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2-stage ditch offers drainage alternative

The first look many Hoosiers got at two-stage ditches was at a field day in Pulaski County. Since then, the concept has caught on. The Nature Conservancy estimates the practice has been implemented at 26 sites in Indiana, covering more than 10 miles of ditch.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management has provided funding to help get this practice started. It’s backed by The Nature Conservancy because it provides a more favorable habitat for fish and mussels.

Key Points

Two-stage ditch provides better protection for fish, other endangered species.

New practice keeps a large amount of sediment out of water courses.

Two-stage ditches cost more to install, but far less to maintain.

Larry Clemons of The Nature Conservancy knows all about mussels. He led a highly successful watershed project along Fish Creek in extreme northeast Indiana. Its goal was to protect endangered species and to improve the environment for mussel species living in the waterways. The main emphasis was to encourage landowners to shift toward no-till practices, which resulted in less runoff of sediments and nutrients.

Better environment

The goal is basically the same this time, Clemons notes. Just the method is different. He notes that a half-mile segment of two-stage ditch vs. a conventional farm drainage ditch can remove upward of 53 tons of sediment annually, primarily because the banks are more stable. That much sediment would fill more than five dump trucks.

“The Nature Conservancy began working with agricultural ditches when we realized we weren’t moving the needle of success far enough,” Clemons says. A two-stage ditch is a more natural stream channel, he notes, with room on either side for added water storage. These are known as floodplain ditches.

The Nature Conservancy has funding from IDEM to continue installing more two-stage ditches throughout the state. The goal is to complete eight additional ditch projects over the next two years. That would add four miles of ditch banks.

Other benefits

Kent Wamsley is no stranger to working with farmers in north-central Indiana to improve water quality. Over the past decade, working for The Nature Conservancy, he carried out programs that guaranteed farmers equitable income on no-till vs. conventional systems to get them to try no-till. Many have since adopted no-till. He’s now promoting two-stage ditches.

“Sediments, bank failure, nitrogen and phosphorus reduction, water quality, reducing flooding, along with positive impacts to fish and invertebrates — few conservation practices address this many environmental concerns all at one time,” he says. “And this IDEM funding will help us educate and promote the two-stage ditch all across Indiana and other neighboring Midwest states.”

The two-stage ditch is more costly to install than a conventional, v-bottom drainage ditch. However, maintenance costs are far less over the long run, Wamsley insists.

To learn more about two-stage ditches, visit, a website created by The Nature Conservancy. It shows step-by-step how this practice works and also lists conservation partners who might help in constructing these ditches.


Two-stage option: Note that the grassed sides provide storage room for flood waters during rain events in this two-stage ditch layout.


Typical farm ditch: If you live anywhere that needs drainage, you’ve probably seen a ditch like this one.

This article published in the February, 2012 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.