Drainage water recycling is the practice of capturing excess water drained from fields, storing the drained water in a pond, a reservoir, or a drainage ditch, and using the stored water to irrigate crops when there is a water deficit. Relative to conventional drainage, drainage water recycling has two major benefits: (1) increased crop yield resulting from supplemental irrigation and (2) improved downstream water quality. This practice holds great promise within the U.S. Midwest where tile-drainage is prevalent and the crop season can often be punctuated by both excessively wet and excessively dry periods. The Transforming Drainage project brings together research from experimental drainage water recycling sites across the U.S. Midwest to evaluate the full potential of drainage water recycling to improve crop production and water quality within tile-drained landscapes.
Understanding the Practice and Its Benefits
This 4-part video series was created based on interviews with drainage researchers, farmers, and contractors to document how this innovative practice is being implemented in Michigan, Minnesota, and Missouri. These videos include information about planning, constructing, and managing drainage water recycling systems, as well as benefits received and lessons learned from each of these case studies.
This video shows the goals, challenges, and implementation of a 5-acre reservoir and subirrigation system at a 100-acre field lacking a drainage outlet in southeastern Michigan.
Minnesota researchers have monitored crop water needs to understand the yield benefits of drainage water recycling. This video highlights the challenges and considerations.
The Missouri Land Improvement Contractors Association and many others came together to construct a 13-acre reservoir and subirrigation system at a research site in Missouri. This video shows how a large project drainage water recycling project came together.
This award-winning extension publication by ten authors from around the Midwest provides answers or strategies for questions including “How much crop yield increase can be expected?” and “How large does the pond need to be?”. It is recommended as an introduction to the practice and what is currently known about drainage water recycling.
Increasing water storage on the landscape can provide greater water security for growing crops while reducing nutrient losses to our streams. This video shows how storing water through controlled drainage or drainage water recycling leads to more resilient agricultural systems and improved downstream water quality.
Drainage water recycling captures and stores agricultural drainage water for reuse as supplemental irrigation. The practice can increase crop production while also benefiting downstream water quality. Depending on management, drainage water recycling can also provide other complementary benefits. This paper discusses research needs to advance drainage water recycling.
NRCS Practice Standard
New Fall 2020: Drainage water recycling is now included in NRCS Conservation Practice Standard 447 Irrigation and Drainage Tailwater Recovery . The new definition in this national standard is “a system designed to collect, store, and convey irrigation tailwater, rainfall runoff, field drain water, or combination thereof for reuse in water distribution to the crop”. Although the term “drainage water recycling” is not used explicitly, the revised standard will allow NRCS funding for this practice once approved by states. Most Midwestern states do not yet have this standard in their Field Office Tech Guide, so State Technical Committees will need to approve it before it will be available. Tools, guidance, and training also need to be developed. This presentation at the Conservation Drainage Network meeting in June 2020 by Ruth Book, retired State Conservation Engineer in Illinois, explains the process NRCS will use to move forward.
Designs and Case Studies
- Irrigation Reservoir Evaluation for a Proposed Irrigation Reservoir on the Grace Greenley Farm, Knox County, Missouri. 5 page overview by Chockley, T. 2017. Greenley Memorial Research Center Field Day Report.
- Irrigation Reservoir Design Summary for a Proposed Irrigation Reservoir on the Grace Greenley Farm, Knox County, Missouri. 5 page overview by Comstock, M. 2017. Greenley Memorial Research Center Field Day Report.
- Subirrigation Plan for MU Greenley Research Center. 16 page paper with illustrations by Ecosystem Services Exchange. 2017. Greenley Memorial Research Center Field Day Report.
- Geologic Considerations for a Proposed Irrigation Reservoir on the Grace Greenley Farm, Knox County, Missouri. 4 page overview by Rosenfelder, A.J. 2017. Greenley Memorial Research Center Field Day Report.
- Drainage Water Recycling Spotlight: Addressing an Outlet Challenge in Michigan, by Jane Frankenberger and Ben Reinhart (11 minutes, 2022)
- Drainage Water Recycling Spotlight: Meeting Crop Needs in Minnesota, by Jane Frankenberger and Ben Reinhart (11 minutes, 2022)
- Drainage Water Recycling Spotlight: Partnerships in Missouri, by Jane Frankenberger and Ben Reinhart (11 minutes, 2022)
- Drainage Water Recycling: Capturing, Storing, and Using Drained Water for Multiple Benefits, by Jane Frankenberger and Ben Reinhart (4-part series, 27 minutes, 2022)
- Storing Drainage Water - A Win for Crop Production and Water Quality, by Jane Frankenberger and Ben Reinhart (3 minutes, 2021)
- Iowa Learning Farms Conservation webinar series, organized by Iowa Learning Farms. Drainage Water Recycling, by Chris Hay (33 minutes, 2019)
- Water Reuse Systems presented as part of the Blackland Farm Managers Tour 2020, by Chad Poole, (6 minutes).
Specific to subirrigation
- Midwest Ag Drainage Water Management webinar series, organized by Iowa State University. Subirrigation, by Kelly Nelson (1 hour, 2015).
- Automated Real Time Water Table Management (3 minutes) and Simple Water Table Management Control Systems (2.5 minutes), presented as part of the Blackland Farm Managers Tour 2020, by Chad Poole.
- Evaluating Drainage Water Recycling Decisions (EDWRD)- This tool provides an estimate of the potential benefits that result from capturing drained agricultural water in various sizes of water storage reservoirs (e.g. pond, reservoir, storage tank, etc.) for reuse as irrigation, a practiced referred to as drainage water recycling.
- Subirrigation Suitability Tool- This map identifies the potential suitability for subirrigation of land in the Midwestern United States. It identifies agricultural land that has a restricting layer that causes the water table to rise, permeable soil above the restricting layer that allows the water to move horizontally between the tile drains, flat topography that allows economical systems, and is likely to be tile-drained. A field assessment of any site is needed when evaluating a potential project.
News and Media
- Transforming Ag Drainage: Answers to 6 Big Questions About Drainage Water Recycling. Drainage Contractor (Aug. 2020) - Describes how drainage water recycling works along with benefits and estimated costs.
- Opportunities for Better Water Management Emerge. Iowa Soybean Association (2019) — Article on practice's effects on Iowan land and mentions Transforming Drainage's Chris Hay.
- Wetter springs, hotter summers: Climate change threatens Iowa farm economy. Des Moines Register (2018) — Describes issue and predictions with multiple images and testimonies from the community.
- Drainage control systems boost corn, soybean yields. Herald-Whig (Jan. 22, 2017) — The article describes the structures and systems used to boost crop yield.
- MU drainage system increases yields, reduces nutrient runoff. Bolivar Herald-Free Press (Jan. 14, 2017) — Kelly Nelson from the University of Missouri Extension outlines the research findings.
- Combo of drainage, subirrigation can cut costs, increase yields. Drainage Contractor (Jan. 3, 2017) — Kelly Nelson from the University of Missouri Extension outlines the research findings.
- A New Beginning: More than 400 guests attend Greenley field day. College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources at University of Missouri (2017) — The 240-acre Grace Greenley Farm was deeded over to the Greenley Research Center.
- Battling Soil Saturation: Poorly drained soils cause headaches for landowners. College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources at University of Missouri (2017) — Peter Motavalli and Kelly Nelson with the University of Minnesota College of Agriculture talk about their efforts against soil saturation.
- Keeping Nutrients in the Field: Greenley Research Center Helps Farmers Manage Water on Their Fields. Road to Discovery: MU Agricultural Research Centers Magazine (2017) — For nearly 20 years, the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Greenley Research Center, near Novelty, has worked to help local farmers manage the water on their fields.
- MU drainage system increases yields, reduces nutrient runoff. High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal. High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal (2017) — Agronomist Kelly Nelson at the Greenley Research Center outlines the research findings.
- Water for tomorrow: drainage water recycling. Drainage Contractor (2017) — Describes Minnesota and North Carolina’s efforts in drainage water recycling.
- MU Research: Drip irrigation nets higher yields. University of Missouri Extension (2017) — Rusty Lee describes drip tape among other devices and practices used to boost corn yields.
- MU drainage system increases yields, reduces nutrient runoff. The Caldwell County News (Dec. 26, 2016) — Agronomist Kelly Nelson at the Greenley Research Center outlines the research findings.
- MU drainage system increases yields, reduces nutrient runoff. University of Missouri Extension (Dec. 21, 2016) — Kelly Nelson from the University of Missouri Extension outlines the research findings.
- Advances in Irrigation. Brownfield Agriculture News (Jul. 25, 2016) — Video with Kelly Nelson on irrigation in areas where water is limited.
- Irrigation Research at Greenley. KRES-FM Radio (Jul. 20, 2016) — Audio clips from Kelly Nelson on irrigation.
- Innovative sub-irrigation: finding solutions in a closed-loop nutrient system. Drainage Contractor (May 2016) – Bakerlads Farm in Michigan use reservoir storage and constructed wetlands to manage wastewater from dairy operation that supply water for subirrigating cropland.
- Drainage Water Management. KBIA Mid-Missouri Public Radio (Jan. 28, 2016) — Short audio interview with Kelly Nelson and Dana Harder.
- MU drainage system increases yields, reduces nutrient runoff. Buffalo Reflex (2016) — Agronomist Kelly Nelson at the Greenley Research Center outlines the research findings.
- MU drainage system increases yields, reduces nutrient runoff. Daily Journal Online, Democrat News (2016) — Agronomist Kelly Nelson at the Greenley Research Center outlines the research findings.
- New farm pond recycles drainage water. Corn and Soybean Digest (Dec. 2015) – Describes how and why an Iowa farmer installed an 18-acre pond to provide water for center pivot system.
- New farm pond recycles drainage water. Corn+Soybean Digest (Nov. 19, 2015) — Article about drainage water recycling citing Jane Frankenberger.
- Closed-loop management: System combines tile drainage, reservoirs and controlled drainage with irrigation for effective water management. Drainage Contractor (Oct. 2015) – Describes environmental and yield impacts of drainage water recycling system developed by Chin Tan of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
- Farmers use reservoirs to collect water, use in irrigation pivots. Corn and Soybean Digest (May 2015) – Four on-farm reservoirs in northeast Kansas are used to irrigate nearly 500 acres
- After decades of draining, some MN farmers look to put water back. MPR News (Apr. 29, 2015) — Story audio in addition to a Red River Valley farmer, Gerry Zimmerman, use of drainage water recycling.
- Part of the solution: How can contractors help mitigate nutrient runoff? Drainage Contractor (May 2014) – Describes the work of Dr. David Lobb in the Lake Winnipeg watershed in Manitoba to store drainage water in the landscape
- Combined drainage and subsurface irrigation cuts water use; management challenging. Corn and Soybean Digest (Feb. 2014) – Drainage water recycling systems are used in North Dakota, Missouri, Kansas, and Indiana (Includes interview with Dr. Xinhua Jia, North Dakota State University)
Research Posters and Reports
- Frankenberger, J., B. Allred, D. Gamble, W.J. Baule, L. Brown. On-Farm Water Recycling as an Adaptation Strategy for Drained Agricultural Land. American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers First Climate Change Symposium –Adaptation and Mitigation. Chicago, IL. May 3, 2015.
- Lee, C, L. Bowling, and K. Cherkauer. 2018. Potential influence of drainage water recycling in Indiana. Center for the Environment, Environmental Community Mixer. Oct. 12, 2018. Purdue University.
- Moursi, H., M. Youssef, C. Poole, and G. Chescheir. 2018. An Overview of Drainage Water Recycling Research in North Carolina. NCERA 217 Annual Meeting, Raleigh, NC. Apr. 12, 2018.
- Nash, P., K. Nelson, and P. Motavalli. Reducing Nitrogen Loss with Managed Drainage and Polymer-Coated Urea. 2017. Greenley Memorial Research Center Field Day Report.
- Nash, P., K. Nelson, P. Motavalli, M. Nathan, and C. Dudenhoeffer. Reducing Phosphorus Loss in Tile Water with Managed Drainage in a Claypan Soil. 2017. Greenley Memorial Research Center Field Day Report.
- Nelson, K.A., and M.P.M. Mayola. 2017. Corn Response to Drainage Water Recycling in a Blackoar Silt Loam. ASA-CSSA-SSSA International Meeting. Tampa, FL. Oct. 25, 2017.
- Nelson, K. Corn Yield Variability of Drainage and Subirrigation Systems in a Claypan Soil. 2017. Greenley Memorial Research Center Field Day Report.
- Nelson, K. Soybean Yield Variability of Drainage and Subirrigation Systems in a Claypan Soil. 2017. Greenley Memorial Research Center Field Day Report.
- Nelson, K. and D. Harder. MU Drainage and Subirrigation (MUDS) Research Update for Claypan Soils: 2002-2016. 2017. Greenley Memorial Research Center Field Day Report.
- Nelson, K. and D. Harder. Effects of Drainage Tile Depth and Spacing on Crop Response to Free Drainage and Drainage Water Recycling. 2017. Greenley Memorial Research Center Field Day Report.
- Nelson, K., D. Harder, and M. Mungyeko-Mayola. Corn Response to Drainage Water Recycling in a Blackoar Silt Loam. 2017. Greenley Memorial Research Center Field Day Report.
- Niaghi, A. R., Jia, X., Scherer, T. F., and Steele, D. D. 2018. Effect of Control Drainage and Subirrigation on Corn Evapotranspiration. NCERA 217 Annual Meeting, Raleigh, NC. Apr. 12, 2018.
- Reinhart, B., J. Frankenberger, L. Abendroth, L. Ahiablame, L. Bowling, L. Brown, M. Helmers, D. Jaynes, X. Jia, E. Kladivko, K. Nelson, J. Strock, and M. Youssef. Drainage Water Storage for Improved Resiliency and Environmental Performance of Agricultural Landscapes. 10th International Drainage Symposium. Minneapolis, MN. Sep. 6-9, 2016.
- Reinhart, B. and J. Frankenberger. 2017. Advancing Drainage Water Storage for Improved Resiliency and Environmental Performance of Agricultural Landscapes. Soil and Water Conservation Society 72nd International annual Conference. Madison, WI. Jul. 30-Aug. 2, 2017.
- Wesslak, R., K. Nelson, P. Motavalli, and C. Dudenhoeffer. 2016. Subsurface Drain Tile Spacing Affects Yield Variability of Corn in a Claypan Soil. ASA-CSSA-SSSA International Meeting. Phoenix, AZ. Nov. 6-9, 2016.
- Baule, W., Allred, B., Frankenberger, J., Gamble, D., Andresen, J., Gunn, K.M. and Brown, L. 2017. Northwest Ohio crop yield benefits of water capture and subirrigation based on future climate change projections. Agricultural Water Management. 189. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agwat.2017.04.019
- Gunn, K.M., W.J. Baule, J.R. Frankenberger, D.L. Gamble, B.J. Allred, J.A. Andresen and L.C. Brown. 2018. Modeled climate change impacts on subirrigated maize relative yield in northwest Ohio. Agricultural Water Management. 206. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agwat.2018.04.034
- Hay, C.H. and Helmers, M.J., Evaluating Drainage Water Recycling Benefits for Crop Production in Iowa. In World Environmental and Water Resources Congress 2017 (pp. 507-517).
- Hay, C.H., Reinhart, B.D., Frankenberger, J.R., Helmers, M.J., Jia, X., Nelson, K.A. and Youssef, M.A., 2021. Frontier: Drainage Water Recycling in the Humid Regions of the US: Challenges and Opportunities. Transactions of the ASABE, 64(3), pp.1095-1102.
- Jia, X., Scherer, T.F., Steele, D.D. and DeSutter, T.M., 2017. Subirrigation system performance and evaluation in the Red River Valley of the North. Applied Engineering in Agriculture, 33(6), pp.811-818.
- Jia, X., T. F. Scherer, D. D. Steele, and T. M. DeSutter. 2017. Subirrigation system performance and evaluation in the Red River Valley of the North. North Dakota State University  Applied Engineering in Agriculture. 33. https://doi.org/10.13031/aea.12286
- Kolars, K. 2016. Incorporation of subsurface drainage and subirrigation into the Checkbook Method. Masters Thesis. North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND. NDSU Repository. https://hdl.handle.net/10365/27923
- Nash, P., K.A. Nelson, P.P. Motavalli, and R. Udawatta. 2017. Improved water management of a poorly-drained, floodplain soil and the impact on forage production and nitrate concentration. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 72. https://doi.org/10.2489/jswc.72.6.619
- Nelson, K.A. 2017. Soybean yield variability of drainage and subirrigation systems in a claypan soil. Applied Engineering in Agriculture. 33. https://doi.org/10.13031/aea.12276
- Reinhart, B.D., Frankenberger, J.R., Hay, C.H. and Helmers, M.J. 2019. Simulated water quality and irrigation benefits from drainage water recycling at two tile-drained sites in the US Midwest. Agricultural Water Management.
- Reinhart, B.D., Frankenberger, J.R., Hay, C.H., Bowling, L.B. and Hancock, B.G., 2020. Development and sensitivity analysis of an online tool for evaluating drainage water recycling decisions. Transactions of the ASABE
- Wesslak, R.N., Nelson, K.A. and Dudenhoeffer, C.J., 2016. Spatial Response of Corn Yields to Drainage and Subirrigation Tile Spacings in a Claypan Soil. In 2016 10th International Drainage Symposium Conference, 6-9 September 2016, Minneapolis, Minnesota (pp. 1-7). American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.
- Willison, R., Nelson, K., Abendroth, L., Chighladze, G., Hay, C., Jia, X., Kjaersgaard, J., Reinhart, B., Strock, J., and Wikle, C. 2020. Corn yield response to subsurface drainage water recycling in the midwestern United States. Agronomy Journal. 113. 1865-1881.
- Yu, F., J. Frankenberger, J. Ackerson, B. Reinhart. 2019. Potential suitability of subirrigation for field crops in the U.S. Midwest. Transactions of the ASABE. 63(5). 1559-1570.