By Jillian Madocs, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison Jones, NWNL Director)
This blog begins a NWNL series on how soil impacts water quality and availability. Our research intern Jillian Madocs is a Siena College senior studying Environmental Studies & Community Development. Her next NWNL focus will be on urban water issues.
Stewardship in Cedar Falls, Iowa – Mississippi River Basin
Soil is a critical element of our watersheds – and the hero of agriculture. As a holding pen for seeds and roots, soil gives life to the plants that dwell in it; provides nutrients to local flora; and is home to millions of organisms, from burrowing insects to grazing livestock. Now more than ever, the agricultural industry is booming. Yet we must carefully consider the impacts of today’s increasing demands by growing populations around the world for more food, water and farmland.
Over 70% of our freshwater usage is attributed to farming, per the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, et al. As we face increasingly severe droughts, disappearing glaciers and groundwater depletion, farmers will need to find enough water to irrigate their crops and support livestock. Soil quality and farming practices will play a highly critical role in ensuring water security for the future. Farmers are critical to helping protect our finite water supplies, since they can creating greater water retention within our soils, plant more drought-tolerant crops, and change other agricultural practices that waste water.
Corn growing in New Jersey – Raritan River Basin
With proper care, soil can support farming with minimum degradation. To sustainably produce crop yields needed for future generations, soil must receive the same amount of scientific attention and protection as that given to crops or livestock. Taking over the remaining headwater forests that fill our rivers to create more fields and applying more chemicals are not sustainable answers.
To maintain prosperity, avoid famine and ensure long-term sustainability, the agricultural sector must reduce its consumption of water by reassessing its very foundation – soil. Unfortunately, the pressure for greater profits and agricultural yields has led to unsustainable farming practices and water usage. Current practices also severely diminish biodiversity within the soil, as well as the variety of livestock and plants produced. As a result, farmers and consumers alike are suffering economic losses and our foods are less nutritious. Our global food security is being threatened.1
Peter Kihui’s Kickstart pedal pump waters his veggies, Kenya – Mara River Basin
Endangerment of agronomy aside, it is clear these problems impact much larger systems – the water cycle, global biodiversity, national economic health, and human livelihood. If unsustainable agricultural practices are continued, farmers will seriously limit their future options. Thus, farmers must study and reconsider their land-management and food production practices. Today’s preventive measures are tomorrow’s solutions.
A NWNL blog series this summer will share agricultural innovations that increase water retention in farming soils and promote sustainability. Guest bloggers will contribute insights on how soil management and sustainable farming can protect the health of our rivers and availability of freshwater. These blogs will also discuss regenerative agriculture, no-till farming, biochar application, vegetation strips and and the use of rotating and cover crops. These practices and technologies are designed to improve water conservation, and simultaneously provide carbon sequestration, restoration of soil biodiversity and increased crop yields.
Dairy cows on an Iowa farm – Mississippi River Basin
Topics to be addressed by future NWNL blogs:
Regenerative Agriculture: This holistic approach to farming maintains the integrity of the land, while also promoting healthy soils, greater yields and environmental vitality.2 This organic approach can restore and enhance soil’s natural ability to store carbon.3 This can reverse the impacts of over-planting crops in diminishing natural carbon sequestration to minimal time for the soil to recuperate. Regenerative agriculture offers a multi-pronged solution to the ever-growing problems of climate change, water scarcity and increasing food needs.
No-Till Farming: This technique conserves nutrients in the soil without the use of chemicals. Traditional tilling repeatedly turns the earth at least 8 to 12 inches deep. Loosening the soil this way allows water and oxygen to reach difficult-to-access plant roots.4 However, tilling, or plowing, breaks up the soil structure, leaving a perforated top layer resting on a hard pan that becomes deeply compressed over time. As learned during the US Dust Bowl, that encourages wind erosion and loss of valuable soil. No-till farming prevents this by planting seeds a few inches into the soil and letting organic materials to do the work that a plow would otherwise do.5 By not interfering with the soil prior to planting seeds, more nutrients and organic elements are available to the plants. Thus, chemical fertilizers need not be applied.
Plowing Idaho farmland – Snake River Basin
Biochar: For centuries, some of the world’s indigenous farmers understood that “fine-grained, highly-porous charcoal helps soils retain nutrients and water.”6 Carbon-rich and comprised of agricultural waste, biochar is highly resistant to decomposition, thus an ideal additive to soils. This product has many benefits from local to global scales. Biochar increases soil biodiversity, improves crop diversity, enhances food security in at-risk areas and increases water quality and quantity. Furthermore, biochar combats climate change by creating “pools” that sequester carbon in the soil from hundreds to thousands of years. Thus biochar has the capacity to make soil systems “carbon-negative” and ultimately help reduce excess carbon emissions into the atmosphere.7
Vegetation Strips: Runoff pollution and soil loss can be controlled with buffering and filtering strips of land covered with permanent vegetation.8 These barriers prevent soil from being carried away, thereby reducing field, riverbank and shoreline erosion. They also prevent excess sediment from collecting in bodies of water. Vegetative strips also collect pollution, pathogens, and excessively-applied chemical nutrients before they reach and impair ditches, rivers, ponds and lakes.9 These filters are valuable water-quality improvement agents that maintain soil integrity, especially in regions with loess soil found in Iowa and Washington’s Palouse region. Dust Bowl analyses revealed the critical need for creating vegetation strips and trees as “windbreaks” to reduce erosion and drying winds. Yet, modern agriculture has removed many such “green” barriers, to gain a bit more acreage for planting their crops. Hopefully this trend will be reversed.
Protective vegetative strips in Kenya wheat fields – Mara River Basin
Crop Rotation: Even the simplest of vegetable gardens can be kept healthy through successive seasons if plants are switched around to different sections. Such rotation helps prevent disease and insect infestation, while also balancing and enhancing nutrients.10 For example, a plot with carrots, then cucumbers, and maybe lettuce planted in succeeding years deprive diseases and parasitic insects of long-term host sites. Additionally, soils dried out by particularly water-thirsty crops can regain their moisture balance with planned rotation.11
Cover Crops: Often called “green manure,” grasses, legumes, and herbs planted to control erosion can also increase moisture and nutrient content, improve soil structure, provide habitat for beneficial, bio-diverse organisms, and much more.12 Because vegetables so quickly deplete, dry out and otherwise stress the soil,13 restorative practices are essential to ensure the soil’s optimal performance. Cover crops are used to improve soil health – and they also beautify gardens!14
Pivot irrigation in Nebraska where it was invented – Platte River Basin
Agriculture is a major industry that ties together global needs for food and water. Thus, it is obvious that we must support the soil that produces our crops and consumes ¾ of our entire water supply. Regenerative agricultural practices promise a balance between productive and healthy land, as well as between new technologies and common sense. Robust soil means better produce, thriving organisms, less water consumption, and healthy watersheds. Without good soil, the food chain collapses and our ecosystems suffer. As more restorative farming practices are adopted, the future improves, especially for large-scale agriculture. This NWNL blog series will focus on how large- and small-scale agriculture can help solve global water scarcity by caring for the soil.
Double rainbow over a Nebraska crop field – Missouri River Basin
All photos © Alison M. Jones.