The Hidden Source of Water Pollution Underneath our Farm Fields

For the average New Englander, tile drainage is not a topic that’s going to keep you up at night. But in fact, this mundane-sounding subject is awash in controversy – and how that controversy gets resolved is vitally important to everyone who cares about clean water in our region.

Tile drains are used by farmers across New England to increase crop production. These networks of underground pipes draw excess water directly from the soil surface, where too much water can inhibit the growth of crops. But a growing body of research shows that tile drains increase water pollution, change water flow patterns across the landscape, and drain wetland areas – all trends likely to only be made worse by climate change.

Despite the increasing evidence that tile drains do more harm than good, here in Vermont, our Agencies of Agriculture and Natural Resources are refusing to take action on the problem. In an interim report released earlier this year, the Agencies argue nothing can be done because Vermont-specific studies on the impacts of tile drainage are still underway. And, while the Agencies wait for data that will only prove what we already know, more Vermont farmers continue to install tile drains under their fields.

The Agencies’ refusal to act puts Vermont out of step with other states across the country. Recognizing harmful water quality impacts, several states including Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon, and South Dakota have restricted the application of manure on tile-drained fields since these drains serve as direct conduits for nutrients and pollutants to pass into waterways  Other states are mapping tile drain installation and monitoring the drainage outfalls for high concentrations of nutrients that pollute rivers, lakes, and streams.

Vermont’s waterways already suffer from high nutrient and stormwater pollution. Our state agencies should be doing everything they can to protect our waters from further harm. Instead, they are sitting on their heels and allowing a known source of water pollution to go unchecked.

CLF has partnered with a number of water advocacy organizations to demand Vermont catch up to its sister states by mapping and monitoring existing tile drains and developing best management practices. The Agency of Agriculture should ban future tile drainage installation to put a stop to the growing practice while undertaking critical policymaking to better control the resulting water pollution. To read our letter to the Agency of Agriculture on tile drains please click here.

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