You may think of them as little more than the space that separates agricultural fields, but ditches are actually very complex ecosystems. Integrating the characteristics and features of streams and wetlands, ditches can exist as straight channels with sediment at the bottom, or as full-on intermittent wetlands that support year-long vegetation and organic matter.
Humans have been using ditches for agricultural purposes since 9000 B.C. in Mesopotamia. These small to moderate depressions, found along the sides of fields, can be used to either drain water from low-lying areas or bring it in from elsewhere for use in plant irrigation. They vary in size, ranging from small, depressed channels, designed to carry surface runoff, to big channels, used for draining watersheds and regional groundwater.
Their primary function is to ensure first that the fields are not too wet to cultivate. This helps plant growth and agricultural yields by reducing waterlogging and crop damage. Water is moved from poorly drained agricultural areas in the field to these ditches through tiles that are integrated into the fields. Vegetated ditches also reduce the flow of pollutants from agricultural fields to downstream water bodies like lakes, ponds and rivers. This offers farmers a low-cost alternative to manage chemical run off from their fields, which also protects natural resources. Water can also be stored in these ditches and wetlands to be used later when the area is experiencing drought conditions.
With the impacts of climate change becoming more evident every day—especially with the increased variability of rainfall from year-to-year—ditches hold a great deal of importance to the agricultural community as a measure of climate change adaptation. As we continue to experience higher water variability and increasing instances of severe rainfall events and flooding, efficient drainage solutions can become even more critical. In the next blog, we will discuss the importance of swales, which are other drainage ditches found along the side of roads.
The researchers involved with the MEOPAR project are working to raise awareness about the impacts of climate change and how communities can effectively adapt, and increase resilience, to these changes. Follow along with our blog every week (written by researchers Liette Vasseur, Meredith DeCock, Bradley May, Pulkit Garg and Sam Gauthier) to learn more about the project and how you can get involved.