- Author: Michelle Leinfelder-Miles
I was speaking with a colleague a few weeks ago about field drainage in the Delta. Our conversation reminded me of a farm visit that I made a couple of years ago. I visited a corn field that was not growing well, and sections of the field had standing water. I consulted with UC Water Management Specialist Emeritus, Terry Prichard, on what this grower could do to improve drainage. I wondered about installing drainage tiles. The irrigation specialist did not recommend installing drainage tiles in the Delta. The high organic matter soils are so fine that the perforations in the tile just plug up. He also did not recommend a deep plow because some Delta soils have a layer of “blue clay.” It is not actually clay but it is anaerobic soil (which is what makes it blue) that has never been near the surface. The irrigation specialist had once visited a field that had been deep plowed and brought up blue clay. The field became completely unmanageable.
What the irrigation specialist did recommend was to dig 4-foot (deep) drain ditches. These would run parallel to the furrows and should be about 500 feet apart. These ditches would connect to another ditch that runs to the main drain of the island. These dimensions are not a prescription for all Delta sites, but they could give landowners a general guide for managing drainage, and in the case of the corn field I visited, make wet fields farmable. Each 4-foot ditch will result in about 10 feet of “wasted” (non-farmed) space, but having these ditches (and keeping them clean) is the only way to get the water out of the soil profile and off the field.
Before any effort is put into digging ditches, it would probably be beneficial, particularly for new landowners, to see from an internet mapping interface if there are any lines in their fields that would indicate past ditches or different soil types. If previous landowners leveled the land, they may have filled in drainage ditches.