Impact of controlled drainage on subsurface drain flow and nitrate load: A synthesis of studies across the U.S. Midwest and Southeast

M. J. Helmers, L. Abendroth, B. Reinhart, G. Chighladze, L. Pease, L. Bowling, M. Youssef, Ehsan Ghane, L. Ahiablame, L. Brown, N. Fausey, J. Frankenberger, D. Jaynes, K. King, E. Kladivko, K. Nelson, J. Strock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Controlled drainage (CD), sometimes called drainage water management, is a practice whereby the drainage system outflow is managed during specific periods to retain more water in the field. Although CD has been shown to reduce downstream nitrate-N (NO3--N) load, seasonal patterns have been less consistent which can potentially impact the effectiveness of conservation practices. The main objective of this study was to assess the regional and seasonal impact of conventional free drainage (FD) and CD on drainage flow and nitrate-N load. Using experimental data from ongoing and historical CD experiments across the Corn Belt and in North Carolina, we evaluated subsurface drain flow, nitrate-N load, and performance of CD systems. Across the data set and regions, there was little difference in annual flow from FD conditions. Seasonally, more northern and western sites experienced a greater percentage of the annual flow occurring in the spring. There was no nitrate-N concentration reduction with CD. Flow and nitrate-N load reductions with CD did not vary by plant hardiness zone across the region, but the season with the greatest reduction did shift from winter to spring moving north and west in the study area. Absolute flow reductions (in mm) were similar regardless of precipitation category. Consequently, the percent reduction was lower as the amount of precipitation (category) increased. Overall, this analysis found CD to be an effective practice for reducing drain flow and nitrate-N loading directly delivered by the drains to downstream water bodies across the region.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number107265
JournalAgricultural Water Management
StatePublished - Jan 1 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture , U.S. Department of Agriculture , under award number 2015-68007-23193 , “ Managing Water for Increased Resiliency of Drained Agricultural Landscapes ”, . The authors would like to thank Jeppe Kjaersgaard, John McMaine, Vinayak Shedekar for helpful discussions in preparing this manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors


  • Drainage water management
  • Nitrate loss
  • Seasonal drainage


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