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Both pros and cons to tile drainage

Being able to remove excess moisture is a big plus, but there are a lot of factors to take into account

Tile drainage, long common in Ontario and the U.S. Midwest, is now attracting more attention in Alberta.
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It wasn’t long ago that if you asked most Alberta producers if they used tile drainage, they likely wouldn’t know what you were talking about.

A common practice in Ontario and the U.S. Midwest, it’s only in recent years that Alberta growers have warmed to this system in which subsurface tubes remove excess moisture from the topsoil.

However, there are some things producers should know before hiring a contractor or attempting to place drainage tile themselves. If not done right, producers could have an environmental wreck on their hands.

The best plan is to follow the regulations, says Brandon Leask, an agricultural water engineer with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry in Red Deer.

“The questions are where are they draining it to, who is that impacting, and what water bodies is it affecting? That’s part of the approval process that Alberta Environment and Parks, which enforces the Water Act, looks at.”

Why now?

There are many advantages that come with tile drainage. It can help with water management during storm water events and may also help to reduce high water tables, says Leask. In irrigation conditions, tile drainage can help manage accumulated salts in the soil.

Recent wet and flood-prone years in the province are a major driver of the growing take-up of tile drainage. But that may only be part of the story — Alberta has had wet years before, after all. Leask suggests it’s a modern phenomenon, one that boils down to the high cost of land and farm inputs, and the higher risk that comes with both.

“Tile drainage increases the land available to farm and improves access to all areas of a farmer’s field,” says Leask. “This helps with production and makes crops more viable, especially in lowland areas that may be too wet to farm otherwise.

“If you have 160 acres on a quarter section and three of those are an area you can’t farm because it’s wet seven years out of 10, maybe in the past it didn’t make sense to spend the money to install tile drainage. Now, as the cost of land goes up, you want to make sure your total seed going in is going to produce a valuable crop.”

Improvements in technology also allow producers to more easily install their own tile than in the past, says Leask. A growing number of contractors in the province have also played a role in its popularity.

“As more tile drainage businesses start up it makes tile drainage more available and accessible on a regional basis,” he says.

Cost and impact

On the flip side, tile drainage is expensive and can cost up to $1.20 per foot. That means producers should assess their risk for major rainfall before making the investment.

“Installing drainage tile requires excavation and any time you excavate it’s going to cost,” says Leask.

The environmental footprint of the practice can also be deep without the proper amount of due diligence.

“There is potential to negatively impact your neighbours, negatively impact downstream water quality, and intensify drought conditions.”

A poorly thought-out drainage system can also place wetlands and drinking water at risk.

“Tile drainage may result in draining valuable wetlands, reducing habitat and biodiversity for many species,” says Leask. “On a large scale, drainage of any sort may have a potential impact on our groundwater, where many producers get the water for their households.”

Do your homework

It pays for growers to know the regulations around tile drainage. Speaking confidentially, some producers expressed concern over alleged incidents in which tile drainage was installed only for the landowners to be hit by demands to comply with the Water Act, even though there are no specific regulations in the act pertaining to tile drainage.

“All diversions of water are regulated under the Water Act,” says Leask. “If someone is looking to do any sort of drainage or water diversion, they are required under the Water Act to have approval from Alberta Environment and Parks as well as secure all necessary water licences.”

There are also ramped-up regulations around wetlands activity to be aware of. As of June 1, Alberta’s Wetland Policy has come into effect for the White Area, with the Green Area implementation to begin in 2016. (“White” and “green” areas generally mean settled land and forested land, respectively.)

“This means that if a landowner is altering or draining a wetland, they must be compliant with the Alberta Wetland Policy,” says Leask.

More information on the Water Act is available at the Alberta Environment and Parks website. For further information on the Alberta Wetland Policy, visit Water for Life at the Alberta Environment and Parks website.

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