Leading figure in drainage water recycling

(Photo: Iowa Soybean Association / Joseph Hopper)

Hay honored for advancing drainage design

September 14, 2023 | Joseph Hopper

If you looked around the office of Dr. Chris Hay, conservation design scientist at the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA), you’d notice a wall with hanging accolades and a few paintings. To the untrained eye, these are just beautiful landscapes featuring running water and picturesque foliage. But to an ag drainage expert like Hay, they capture both a beautiful scene and his passion – drainage infrastructure at work. Soon, something new will go up on the wall, a major award from the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers: the G.B. Gunlogson Countryside Engineering Award, honoring Chris for making the historical drainage like those in his paintings even more historical because of his work as “a national leader in the advancement of drainage design and design of edge-of-field practices for nitrate reduction.”

Whether research, training public and private sector professionals, or leading ASABE events like the 11th annual International Drainage Symposium, it’s clear Hay is a passionate leader in the field of ag engineering. Still, Hay says the honor caught him off guard.

“I was a little surprised at first, but very honored,” Hay says. “I’ve been a member of ASABE for more than 30 years, and it’s been my professional society home. So, to win a major award and be recognized by my professional peers is really gratifying. Having come up through that organization and knowing all those other names of previous award winners, people I’ve looked up to and respected for a long time, it’s really cool to see my name on that list too.”

Hay always wanted to be an engineer, but didn’t initially dive into ag engineering. With a chuckle, Hay says teenage rebellion meant it would take some time before he found his passion as a young professional.

“My dad was an Extension ag engineer, so as a teenage boy the last thing I wanted to do was what dad did,” Hay says. “I started in mechanical engineering, got a few years down the road and realized I didn’t like that. Looking at my quickest pathway to get a bachelor’s, it was down to civil engineering or ag engineering. Once I took my first soil and water engineering class, that’s really when I fell in love. I knew I wanted to focus on soil and water.”

After achieving his PhD at Nebraska, Hay started to dig into ag drainage in the Midwest as an assistant professor and Extension ag engineer at South Dakota State University, with some help from his former grad student office-mate turned peer, Iowa State University’s Dr. Matt Helmers.

“I thought I was going to do irrigation, that’s what the position was listed for, but when I got up there they were in a really wet cycle and drainage was the key interest,” Hay says. “They were trying to figure out drainage, not that there wasn’t drainage in South Dakota, but it had been a long time since there was a lot of interest in drainage. Farmers were wanting to know what to do, the public was concerned about what it meant for flooding and water quality. I realized I needed to learn more about drainage, with some help from Matt Helmers and others in the drainage engineering community, I got up to speed.”

Hay’s interest in ag drainage has paid off. At ISA, he continues to educate and conduct cutting-edge research into subjects like drainage water recycling, a system being tested on farms today which can help manage the excess water received in the spring, storing it for use when the weather turns dry later in the year. Today, Hay continues to scrape away the darkness of the unknown. The research continues.