Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Landscape of Capitalism by former University of Iowa professor Robert F. Sayre (1933-2014; also, his is the featured image for the post) is an excellent short history of Iowa agriculture. I read Sayre’s essay many years ago and had all but forgotten it, but it was restored to my memory recently by a conversation I had with an ag drainage engineer. Sayre describes in his essay how the wetlands of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio once covered an area larger than Lakes Superior, Huron, and Michigan combined. Well over 90% this wetland area has been drained for agriculture and this figure is greater than 97% in Iowa.

Drainage of wetlands and lakes and an overall lowering of the water table happened gradually from 1850 to 1950, and was achieved by networks of underground drainage pipes (tiles) and constructed ditches. A task this great required much more capital than what early farmers had (many had almost nothing). Thus, much of the earliest drainage was financed by large capital investors from the East coast and England who then made a killing by selling off individual tracts of the “improved land” to smaller farmers. Sayre wrote that the draining of the prairies could be considered one of the great accomplishments of American private capital.

He also wrote that nothing else better illustrates the conflict between economics and ecology.

An Iowa pothole wetland
Iowa pothole wetland. Image credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

At least from the perspective of crop production, drainage was wildly successful from the very beginning. In the 1920s William Berry, a professor at what was to become the University of Northern Iowa, wrote that drained land generated a surplus of grain and “has so upset farming conditions as to threaten the foundations of agriculture” as farmers struggled through low prices and the farm depression of that decade (1).

Many people, including Sayre, have wondered if tile drainage affects flooding. The short answer is probably not much, at least within the context of large floods like 1993 and 2008. There is evidence that tile modestly reduces peak flows in some situations. Sloan et al. (2016) stated “…there exists a threshold rainfall magnitude (5–6 cm/day for most Iowa soils) over which there is minimal effect of subsurface drainage. For smaller events, tiling routes the flow through the subsurface and keeps the soil drier, which increases infiltration and reduces surface runoff while increasing subsurface flow.” There is other research that has reached a similar conclusion.

Three people stand in a muddy field with piping behind them. It is clearly an old photo in black and white with clothing from the early 1900s
Installing field tiles in Boone County, circa 1914. Image credit: M.J. Bennet, University of Iowa Press.

Sloan also stated, however, that “For very large storm events, the rainfall magnitude and intensity are so high that surface runoff dominates, irrespective of the antecedent conditions created by the tile drains”, essentially saying tile drainage has no effect in these situations.

Tile drainage does appear to substantially increase total stream flow over the course of a year. Schilling and Helmers (2008) found that tile drainage “increases annual baseflow (flows between rainstorms) in streams, with seasonal increases primarily in the late spring and summer months. Thus, tile drainage….may have been a significant contributor to increasing baseflow in Iowa’s streams over the 20th century.”  Other research in Iowa and Minnesota has shown much the same thing, with tile increasing annual flows 30-50% over the last century.

This increased baseflow component is especially important for water quality, since this is the main hydrological driver of stream nitrate. We’ve known this in Iowa since at least 1975 (4) and probably long before that. Nitrate-nitrogen is an important contributor to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone and impairment of water resources and drinking water in Iowa. Our state policies have at times recognized the threat to drinking water and about $16 million of state money has been spent closing ag drainage wells, which were designed long ago to direct tile water downward to underground aquifers, a practice we eventually realized was contaminating rural well water. Most of those discharges are now directed out to streams like the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, which of course are municipal drinking water supplies for downstream cities where water customers pay to have the nitrate removed from their water.

An Iowa field drains into a full drainage ditch from a small pipe
Typical Iowa field tile discharging to constructed drainage ditch.


Back to my ag drainage engineer friend. He posted on social media that I claim tile causes flooding (I never say this). This resulted in a lively discussion about tile drainage in general. He was adamant about tile reducing flooding and stated that installing more tile would do “far more for flood reduction than anything the Iowa Watershed Approach will.” The Iowa Watershed Approach is a collaborative program that brings together local, state, federal, and private organizations to work together to address factors that contribute to floods and nutrient flows. The project, supported by U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) leverages the principles of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy to make Iowa more resilient to flooding and help improve water quality through implementation of practices that restore some natural function to the landscape.

My statement to the drainage engineer that “for long-term, resilient ecological improvements, we need to restore natural function to the landscape,” was greeted with “this Nirvana of yours is all very radical and unachievable without destructive political and social upheaval.” (I’m not kidding). Such is the exalted place occupied by Tile in the Church of Iowa Agriculture, at least in the eyes of some.

According to Sayre, a few folks did object to the first drainage on ecological grounds and drainage advocates attacked them as “enemies of progress.” That having been said, I believe it would be a mistake to think that the early drainers could have understood the full magnitude of what they were doing. As we go forward installing more tile, however, we do so with a complete awareness of the ecological consequences. There can be no doubt about this. And I agree with Sayre when he says that the continuation of drainage is not driven by the well-being of the land or the need of the world for food, but rather by the need of owners of capital to increase it.

A tile main flows deep in the ground with large banks on either side
Large tile main in North Central Iowa. Trapezoidal ditch was likely constructed using steam shovel around 1900. Image credit: Iowa State University.


As I encounter people in agriculture, many times they feel compelled to tell me about the production benefits of tile, often with zeal and conviction. Believe me, I get it. We have known for an entire century that tile does a fantastic job of creating habitat for Zea mays L. (corn) and Glycine max (L.) Merr. (soybeans) and maybe some invasive weeds, but not much else. And we’ve known for half a century that it increases stream nitrate, sometimes by large amounts. As we try to improve Iowa streams through taxpayer-funded cost-share programs that target nitrate loss, we also are charging full speed ahead expanding and enlarging the drainage infrastructure that we know with a certainty helps drive the problem in the first place.

I’ve relied heavily on Sayre for this piece and there’s not much point in stopping that now. He points out that both the public and private sectors have sought to promote prosperity by draining Iowa. Our century-old policies have regarded water as a public nuisance and only dry farm land as economically beneficial. The problem we have here is that this has been a zero-sum game when it comes to native species, the environment and our drinking water. Is there a limit to what we can wring out of this place called Iowa? I don’t have the answer to that question, but I do know that we are trying really hard to find out.

PS: I’m prepared for the onslaught of comments headed my way about the environmental benefits of tile. Bring it.

  1. Berry, William J., 1927. The influence of natural environment in North-Central Iowa, Iowa Journal of History and Politics, 25, 290-305.
  2. Sloan, B.P., Mantilla, R., Fonley, M. and Basu, N.B., 2017. Hydrologic impacts of subsurface drainage from the field to watershed scale. Hydrological processes31(17), pp.3017-3028.
  3. Schilling, K.E. and Helmers, M., 2008. Effects of subsurface drainage tiles on streamflow in Iowa agricultural watersheds: Exploratory hydrograph analysis. Hydrological Processes: An International Journal22(23), pp.4497-4506.
  4. Baker, J.L., Campbell, K.L., Johnson, H.P. and Hanway, J.J., 1975. Nitrate, Phosphorus, and Sulfate in Subsurface Drainage Water 1. Journal of Environmental Quality, 4(3), pp.406-412.