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CALS Research and Impact

Information about CALS research projects and their impact throughout the world

CALS projectJanuary 2005 - December 2010

Roadside ditches: impacts on stream flooding, droughts, and degraded water quality

Over the past five years, I have developed an integrated, research and extension program focused on roadside ditch networks. Working collaboratively with Drs. T. Walter and D. Buckley, our research is documenting that roadside ditches increase flooding, droughts, and degraded water quality downstream. Our associated extension program has developed management recommendations to improve ditch management, and this information has been presented at more than 50 workshops to more than 2400 town government officials and water professionals. . The roadside ditch research / extension program made enormous progress in 2009 with definitive research findings that ditches are acting as rapid conduits of very high levels of E.coli and other pathogens to drinking water supply systems. Because of this work, I collaborated on a successfully funded grant to hold a National Conference on Pathogens in Rural Watersheds (w/ Dr. D. Bowman), which was conducted here at Cornell this past May. This past year, we also began, for the first time to work with NYSDOT’s drainage committee to redirect ditch management at a statewide level and obtained a small grant to update and distribute a new ditch fact sheet. Climate Change: Identifying vulnerabilities and adaptations for NYS Impact Summary: 2009 marked a critical year for the emergence of a strong Climate Change team in DNR and Cornell. I co-lead the water resource sector of the NYSERDA ClimAid Project with Drs. S. Riha, A. McDonald and A. DeGaetano (multi-university) and also wrote and lead the Smith-Lever funded project on Empowering Land Managers to Address Climate Change which includes a team of ten DNR faculty and staff. Over 2009, the efforts for these two projects have merged neatly, as our DNR folks gave extension workshops and conducted a statewide survey (lead by S. Broussard), the combined efforts of which have reached ~900 environmental professionals, town officials, and private landowners across the state, in order to identify vulnerabilities and adaptations to climate change. The team members then directly contributed to the writing of the ClimAid Ecosystems sector report addressing wildlife, invasives and forestry. The ClimAid report is near completion as a formal, public document but it is already being utilized by Governor Patterson’s Climate Advisory Council. Given some of the findings from this work, I also submitted (w/ L. Rudstam) a Hatch Grant, which was funded, to conduct research to investigate whether watershed management can help mitigate climate change impacts on temperatures of Oneida Lake. This work is currently underway. Sustainable Water Resource Management in China Impact Summary: Through multiple venues, I have become actively involved in building a program for sustainable, ecologically, and watershed-based management of water resources in China. During 2009, I advised Dr. Changxiao Li, a Humphrey’s Fellow, and Director of Restoration for the Three Gorges Reservoir. This collaboration lead to my assisting him with several publications on plants and flooding, to a workshop on wetland restoration for several Chinese faculty, and to his collaboration on a recent Lehman grant to hold a future workshop on watershed management in China. Independently, I joined Dr. Lassoie’s Conference on Coupled Human and Natural Systems in Beijing, China, attended by 80 professionals and students, and gave two presentations on water resource management. Collaborations with Dr. S. Dong at Beijing Normal University resulted from this conference and he will be working with me on the watershed conference. Aquatic Plant Management: Impact Summary: I have developed an extension program for sustainable approaches to aquatic weed management. This program has been delivered to ~ 1500 private landowners and water professionals, pesticide applicators over the past decade and our recent Pond Guide Book received the NYS Extension Educators’ 2008 Outstanding Publication Award.
Flood damages an average of $50 million of property annually in New York, and these costs are rising nationally. Simultaneously, nonpoint source pollution associated with stormwater runoff is degrading surface water resources, critical to humans and wildlife. An unknown contributor to these problems are the networks of roadside ditches that interlace our watersheds. We developed an integrated research and extension program to understand and improve the management of roadside ditches.
In the third year of this project, we completed much of the field research that documents: (1) ditches increase stream channel density and the linkages between land and water; (2) ditches intercept roughly 20 percent of the shallow runoff and rapidly shunt it downstream; (3) ditches, where scraped, are a significant source of sediment and other contaminants downstream; and (4) ditches are a source of bedload, which form deltas in the stream and contribute to further stream erosion. These findings have been delivered this year at 15 workshops to 800 town officials and water resource professionals (three-year total: 50 workshops, 2000 participants).
As a result of our ditch extension program, we have observed, first, an increase in awareness by water resource professionals statewide of the importance of roadside ditch issues. As witness, the most recent eight presentations were given as an invited, guest speaker, including at regional conferences of the New York State Planning Federation, the New York chapter of the Federation of Floodplain and Stormwater Managers, the Catskill Watershed Summit, the North Country Stormwater Conference, and the working meeting of the Delaware River Basin Commission. We are already beginning to see some changes in actions and behavior as a result of these presentations, with respect to managing ditches and stormwater runoff. Several towns in New York have adopted roadside ditch maintenance ordinances, and the Watershed Task Force for Honeoye Lake, which provides drinking water supply for communities in parts of Ontario and Livingston Counties, has begun mapping its roadside ditch network. The most dramatic accomplishment resulted from our presentation to the Delaware River Basin Commission, which represents governors of Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania and oversees the 13,600-square-mile watershed that supports 15 million people. The commission enthusiastically agreed to work with their engineers and fund and implement a basin-wide program to modify existing ditch management practices.
funding type 
funded by 
Smith Lever 3(b) & (c)
Agriculture and Food Research Initiative
researchers involved 
  • Anderson, Sharon
  • Buckley, Daniel H
  • Halstead, Eric
  • Lembo, Art
  • Walter, Michael Todd
organizations involved 
Cayuga Lake Watershed Network
Dept. Biological and Environmental Engineering
Dept. Crops and Soils
Town of Candor
academic priority area 
Land Grant Mission
Environmental Sciences
contribution area 
domestic geographic focus 
All NY Counties
All U.S. states
USDA topic area 
Protect and Enhance Natural Resource Base and Environment
January 2005 - December 2010