, without the drainage system it would be virtually impossible for the northern part of the state to produce high yields of crops the world desperately needs. The drainage system also makes a huge contribution to soil conservation by keeping soil and nutrients on fields.
Drainage under fire – But instead of being celebrated, Iowa’s tile drainage system is often under fire. Environmental activists and others have attacked the tile drainage system, blaming it for recent flooding and other problems. They recommended that the tile system be dismantled, or be allowed to atrophy, turning the highly productive lands of northern Iowa into tall grass prairie.
With farmers being asked to produce more food while leaving a smaller environmental footprint, getting rid of Iowa’s tile drainage system would be exactly the wrong approach.
Instead, it is clearly time to work to upgrade the state’s drainage system, just as Panamanians are modernizing their canal. As part of that upgrade, it makes sense to expand the state’s program of strategically-placed wetlands into a system to remove nutrients from the drainage water.
Such a program would lead to higher yields, reduced soil erosion and improved water quality. Or, as Northey put it, “it’s a win-win-win.”

Categories: Agriculture