A Better Ditch

When you first hear the word “ditch,” you may not immediately think of a conservation practice. But ditches play an important role in our work. They are an especially common feature on the agricultural landscape where managing water is necessary for planting and harvesting crops.

The typical job duty of an agricultural ditch is to get water off of the land as quickly and efficiently as possible. These ditches are usually straight, lack instream diversity or bank vegetation, and are deeply incised and disconnected from the surrounding floodplain. As a result, when water moves off the land in this fashion, nutrients and sediments get rapidly flushed causing bank erosion in the process. They require regular maintenance.

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Then there’s the “two-stage ditch.” Also constructed to convey water off the land to reduce flooding, the two state ditch—sometimes called “a better ditch”—is designed to function more like a natural stream, which slowly meanders and boasts a diversity of riffles and pools, and vegetated benches which serve as a “mini floodplain.” They also trap sediments and nutrients that are leaving the farm fields and even provide habitat for aquatic critters.

There are not currently any two-stage ditches in Kentucky. However there is a great potential to use these in our agricultural project areas in the Mississippi River Bayous and Green River watershed.

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In the meantime, our staff, together with partners from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), recently visited a two-stage ditch site in Posey County Indiana funded through a partnership between our organizations. While still under construction, the site illustrates what is possible in Kentucky. We hope to see these channels used in restoration projects in the future, for the benefit of water quality and wildlife habitat.


This blog was written by Shelly Morris, The Nature Conservancy’s Western Kentucky Project Director.