River of Grass: NRCS grass waterways

Written by David Green.


Whatever the glaciers left behind, people like Amber Hoover-Smith have to deal with it.

grass-waterway Hoover-Smith, a technician with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), walks the hills and gullies of area farm fields, examining the washouts and the tile breaks and looking for evidence of runoff into drains.

This is where agriculture meets geology.

There are solutions to the problems brought on by row crops on hilly ground. The most common direction to take is the creation of a waterway. Like a river of grass snaking through the field, a waterway serves as an avenue for field drainage—minus the bulk of erosion and runoff of farm chemicals and nutrients.

Conservation measures such as this aren’t forced onto a farmer.

“It’s an entirely voluntary program,” Hoover-Smith said. “Typically, a farmer comes to us for help.”

That was the case in an NRCS project near US-127 and Lime Creek Road where Hoover-Smith is spending a lot of time. Through the years, a gully has deepened on property owned by Ron Oates. To complicate matters, breaks in a 12-inch tile dug several holes in the ground—big enough to drive a car into, as Hoover-Smith puts it.

The project on the Oates farm is unique, she says, because it’s actually a partnership that extends onto neighboring ground owned by Wayne Shinaberry.

All in all, the waterway being developed extends about 3,500 feet from US-127 east to Lime Creek. More than 100 acres of land is included in the watershed.

Creating a grass waterway takes some land out of production, but a good share of the eroding area had become unusable anyway.

“You can’t farm through it,” Hoover-Smith said, “and it’s always going to be there.”

Ron Oates knows that all too well. Between the washouts and brush, there was quite a lot of territory that he couldn’t touch.

Wayne Shinaberry first started the conservation project

 and Oates followed suit.

“I’ve wanted to do it for years,” he said. “I needed to clean it out so we’d have a good flow to the creek. Now it’s being fixed up good and it’s getting done right.”

For Oates, the waterway takes up only about one acre of land, but he’s not complaining. The project has left him with more usuable land than before.

Finding a cure

Drive by a southwest Lenawee County field and it might look rather flat, but take a closer look on foot and the slopes come into view. Eventually, a gully will be encountered.

“We survey the watercourse in which the gully has formed because that’s where the water goes to find an outlet,” Hoover-Smith explained.

Sometimes a gully has be partially filled before a new bed is created.

“Our goal with a grass waterway is to provide a wider channel bottom in the naturally existing watercourse so that the water is spread out over a broad grassed area.”

This causes the runoff to flow more gently, and with a thick cover of tall fescue grass, the water won’t cut through and wash away the soil underneath.

The wide channel of grass also creates a larger area for sediment and contaminants to settle out of the water.

Benefits of a waterway vary with the terrain, soil type, tillage practices, nutrients applied and crops planted, but as a general guide, conservation buffers such as grass waterways can eliminate up to 60 percent of the pathogens from manure application found in runoff; up to 80 percent of sediment; up to 40 percent of phosphorous from fertilizer; and a significant portion of nitrate runoff.

Every waterway has to have a stable outlet, Hoover-Smith says, in order to slow the flow of water as it enters a ditch or stream. At one waterway in the current project, a covering of rip-rap holds the bank in place. After a heavy rain, water would sometimes flow over Lime Creek Road.

At the larger waterway, a wooden box structure was built, giving the water a rip-rap covered pool to collect in before moving on into Lime Creek.

“It takes the velocity out of the water,” Hoover-Smith said.

The NRCS office provides the engineering behind a project. A survey of the watershed leads to the technical drawings of the waterway. This is given to the landowner who then finds a contractor. NRCS has a list of several suggested contractors who tackle this sort of project.

That’s not the end of NRCS involvement. Workers check the slide slope of the trapezoidal-shaped channel. They measure the bottom depth, they look over the outlet to see that it meets specifications.

“Our office has to sign off that the project was done correctly in order for the farmer to get paid [through the federal CCRP program],” Hoover-Smith said.


The services provided by the NRCS are often spread by word of mouth, but the office also schedules informational meetings during the slow season. Slow season?

“I used to think there was a slow time of the year,” Hoover-Smith said, “but I’m not so sure now.”

The NRCS intends to complete 87 engineering projects this year in the county, including grass waterways, water control outlet structures, agri-chemical containment facilities, waste storage facilities, water diversions, water and sediment control basins, wetland restoration and shallow water areas for wildlife.

The new federal farm bill reissued several old conservation programs, she said, and some new ones might be on the horizon.

“We get a lot of new people every year.”

For the NRCS, the slow season seems to be disappearing, but that’s nothing for the staff to complain about. As they see it, that means the interest in conservation measures is on the rise.

• For information about any NRCS programs, visit the Conservation District office at 1100 Sutton Road, Adrian, or call 517/263-7400. 

   - Sept. 17, 2003
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