Farmer ponders tile drainage to amalgamate low spots

A Saskatchewan grower is considering a unique use for tile drainage: moving water from low spots on his cropland and consolidating it in larger sloughs.

Marcel Van Staveren, who grows canola, soybeans, wheat, durum, flax and pulses on 16,000 acres with his brothers, John and Vincent, near Weyburn, Sask., said they, like most producers, shifted to GPS and auto-steer for their tractors many years ago.

Now they would like to improve upon that efficiency by removing excess water from depressions and small sloughs on parcels of their large land base.

“We used to feel that GPS in our farm equipment was a luxury item, or some neighbours or city people felt it was a luxury item, but … it’s a necessary tool in terms of making money (with) high priced inputs,” Van Staveren said in an interview during the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association annual meeting in Minot in early January.

“We’re also seeing the potential to improve soils. We’re seeing saline rings on the perimeters of sloughs,” he said.

“Clearly we have to look at opportunities (for) where we can move the water. (Maybe) we can look at some sort of tiling opportunity where we can move water slowly and carefully into larger depressions that are on our own property (and) minimize these spaces we need to drive around in a wet spring.”

Van Staveren farms in the prairie pothole region and said wet conditions last spring filled more than 26 depressions with water on a single quarter-section.

He has previously seeded crop into those low-lying areas, only to see a 75 millimetre rain fill the depressions with water and drown the crop a few weeks after planting.

Moving the water from pothole to pothole with subsurface drainage could reduce the need to drive around depressions, improve soil and allow him to consistently grow crops in the wet spots.

“With long-term zero tillage, we’re seeing better water absorption,” he said. “There’s a better opportunity to farm those depressions because they’re not as wet as they used to be because we’re reducing surface water movement.”

Chris Unrau, who owns Precision Land Solutions, a tile drainage installation firm in Winkler, Man., said he’s never worked on a project that used drainage tile to move water from one pothole to another on a field.

“But the concept has been floated, and I can’t see why it wouldn’t work,” he said in an email. “I like the idea of holding drainage water (surface and tile) in sloughs, but I think it would be most efficient if it was done in a regional approach, something that conservation districts could implement in a larger scale.”

Michael Champion, manager of industry and government relations for Ducks Unlimited in Saskatchewan, said the organization opposes wetlands consolidation.

He said small, ephemeral wetlands, which are wet in the spring and dry up early in the summer, are not suitable habitat for nesting birds such as ducks but are an important component of the larger ecosystem.

“They (birds) are not going to be able to hatch ducklings and raise their ducklings on a wetland that goes dry,” he said.

“Their importance isn’t necessary for habitat for migratory birds… it’s for invertebrate (insect) hatch. Early in the year those wetlands are the first to thaw … so it’s a food source for migratory birds in the spring.”

Champion said draining small potholes could also affect water storage and the performance of the larger water system.

“We think having more basins out there provides more opportunity for (water) storage. The larger body of water (where water is consolidated) doesn’t function the same way as it did before.”

Champion said Saskatchewan regulations allow landowners to move water on their own property.

“I believe if a farmer is not moving water off (his) quarter section, (he’s) in compliance with the regulations.”

Ducks Unlimited isn’t opposed to all drainage, but it would prefer if farmers grew crops around existing wetlands, Champion said.

“We think the best management practice is to just leave water on the landscape where it is and manoeuvre around (potholes),” he said.

“There are instances where some drainage is beneficial, for protection of property and infrastructure. DU doesn’t view convenience the same as infrastructure or property.”

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  1. Sheldon Helbert on

    These ephemeral wetlands, commonly called flash ponds are less important biologically and more important hydrologically. During dry periods the scattered distribution of small ephemeral wetlands are important to recharging the surrounding soil moisture. Should farmers eliminate these temporary wetlands they could be replacing the existing perceived problem of navigating around them for the problem of the soils drying more quickly, of the soils loosing moisture more quickly with the risk of drought stress on their crops at the time of year when the crops may need the moisture the most. Trading one problem for another might be a solution if the farmers can decide which factor is more limiting. The cost to navigate around these wet depressions or the cost to irrigate.

  2. Putting a significant hydrological value on ephemeral wetlands in drought proofing is in error. Tiled land always yields more than untiled. Always. Drawing salts through the soil profile using the water from small wetlands improves the soil moisture holding capacity. According to MSU research, tiled land yields 102% of check in bad drought years.

    The biological value of wetlands in the prairie pothole region is negligible. We could drain one million acres of wetlands and have no effect of the worlds biodiversity. One acre of Amazon rainforest has more biological value. So if we actually care about the planet we should grow food here. Elizabeth Kolbert and Stewart Brand discuss this in there books.

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