Surface Runoff and Tile Drainage Transport of Phosphorus in the Midwestern United States

J Environ Qual. 2015 Mar;44(2):495-502. doi: 10.2134/jeq2014.04.0176.

Abstract

The midwestern United States offers some of the most productive agricultural soils in the world. Given the cool humid climate, much of the region would not be able to support agriculture without subsurface (tile) drainage because high water tables may damage crops and prevent machinery usage in fields at critical times. Although drainage is designed to remove excess soil water as quickly as possible, it can also rapidly transport agrochemicals, including phosphorus (P). This paper illustrates the potential importance of tile drainage for P transport throughout the midwestern United States. Surface runoff and tile drainage from fields in the St. Joseph River Watershed in northeastern Indiana have been monitored since 2008. Although the traditional concept of tile drainage has been that it slowly removes soil matrix flow, peak tile discharge occurred at the same time as peak surface runoff, which demonstrates a strong surface connection through macropore flow. On our research fields, 49% of soluble P and 48% of total P losses occurred via tile discharge. Edge-of-field soluble P and total P areal loads often exceeded watershed-scale areal loadings from the Maumee River, the primary source of nutrients to the western basin of Lake Erie, where algal blooms have been a pervasive problem for the last 10 yr. As farmers, researchers, and policymakers search for treatments to reduce P loading to surface waters, the present work demonstrates that treating only surface runoff may not be sufficient to reach the goal of 41% reduction in P loading for the Lake Erie Basin.