Subsurface tile drainage speeds water removal from agricultural fields that are historically prone to flooding. While managed drainage systems improve crop yields, they can also contribute tothe eutrophication of downstream ecosystems, as tile-drained systems are conduits for nutrients to adjacent waterways. The changing climate of the Midwestern US has already altered precipitation regimes which will likely continue into the future, with unknown effects on tile drain water and nutrient loss to waterways. Adding vegetative cover (i.e., as winter cover crops) is one approach that can retain water and nutrients on fields to minimize export via tile drains. In the current study, we evaluate the effect of cover crops on tile drain discharge and soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP) loads using bi-monthly measurements from 43 unique tile outlets draining fields with or without cover crops in two watersheds in northern Indiana. Using four water years of data (n = 844 measurements), we examined the role of short-term antecedent precipitation conditions and variation in soil biogeochemistry in mediating the effect of cover crops on tile drain flow and SRP loads. We observed significant effects of cover crops on both tile drain discharge and SRP loads, but these results were season and watershed specific. Cover crop effects were identified only in spring, where their presence reduced tile drain discharge in both watersheds and SRP loads in one watershed. Varying effects on SRP loads between watersheds were attributed to different soil biogeochemical characteristics, where soils with lower bioavailable P and higher P sorption capacity were less likely to have a cover crop effect. Antecedent precipitation was important in spring, and cover crop differences were still evident during periods of wet and dry antecedent precipitation conditions. Overall, we show that cover crops have the potential to significantly decrease spring tile drain P export, and these effects are resilient to a wide range of precipitation conditions.
- cover crops