Iowa State Scientists Recognized Nationally for Multistate Drainage Research to Improve Water Quality

Field day group views a denitrification bioreactor installation.
Group views a denitrification bioreactor installation at an NCERA-217 field day. Photo by Elaine Stone, Illinois Farm Bureau.

AMES, Iowa — Two Iowa State University scientists and a U.S. Department of Agriculture research partner have received a national honor for their roles in a multistate research collaboration finding solutions to water quality challenges related to agricultural drainage.

The 2018 National Excellence in Multistate Research Award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture was presented to the group officially known as the North Central Extension Research Activities (NCERA) 217 Committee on Drainage Design and Management Practices to Improve Water Quality.

The award was presented Nov. 11 at the 131st annual meeting of the Association of Public Land Grant Universities (APLU) in New Orleans.

The NCERA-217 committee involves researchers and extension specialists from 13 states, with representation also from the USDA Agricultural Research Service. Representing Iowa State on the team are Rameshwar Kanwar, a Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture and Life Sciences and professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, who has served as the committee’s advisor since the project began in 2005, Matt Helmers, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, extension agricultural engineer and director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center; and Dan Jaynes, a soil scientist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service and affiliate professor of agronomy, who helped found the multistate committee.

“The committee came together over the issues of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, as we all became more aware of the Midwest’s contributions of nitrogen and phosphorus coming from drainage systems in the Upper Mississippi River watershed,” said Jaynes. “We needed more research to understand the extent of the problem and to learn what we can do to redesign drainage to help solve the problems.”

Drainage is important to agriculture in the Midwest, where excess moisture on crop fields can threaten crop production. Extensive drainage networks have been in place for a century to boost crop yields and reduce year-to-year variability. However, these subsurface drainage systems that remove excess water from fields often carry crop nutrients and bacteria that end up as pollutants.

The goal of the multistate committee’s research is improved drainage management to maintain crop productivity while significantly reducing water quality problems. 

“NCERA-217 has been instrumental in promoting research and information-sharing on new technologies and strategies for agriculture to achieve these goals,” said Kanwar. “These include bioreactors and controlled drainage, living mulch and nutrient management practices.”

The team has helped develop federal USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service standards for several conservation practices, including saturated buffers, a technology that scientists at Iowa State and USDA ARS originated. A saturated buffer reroutes drainage tiles so water enters a vegetated streamside area where plants and soil microorganisms treat and reduce nitrates before it reaches the waterway.

“Our research committee has been a uniquely effective example of working together to minimize problems through sharing knowledge,” Kanwar said. “We’ve had a lot of interest from private industry, agricultural groups and state agencies that have been valuable partners.”

The team has won two awards for multistate extension publications. The most recent, “Questions and Answers about Saturated Buffers for the Midwest,” was co-authored by Jaynes, Tom Isenhart, professor of natural resource ecology and management at Iowa State, Chris Hay, senior environmental scientist at the Iowa Soybean Association, and other researchers.

The group meets annually and has organized educational symposia and field days. Related collaborative efforts include the Transforming Drainage Project, an effort aimed at assessing and developing new water storage practices and technologies for drained agricultural landscapes.

More information on the impacts of NCERA-217’s Multistate Research Committee is at

The National Excellence in Multistate Research award comes with a $15,000 grant for committee activities. The committee also received the North Central Region’s Experiment Station Section Award for Excellence in Multistate Research in 2018. The NCERA-217 committee is supported in part through USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture by the Multistate Research Fund, established in 1998 by the Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act (an amendment to the Hatch Act of 1888) to encourage and enhance multistate, multidisciplinary agricultural research on critical issues. Additional funds are provided by contracts and grants to participating scientists.

In addition to Iowa State, the NCERA-217 member institutions and their representatives are:

  • University of Georgia, Gary Hawkins
  • University of Illinois, Laura Christianson and Richard Cooke
  • Purdue University, Jane Frankenberger and Eileen Kladivko
  • University of Kentucky, William Ford
  • Michigan State University, Ehsan Ghane and Tim Harrigan
  • University of Minnesota, Jeff Strock, Gary Feyereisen and Gary Sands
  • University of Missouri, Kelly Nelson
  • North Carolina State University, Mohammed Youssef and Robert Evans
  • North Dakota State University, Xinhua Jia and Aaron Daigh
  • Cornell University, Larry Goehring
  • South Dakota State University, John McMaine
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Zachary Easton

The 2018 national and regional multistate research awards are the latest such honors recognizing Iowa State scientists for multistate agricultural research. In 2014, a similar honor went to scientists working on a project to help farmers use microirrigation systems to more sustainably irrigate their land. In 2013, a north-central region multistate research group won a regional award for work to improve swine nutrition. In 2012, a national honor was given to a team working to increase knowledge and management of soybean rust disease.