College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Eleven land-grant institutions work across state lines to reduce water contaminants

Eleven land-grant institutions and partner organizations are working together to improve farm drainage in order to reduce the contamination of surrounding land and water. The underground drainage systems that channel water off of fields are also prone to diverting crop fertilizers and pesticides. In 2009, researchers formed the “Project NCERA-217: Drainage Design and Management Practices to Improve Water Quality.”

“Through our collaboration with researchers across the US, we’ve developed better drainage systems that are effective on a wide variety of farmlands. These improved systems are minimizing negative environmental impacts,” said Rameshwar Kanwar, administrative advisor of NCERA-217 and Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of Iowa State University Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering.

Proper water drainage is important for farmers because it eliminates excessive wetness in soils and helps crops thrive. Good drainage also reduces soil compaction and muddiness, which makes it easier for farm machinery and workers to operate for planting and harvesting operations.

By contrast, poor drainage can lead to yield loss and increased levels of phosphorous, nitrogen, and chemicals in the surface drainage runoff, especially from manure to applied fields. Based on NCERA-217’s research, farmers can reduce this risk by avoiding the use of fertilizer on wet ground or before a forecasted rainfall. The team also provided new insights on cover crops and grasses, vegetated buffers, and wetlands that effectively manage pollutants in drainage water.

NCERA-217’s data have been extremely valuable to state governments. For instance, Iowa leveraged NCERA-217’s findings in their response to the Gulf of Mexico Task Force Action Plan. At the national level, NCERA-217 data have been used to develop conservation standards to guide sustainable drainage practices. Overall, the implementation of improved drainage has led to a significant reduction in contaminants and a reduction of associated water quality problems.

NCERA-217 is supported, in part, through USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. To learn more about this initiative, visit

The participating land-grant institutions include:

  • Cornell University
  • University of Illinois
  • Iowa State University
  • Michigan State University
  • University of Minnesota
  • University of Missouri
  • North Carolina State University
  • North Dakota State University
  • Ohio State University
  • Purdue University
  • South Dakota State University

About Agriculture Is America (AgIsAmerica)

Agriculture is America. In short, the agriculture industry – sustained in large part by the American land-grant university system through Colleges of Agriculture, Agricultural Experiment Stations, and Cooperative Extension – is integral to jobs, national security, and health. To learn more, visit

SOURCE: AgIsAmerica
Contact: Ashley Hawn, AgIsAmerica