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New Drain Tile and Grass Waterways: A Farm Disaster That Could Have Used Both

More often than not, we at Watershed Materials are discussing two essential pieces of agricultural planning: Drain tile, drainage waterways, or both. Unfortunately for one farm in Auburn, NY, problems with both led to massive issues for drinking water in the community, as large amounts of manure made their way into a creek and then the local lake. It seems as if errors occurred on the part of both the landowners and officials, so we’ll withhold names as to not assign blame.

The issue begins with an inspection revealing that there was a leak in the farm’s manure lagoon, where the material was being held until it could be utilized as fertilizer. The lagoon was located nearby to the water source for residents in the city of Genoa, so authorities instructed the owners to remove the manure from the lagoon, neutralizing the issue.

Although the farmers surely hoped to inject the soil in their fields later in the year, so far so good. It’s the safe thing to do.

Unfortunately, inspectors soon realized they had made a mistake: Issues in the flow of water from the farm were not due to an issue with the lagoon, but rather an issue with the drain tile. The drain tile that now had large amounts of manure injected above it.


This didn’t necessarily guarantee disaster, unless circumstances added up. And unfortunately, circumstances added up.

Snow had built up in the week prior, when the region was struck by a patch of freakishly warm weather. Temperatures in the 60s melted the snow, which immediately hit the broken drain tile, taking the excess of nitrates in the soil. This went into Salmon Creek, which then flowed into Cayuga Lake.

What could have prevented this unfortunate series of events? At the top of the bill, upkeep on drain tile… as the initial leaks from old drain tile led to the inaccurate panic over the “leaky” manure lagoon.

Granted, better drain tile would not have prevented this disaster. Broken drain tile is important for ensuring that your land isn’t waterlogged; but there’s not much to do when thousands of gallons of snowmelt are suddenly draining from your soil.

And again, the worst-of-luck circumstances surrounding this situation means that even the best shields against excess nitrates getting into the water supply might not have totally solved the problem. However, having a good grass barrier near any waterway that runs through your property can make a huge difference.

The gradual slopes are covered with grass for a reason. When excess nitrates and fertilizer threaten to wash off the soil during wet conditions, the roots of the grass greedily grab what would otherwise flow into the water supply. Although these nitrates are life-giving for grass and other plants, they result in hypoxia—a removal of oxygen—that kills native animals and vegetation.

Sometimes there’s just no preventing a major disaster like the one described at the onset of this post. But there’s plenty to be done to prevent little disasters every day.

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