Impact of artificial subsurface drainage on groundwater travel times and baseflow discharge in an agricultural watershed, Iowa (USA)


Keith E. Schilling, Iowa Geological and Water Survey, 109 Trowbridge Hall, Iowa City, IA 52242–1319, USA.



Pollutant delivery through artificial subsurface drainage networks to streams is an important transport mechanism, yet the impact of drainage tiles on groundwater hydrology at the watershed scale has not been well documented. In this study, we developed a two-dimensional, steady-state groundwater flow model for a representative Iowa agricultural watershed to simulate the impact of tile drainage density and incision depth on groundwater travel times and proportion of baseflow contributed by tile drains. Varying tile drainage density from 0 to 0.0038 m−1, while maintaining a constant tile incision depth at 1.2 m, resulted in the mean groundwater travel time to decrease exponentially from 40 years to 19 years and increased the tile contribution to baseflow from 0% to an upper bound of 37%. In contrast, varying tile depths from 0.3 to 2.7 m, while maintaining a constant tile drainage density of 0.0038 m−1, caused mean travel times to decrease linearly from 22 to 18 years and increased the tile contribution to baseflow from 30% to 54% in a near-linear manner. The decrease in the mean travel time was attributed to decrease in the saturated thickness of the aquifer with increasing drainage density and incision depth. Study results indicate that tile drainage affects fundamental watershed characteristics and should be taken into consideration when evaluating water and nitrate export from agricultural regions. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.