News Article

Illinois scientists recognized for research and extension efforts to improve regional water quality

By Lauren Quinn
Nov 16, 2018

URBANA, Ill. — Two University of Illinois scientists, along with research and extension collaborators across 13 states, have received a national honor for improving water quality in relation 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 annual meeting of the Association of Public Land Grant Universities (APLU) in New Orleans.

Representing Illinois on the NCERA-217 team are Laura Christianson, assistant professor in the Department of Crop Sciences, who chaired the committee in 2017-2018, and Richard Cooke, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at U of I.

“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 Dan Jaynes, USDA ARS scientist in Iowa and one of the founders of the NCERA committee. “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 truly embodies what extension and research committees like this were intended to do. Several new conservation practices that allow both good in-field crop productivity and good water quality outcomes have been developed through research by committee members, and then have been promoted and adopted across the Midwest due to committee members’ great outreach activities,” Christianson said. “These include bioreactors and controlled drainage, living mulch, and nutrient management practices.”

The team has helped develop federal USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service standards for several conservation practices, including denitrifying bioreactors. These are wood chip-filled trenches installed at the edge of an agricultural field. As drainage water flows through the trench, bacteria housed in and fueled by the wood chips clean nitrate from the water. Cooke was the first to trial the technology in the U.S. in the late 1990’s, and over the past decade, joint efforts by Cooke and Christianson have led to important advances in the design and operation of this practice.

“Our committee members think beyond research to true application. We have strong ties with the drainage industry to make sure our work stays grounded,” Christianson said. “We also have a vision for the future by making concerted efforts to involve graduate students in our meetings.”

The team has won two awards for multistate extension publications. One of these, “Ten Ways to Reduce Nitrogen Loads from Drained Cropland in the Midwest,” was co-authored by Christianson and received a national American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers Blue Ribbon award in 2017.

The group meets annually and has organized educational symposia and field days. Related collaborative efforts include the Transforming Drainage Project, 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 the University of Illinois, the NCERA-217 member institutions and their representatives are:

  • Iowa State University, Matthew Helmers and Ramesh Kanwar (administrative adviser)
  • University of Georgia, Gary Hawkins
  • 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
  • USDA Agricultural Research Service (Iowa and Minnesota), Dan Jaynes and Gary Feyereisen
  • USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (Oregon), Clarence Prestwich