Water and soil


Increasingly the news is bringing us dramatic pictures of flooded farmland and, in the other extreme, land that’s little more than parched dirt.

 In these opposite images land is a victim; it’s a casualty of either too much water or too little.

 For a minute think of land in a new way; think of it as soil.

In recent years scientists have been looking at soil not as a passive victim of floods and droughts but rather as a potentially active agent in (a) absorbing water when rains fall especially hard and (b) also storing water for use when it’s needed later by the crops it supports.

The idea is that, when properly maintained, soil can absorb water like a sponge, and it can also better hold onto water in dry periods. Among the benefits during hard rains: reduced runoff that otherwise can cause damaging erosion.

The Union of Concerned Scientists recently put out a publication that’s titled

Turning soils into sponges—How farmers can fight floods and droughts.”

Here’s a particularly revealing passage:  “Over the past several decades, agriculture has moved increasingly toward systems dominated by a few annual crops—typically corn and soybeans—often with fields left bare between growing seasons. This trend has degraded soil structure, leaving it less like a sponge and more like concrete, which exacerbates the damage done by floods and droughts. To combat these impacts, farmers have tried options such as investing in irrigation equipment or drainage systems. But these aren't always long-term solutions, and they can have damaging effects of their own.”

The Daily Yonder, a news and opinion platform, recently carried an article by Stateline, a unit of the Pew Charitable Trusts, that reported a surge in interest in new soil management methods:  “Just this year, 10 states have introduced new soil management policies that call for further research or data collection, or offer tax exemptions, technical assistance or even grant money to, among other actions, plant cover crops, diversify crop rotations and reduce tillage that can tear apart beneficial fungi.”

The implications extend beyond the farm to include climate change. Here are two explanatory pieces: A recent Newsweek article describes how climate change is degrading the ability of soils to absorb water. 

And The Climate Reality Project, an undertaking that was founded by former Vice President Al Gore, which published a report titled “Right Under Your Feet – Soil Health and the Climate Crisis.”

So, when you next look at the ground, don’t think of dirt — inert and vulnerable. Think of soil — a creative and productive substance that, properly cared for, can spare us a lot of woe.