The research team will focus on drain design in Macomb County. However, the results may be applicable to other areas across the state.

The research team will focus on drain design in Macomb County. However, the results may be applicable to other areas across the state.

When driving along a road in an agricultural area or viewing the mosaic of farmland from the sky, you may have noticed drainage channels — canals that form a crisscross of lines through farm fields and alongside roads. The channels are part of a complex system that helps move runoff and excess water from one area to another and can help manage water flow (for example, preventing floods). Drainage channels are often found in agricultural areas because they can be used to manage water supplies and improve farming production.

The main type of drainage ditch in use throughout Michigan is referred to as a conventional trapezoidal drain. While drainage ditches like this may seem like an relatively minor or local issue, the type of drains used affect water quality in our streams and rivers and eventually the Great Lakes.

The Issue

Trapezoidal drains are highly efficient at providing drainage and moving flood flows — but they also have a high risk of failure, require more maintenance, and contribute to several other problems related to water quality.

For example, traditional trapezoidal channels can result in:

  • Bank erosion and build up of sediment
  • Reduction in property values, if not maintained properly
  • Degraded habitat
  • Warmer water temperatures, increased turbidity (cloudiness) and lower oxygen levels
  • More pollutants moving downstream because they do not assimilate pollutants naturally like a stream does

Channel design that mimics self-sustaining, natural systems — multi-stage or open channel design, for instance — has been shown to improve long-term drain stability and water quality. However, drain design can be a contentious issue. While some support adopting different drain designs to improve stability and water quality, others are opposed to the idea because different types of drains may require more land and more right of way access in prime agricultural areas. Executing proper drain design and construction can also be a barrier when training resources and local knowledge is lacking.


About the Project

Core Research Question

By bringing together stakeholders from public, private and non-governmental sectors, can the principles of multi-stage open channel design — a more resilient, natural approach to drainage — be successfully integrated into existing county drain programs and policies?

This Integrated Assessment will examine how multi-stage channel design — a type of drainage that mimics self-sustaining, natural systems and has been shown to improve long-term drain stability and water quality — could be applied in Michigan. The project will focus on the Middle Branch and North Branch of the Clinton River in Macomb County. Macomb County has already developed the first open channel design criteria (standards for planning, installation and maintenance) in Michigan, that incorporates a multi-staged design approach to more closely resemble a natural system.

The research team will develop design guidelines, create practical tools and build partnerships to help people better address county drain design. Researchers will work closely with stakeholders to examine the issue from many perspectives, identify challenges and evaluate feasible solutions. By soliciting stakeholder input, the tools will be understood and as practical as possible. All guidance and tools developed will be accessible online.

The research team will also evaluate other options for channel design that may be more appropriate for local soil and geologic and hydrologic conditions. The team will compile and summarize the relevant data and studies of existing two-stage channels, including a cost-benefit analysis of conventional and more natural ditch designs.


At the end of the project, the research team will provide a technical basis for adopting sustainable channel design criteria. The team will create a set of tools based on stakeholder input such as review guidelines and planning checklists specifically for county staff in order to expedite the review process for designs that incorporate best practices.

To learn more about this project or why drain design is considered a “wicked problem,” see the project Fact Sheet (PDF).