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Eric Young, soil scientist at the Miner Institute. He's leading a study on tile drains. Photo: courtesy of Miner Institute
Eric Young, soil scientist at the Miner Institute. He's leading a study on tile drains. Photo: courtesy of Miner Institute

Tile drains: good or bad?

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Tile drains are controversial. Farmers install the slotted pipes under their crops to drain water faster, extend the growing season, and increase crop yield. But environmentalists worry that the drains provide a direct route for harmful nutrients, like phosphorus, into a waterway.

Phosphorus loading in Lake Champlain has led to dangerous blue green algae blooms. And phosphorus levels in the lake remain stubbornly high.

A new study at the Miner Institute in Chazy may provide some answers.

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Reported by

Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

For the next six years, soil scientist Eric Young will be paying close attention to two cornfields. "These two fields are adjacent to each other so they have similar soil types, similar slope," he explains. 

For two years, both of the fields will have regular tile drains. "In year three," Young says, "we’ll start holding back the water in the treatment field and we’ll be measuring phosphorus and nitrogen losses in the water and have a continuous flow record any time there’s runoff."

Young says the six-year study will provide a rich data set because of all the weather the region will experience during that time."The weather has such a huge effect on not only crop yield but water run-off, pollution transport, things like that."

Holding back the water on a field that’s tile drained is a relatively  new management practice called “edge-of-field.” It’s just getting started in New York. Young’s experiment could help solidify state guidelines on using the practice.And it could also provide better information about just how much tile drainage plays into Lake Champlain’s high phosphorus levels.

"Farmers are putting in tile and a lot of the water quality folks are anti-tile and there’s just a lot of big questions that might be able to be addressed through this study," Young says. The study will get underway this spring. 

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