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Due to naturally high water tables and flat topography, there are approximately 4 million ha (10 million ac) of farmland artificially drained with subsurface (tile) systems in Illinois. Subsurface drainage is practiced to insure trafficable field conditions for farm equipment and to reduce crop stress from excess water within the root zone. Although drainage is essential for economic crop production, there have been some significant environmental costs. Tile drainage systems tend to intercept nutrient (nitrate) rich soil-water and shunt it to surface water. Data from numerous monitoring studies have shown that a significant amount of the total nitrate load in Illinois is being delivered to surface water from tile drainage systems. In Illinois, these drainage systems are typically installed without control mechanisms and allow the soil to drain whenever the water table is above the elevation of the tile outlet. An assessment of water quality in the tile drained areas of Illinois showed that approximately 50 percent of the nitrate load was being delivered through the tile systems during the fallow period when there was no production need for drainage to occur. In 1998, a demonstration project to introduce drainage water management to producers in Illinois was initiated by NRCS4 An initial aspect of the project was to identify producers that were willing to manage their drainage system to create a raised water table during the fallow (November-March) period. Financial assistance from two federal programs was used to assist producers in retrofitting the existing drainage systems with control structures. Growers were also provided guidance on the management of the structures for both water quality and production benefits. Some of the retrofitted systems were monitored to determine the effect of the practice on water quality. This paper provides background on the water quality impacts of tile drainage in Illinois, the status of the demonstration project, preliminary monitoring results, and other observations.
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Illinois drainage water management demonstration project
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8th International Drainage Symposium - Drainage VIII