As the Great Black Swamp was drained and cut down acre by acre, a manmade tile and ditch system took its place. At the turn of the 19th century, a machine worker from Bowling Green invented the steam-powered Buckeye Trencher that helped industrialize Northwest Ohio and beyond. By 1920, 15,000 of the 20,000 miles of ditches in the state could be found in Northwest Ohio.
This transformation offsets what was once a balanced system, and there’s a heavy price to pay; today, Ohio ranks first in the U.S. in percentage of cropland being drained at 67%, or 7 million acres. Costs to install tiles range from $600-1000 per acre. According to a 2006 ODNR-DSWC survey, more than 10,000 miles of subsurface mains and ditches are under regular watch for maintenance in Ohio; more than 35% of the mains are in poor or non-functioning conditions.
There’s also a less obvious but more dear public health and environmental cost than just capital expenditure for ditching, tiling and maintenance. The Environmental Working Group found that since 2010, Ohio has spent more than $815 million to address algal bloom-related issues. Because tiles and ditches move water and the sediments—including pollutants and applied nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus—quickly into Lake Erie, these materials are entering into our water supply at unprecedented amounts to feed massive (and often toxic) blooms of algae, leading to water crises like that of 2014.
Without tiling, we won’t be able to farm Ohio’s flat and rich land. Yet solutions to improve water safety and quality are also at the forefront of public health concerns. The better we understand the relationship between natural and artificial systems, the closer we can come to a balanced perspective—and solution to our future coexistence.
This series is brought to you in part by the First Solar Corporate Charitable Fund of the Great Toledo Community Foundation. As a recipient of their Civic Engagement and Environmental Impact Grant, Midstory engages in research and storytelling initiatives that deliver vital information, statistics and narratives on timely issues, such as the water crisis.