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1. Overview of agricultural drainage

Drainage refers to the process and practices used to remove excess water from the soil surface and from the soil profile. This bulletin briefly describes the history, need, types and extent of Michigan drainage as well as the pros and cons, and environmental impact related to drainage.


2. Drainage history

The U.S. Swamp Land Acts of 1849 and 1850 provided federal funding to encourage drainage to make the swamp areas in the Midwest more habitable, and thereby encourage economic development. Through this program, many miles of streams were deepened and channelized to create drainage outlets with the result that large parts of the Corn Belt were drained. Once drained, these areas became recognized as having among the most fertile soils in the world.

Early medical professionals had suggested drainage in the Midwest as they found that it reduced malaria, although they did not know malaria was spread by mosquitos at that time (Huffman et al., 2013). With the increase in drainage in 1860, the human death toll due to malaria started to decline in the upper Mississippi River Valley.


3. Drainage need

Agriculture is one of leading industries in the Midwest USA. In Michigan, there are over 300 commodities, and corn and soybean are the state’s two leading crops with a combined planted area of 4.2 million acres, and a production value of $2.1 billion for grain corn and $1.5 billion for soybean in 2022 (USDA-NASS, 2023). Some of the most productive soils in Michigan require subsurface drainage for profitable crop production. Without drainage, crop production would not be able to meet the growing food demand because of poor crop yield due to excess water (Figure 1).

Figure 1. An example of crop damage due to excess water during the early growth stage of soybean.
Figure 1. An example of water ponding from heavy rainfall during the early growth stage of soybean.