Effects of agricultural drainage on aquatic ecosystems: A review

Kristen L. Blann, James L. Anderson, Gary R. Sands, Bruce Vondracek

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

510 Scopus citations


The extensive development of surface and subsurface drainage systems to facilitate agricultural production throughout North America has significantly altered the hydrology of landscapes compared to historical conditions. Drainage has transformed nutrient and hydrologic dynamics, structure, function, quantity, and configuration of stream and wetland ecosystems. In many agricultural regions, more than 80% of some catchment basins may be drained by surface ditches and subsurface drain pipes (tiles). Natural channels have been straightened and deepened for surface drainage ditches with significant effects on channel morphology, instream habitats for aquatic organisms, floodplain and riparian connectivity, sediment dynamics, and nutrient cycling. The connection of formerly isolated wetland basins to extensive networks of surface drainage and the construction of main channel ditches through millions of acres of formerly low-lying marsh or wet prairie, where no defined channel may have previously existed, have resulted in large-scale conversion of aquatic habitat types, from wetland mosaics to linear systems. Reduced surface storage, increased conveyance, and increased effective drainage area have altered the dynamics of and generally increased flows in larger streams and rivers. Cumulatively, these changes in hydrology, geomorphology, nutrient cycling, and sediment dynamics have had profound implications for aquatic ecosystems and biodiversity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)909-1001
Number of pages93
JournalCritical Reviews in Environmental Science and Technology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2009

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The Minnesota Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research unit is jointly sponsored by the U. S. Geological Survey, the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and the Wildlife Management Institute.

Funding Information:
This review was funded by Natural Resources Conservation Service through the Great Lakes Northern Forest Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit. We thank William L. Hohman, Peter C. Smiley, Jr., and Ian Foster for providing insightful comments that improved an earlier draft.

Copyright 2010 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Fish
  • Hydrology
  • Macroinvertebrates
  • Nutrients
  • Water quality
  • Wetlands


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