Soil and Water: An Intro

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. 

Jones_130521_IA_3205.jpgStewardship 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.  

Jones_110729_NJ_0104.jpgCorn 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

Jones_160211_K_0022.jpgPeter 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.

Jones_130519_IA_8444.jpgDairy 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.

Jones_140517_ID_1824.jpgPlowing 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.

Jones_030728_K_0339.jpgProtective 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

Jones_170614_NE_3864-2.jpgPivot 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.

Jones_170616_NE_5022.jpgDouble rainbow over a Nebraska crop field – Missouri River Basin

Sources:

1. http://www.regenerationinternational.org/2015/10/16/linking-agricultural-biodiversity-and-food-security-the-valuable-role-of-agrobiodiversity-for-sustainable-agriculture/
2.  http://www.regenerationinternational.org/why-regenerative-agriculture/
3. http://rodaleinstitute.org/assets/RegenOrgAgricultureAndClimateChange_20140418.pdf
4.  https://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/no-till-farming-zmaz84zloeck
5.  https://morningchores.com/no-till-gardening/
6.  http://www.biochar-international.org/biochar
7. http://biochar.pbworks.com/w/page/9748043/FrontPage
8.  http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/publications/waters/buffer_strips.pdf
9. http://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8195.pdf
10.  https://www.todayshomeowner.com/vegetable-garden-crop-rotation-made-easy/
11.  https://bonnieplants.com/library/rotating-vegetable-crops-for-garden-success/
12.  https://plants.usda.gov/about_cover_crops.html
13. http://covercrop.org/why-cover-crops
14.  https://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/cover-crops-improve-soil-zmaz09onzraw

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Wild and Scenic River: Snake River

On December 1, 1975 the Snake River in Oregon was added to the Wild and Scenic River System. 32.5 miles of the river are designated as Wild; and 34.4 miles as Scenic. In addition, the Snake River Headwaters in Wyoming is also in the Wild and Scenic River System. 236.9 miles of the Snake River Headwaters are designated as Wild; 141.5 miles as Scenic and 33.8 as Recreational. The Snake River is a major tributary to the Columbia River, one of NWNL’s Case Study Watersheds. The following photos are from various NWNL expeditions to the Hells Canyon reach of the Snake River in both Oregon and Idaho, part of the designated section of the river. For more information about the Snake River view the NWNL 2014 Snake River Expedition on our website. For more information about the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act read the first part of this blog series

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All photos © Alison M. Jones.

 

Sources:

https://www.rivers.gov/rivers/snake.php

https://www.rivers.gov/rivers/snake-hw.php

 

Stewardship Means All Hands on Board

As I was going through our photo archive for another project, I noticed a repetition of hands in pictures of volunteers, scientists, interviewees and other river stewards that NWNL Director Alison Jones has photographed. Whether they’re using their hands while talking, or doing physical work, river stewards know that stewardship means “all hands on board” for our freshwater resources!

Jones_070612_BC_2762Deana Machin of Okanagan Nations Alliance, British Columbia, Columbia River Basin

Jones_080207_ET_8440Scientist Fickre Assefa,  Abra Minch University, Ethiopia

Jones_160210_K_9606Elijah and Lydiah Kimemia, farmers working with KickStart in Kenya’s Rift Valley, Mara River Basin

Jones_090425_NJ_0614Bob Spiegel, Executive Director of Edison Wetlands Association, New Jersey, Raritan River Basin

Jones_070707_WA_6746Ray Gardner, Former Leader of Chinook Nation, Washington State, Columbia River Basin

Jones_090928_K_0097Amanda Subalusky and Chris Dutton, measuring water flows for GLOWS, Kenya, Mara River Basin

Jones_160211_K_0006Grace Mindu, farmer working with KickStart in Kenya’s Rift Valley, Mara River Basin

Jones_100522_NJ_1067Volunteer Kyle Hartman with Raritan Headwaters Association, New Jersey, Raritan River Basin

Jones_111026_LA_0044Dean Wilson, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, Louisiana, Mississippi River Basin

K-P-M-1701.tifMaasai morans’ hand shake, Amboseli, Kenya

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Small but Critical / Our Invertebrates

This blog contains several references to invertebrates in northern Kenya’s Lake Turkana Basin, the arid terminus of Ethiopia’s Omo River and world’s largest desert lake.  Within this “Cradle of Humankind,” species continually adapt, as explained in our NWNL Interview with Dino Martins, entomologist at Turkana Basin Institute.

Animal species in our watersheds quietly enhance and protect the health of our water resources.  Yet, rarely do we give our fauna – from wolves to woodpeckers – enough credit. This is especially true of our smaller invertebrate species, which include butterflies, bees, beetles, spiders, worms, starfish, crabs and mollusks.  Invertebrates span the globe in habitats ranging from streams, forests, prairies, and deserts to lakes, gardens and even glaciers. Sadly, these unsung heroes are often called “pests.”

Jones_031026_ARG_0471.jpgInvertebrate atop Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

Invertebrates are defined by their lack of backbone, yet ironically, they are “the backbone” of our land- and water-based ecosystems.  Comprising 95-97% of animal species, they keep our ecosystems healthy; and although spineless, they are a critical base of the food chains for many species, from fish to humans.  Fly fishermen carefully study the macro-invertebrates in their streams and rivers before choosing lures of mayflies, worms and caddisflies that appear in different stages, in different seasons, on different streams.

Invertebrates benefit our world in numerous ways:

  • pollination – of fruit, grain, and native plants
  • seed dispersal – a job shared with birds  
  • recycling of waste, nutrients and food for other species, including humans
  • production of nectar and honey as a healing resource and immunity booster
  • purification of water and the environment
  • creation of reefs by mollusks, especially oysters
  • being useful research specimens (Think of fruit flies in biology class…)

One of the most valuable contributions of invertebrates is the pollination of our orchards and fields by bees and bumblebees.  Without this, human food sources would be quickly and greatly diminished. Bees also pollinate riverine vegetation needed to retain water and prevent erosion. It is as simple as “No bees – No vegetation – No water!”  

Jones_090615_NJ_0817.jpgHoney bee pollinating spring blooms in Raritan River Basin, NJ

Ancient and contemporary Mayans have known that invertebrates are the foundation of the living world. Thus mosaics of mosquitoes, still today in Guatemala, are the symbolic woven foundations of women’s huipiles (blouses).  Worldwide, mosquitoes and macro invertebrates provide food for other invertebrates, notably juvenile fish – locally called “cradle fish” – in northern Kenya’s Lake Turkana gulfs and bays.

However, Lake Turkana fish populations have been greatly reduced recently due to overfishing and upstream Ethiopian dams.  Fortunately, the Lake Turkana invertebrate bee population’s honey production has provided a needed alternative source of calories.  Fewer fish, combined with drought-afflicted livestock and maize, have led the Turkana people to turn to bee-keeping as their new livelihood.  

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Honey production by CABESI a nonprofit in Kapenguria Kenya

Author Sue Stolberger describes another oft-overlooked role of  invertebrates in her Tanzanian guidebook. She explains that many invertebrates are “expert at natural waste disposal. Beetle larvae dispose of leaf litter. Maggots, blowflies and others play a role in the disposal of carrion; and dung beetles dispose of excrement, which cleans up the excreta and fertilizes the soil.”  [Stolberger, p 197.]

In tidal estuaries, purification of water by mollusks is much cheaper route to addressing pollution than governmental SuperFund Site cleanups.  Oysters very effectively filter our rivers and bays. Today the New York-New Jersey Harbor & Estuary Program is reintroducing oysters into the Hudson and Raritan Bays to clean those waters and stabilize their shorelines and riverbanks.  [See NWNL Blog on Oyster Restoration in Raritan Bay by NY-NJ Baykeeper]

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A “living wall” of oyster shells in the South Atlantic

Few people are aware of the endurance and numbers of invertebrates.  The dragonfly story is amazing. Known for accomplished gliding and crossing oceans, dragonflies form one of the world’s largest migrations.  Due to their large numbers, they’re among the most ecologically important insects and are voracious consumers of mosquitoes, worms, crustaceans and even small fish.  Kenyan entomologist Dino Martins explained to NWNL that dragonflies are also great bio-indicators of ecosystems’ health. The presence or absence of “different types of dragonflies and/or macroinvertebrates [that] tolerate different stream conditions and levels of pollution… indicates clean or polluted water.” [Utah State University]  

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Shimmering dragonflies and damselflies, butterflies and even snails have inspired beautiful art, poetry and other creative expressions.  In Japan, generations of haiku authors have compressed the unique qualities of these special creatures into 17 concise syllables, as in this by Issa:

The night was hot… stripped to the waist the snail enjoyed the moonlight

                             —The Four Seasons:  Japanese Haiku.  NY: The Peter Pauper Press, 1958.

Even the descriptive names given to our butterflies evoke a sense of poetry: Pearl Crescent, Red Admiral, Question Mark, Mourning Cloak, Silver Spotted Skipper….  Seeing the opalescent Mother of Pearl Butterfly (Protogoniomorpha parhassus) and the electric Blue Pansy Butterfly (Junonia oenone oenone) in Kenyan forests could turn anyone into a lepidopterist and an artist.

Mother-of-pearl_Butterfly_(Protogoniomorpha_parhassus)_(8368125628).jpgMother of Pearl Butterfly (Creative Commons)

Despite these valuable attributes, invertebrates are slapped at; often seen as bothersome and unwanted; and most dangerously, ignored in environmental policies and land use practices.  Sadly, we now have many at-risk species: from bumble bees to tiger beetles and butterflies. Caddisflies that live solely in one stream are becoming extinct. To understand their role in stream ecosystems, talk to a fly-fisherman or visit a riverside tackle shop.  

On land, herbicides are sprayed in fields and along our roadsides through the summer, killing large swaths of milkweed, the sole food of monarch butterflies.  In Michoacan Mexico, the winter retreat for all monarchs east of the Mississippi, illegal deforestation now leaves tens of thousands of monarchs frozen to death annually.  Their small pale carcasses silently pile up on the ground where there used to be dense oyamel pine forests protecting them from freezing temperatures.

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When frozen, monarchs fall to the ground, folding their wings as they die 

The biggest threat to invertebrates is the loss of native habitat to development and agriculture.  Native bugs, butterflies, beetles and bees need native wildflowers. Flying insects in the US Midwest now lack the succession of wildflowers since midwestern prairies have been reduced to mere fragments, called “remnant prairies.” In 2013, entomologist Dino Martins told NWNL, “Farmers need to understand why leaving a little space for nature isn’t a luxury, but a necessity for productive, sustainable agriculture.”  

The importance of wildflower habitat for invertebrates was publicized in the 1970’s by Lady Bird Johnson, wife of former President Lyndon Johnson, and actress Helen Hayes..  Now many municipalities, organizations and gardening groups are publicizing the importance of replanting native wildflowers (milkweed for monarchs!) and eliminating invasive species.  Farmers, land managers, environmental regulatory agencies, park managers and home gardeners need to become more aware. They can help protect the soil and water quality of our rivers, streams, ponds, wetlands in many ways.  Funding for that research is critical, as is promoting citizen-science training programs. We can all pitch in to weed out invasive species if we learn what to look for.

Jones_080810_BC_6882.jpgSignage identifying invasive species in British Columbia

Small critter stewardship is growing.  There is good news.  The use of “Integrated Pest Management” and reduction of pesticides and herbicides is spreading; awareness of the consequences of killing our invertebrates grows.  Commercial and small farmers are learning to supply water in their fields for bees so they don’t waste energy looking for rivers. The Endangered Species Act supports the many organizations resisting the overuse of chemicals and unregulated land development.  

  • NYC Butterfly Group uses citizen scientist to map NYC’s butterfly distribution.
  • Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation [www.xerces.org), begun in 1971 trains farmers and land managers to save forest, prairie, desert and river habitat for these invertebrates via newsletters, books, guidelines, fact sheets and identification guides.  
  • National Wildflower Research Center,founded by Lady Bird Johnson in Texas, preserves N. American native plants and natural landscape
  • BuzzAboutBees.Net  www.buzzaboutbees.net/why-are-invertebrates-important.html website offers in-depth facts and advice on bees and bumblebees, as well as books, advice on stings and best garden practices.

It is time for us all to identify and weed out invasive species; help monitor monarch migrations; support local land trusts preserving open space; and advocate for more wildflower preserves.  Baba Dioum, a Senegalese ecologist wrote, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will only love what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”

Jones_100522_NJ_1065.jpgA caddisfly in the hand of a New Jersey fisherman 

SOURCES

The Four Seasons: Japanese Haiku.  NY: The Peter Pauper Press, 1958.
Stolberger, Sue. Ruaha National Park:  An Intimate View: A field guide to the common trees, flowers and small creatures of central Tanzania.  Iringa TZ: Jacana Media, 2012.
“What Are Aquatic Macroinvertebrates?” Utah State University Extension. www.extension.usu.edu/waterquality/learnaboutsurfacewater/propertiesofwater/aquaticmacros, accessed 4/30/18

All photos © Alison M. Jones.