SOIL AND WATER: BIOCHAR

By Alice LeBlanc for NWNL
(Edited by Alison Jones, NWNL Director)

This is the second blog in a NWNL series on how soil impacts water quality and availability.  Alice LeBlanc is an economist and independent consultant who lives in NYC.   For more than 25 years, she has worked in both corporate and NGO settings to promote market-based and land-use sector solutions to the problem of climate change.

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PAYING ATTENTION TO SOIL

Soil has an indisputably important role in producing much of the food we eat and supporting trees and vegetation that provide wood, fiber, habitat, natural beauty and other ecological services.  However, the direct relationship between healthy soil and clean, plentiful water is perhaps less known. Often overlooked is the role healthy soils play in ameliorating environmental problems that include water pollution, water scarcity and climate change.

Conventional agriculture uses inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, aggressive tillage, heavy machinery and wasteful irrigation. These practices often degrade soils by their reduction of soil carbon and compaction. Resulting erosion and chemical run-off pollutes waterways and groundwater. Further, their greenhouse gas emissions become significant contributors to climate change.  Although increasing and stabilizing food production, modern agricultural practices hurt our soil and water – two of the most basic elements essential to life on earth,

“Climate Smart Agriculture” (CSA) is a current buzzword of hope among environmentally-conscious agricultural experts, especially in developing countries. CSA combines cost-effective practices to increase soil health and crop productivity, use water more efficiently, decrease the use of inorganic fertilizers, and reduce or even sequester COand other greenhouse gases. CSA practices include low-tillage or no-tillage of soils; contour tillage; drip irrigation; terracing of sloping fields; and organic or custom-made (precision) fertilizer. Last in this list is biochar – a substance used successfully centuries ago by Amazon farmers.

P1020866.jpgKilns used for making biochar

BIOCHAR TODAY

Biochar is created by applying high heat to biomass (e.g. crop residues, otherwise burned or left to decay in the atmosphere) in enclosed, oxygen-free spaces.  This process, called pryolysis, differs from burning as it doesn’t use oxygen; produce combustion; or emit CO2.  Biochar can be produced anywhere inexpensively on a small scale by subsistence farmers with cook stoves or kilns, using on-hand materials.  It can also be produced on medium and larger commercial scales.

When used as a soil amendment, biochar alters the soil’s property, allowing it to retain more water and nutrients and enable some plants to more efficiently “fix” atmospheric nitrogen, thus attracting more microbes.  This improves plant growth and resilience.  Biochar’s effect is described as creating “microbe hotels” which draw microorganisms and bring additional carbon into the soil. To be most effective in increasing plant productivity, biochar can be mixed with organic fertilizer such as manure and ground animal bones.

P1020867.jpgBiochar production area

For the past year or so, I have been helping lay the foundation for the African Holistic Ecosystem Regeneration Initiative–HERI (a Swahili word for happiness).  HERI aims to scale up regenerative and climate smart agriculture, as well as better grazing practices across Africa. Our emphasis is specifically on smart use of biomass and nutrients, including using biochar as a soil amendment and planting of soil-enhancing trees with high-value crops, such as palm oil, coffee, cacao, shea butter, cashews and moringa.  This undertaking is being led by the International Biochar Initiative (IBI), the leading non-profit dedicated to the promotion of biochar research and commercialization.

BIOCHAR BENEFITS

The agricultural benefits of biochar as a soil amendment include increased food security and crop productivity, greenhouse gas reductions, increased resilience to climate change impacts, and poverty alleviation.

Many African soils are losing soil’s organic matter at dramatic rates, which has degraded soil fertility to an extent that threatens livelihoods of subsistence farmers in entire regions.  Biochar combined with organic fertilizer has been demonstrated in many small pilot projects in Africa and around the world to significantly increase soil productivity; retain more water; and sequester carbon, especially in highly weathered tropical soil.

P1020868.jpgMilkiyas Ahmed, Lecturer, Jimma University, College of Agriculture, holding crop residue to be turned into biochar

While results vary depending on materials used to make the biochar, soil and crop type, fertilizer materials and climatic conditions, biochar increases productivity on average by 25% in tropical regions – and up to 80% if nutrient-rich feedstocks are used to make the biochar. If the soil is of extremely poor quality to begin with, productivity increase due to biochar can be significantly greater, yielding 100% to 500% increases.

Another benefit is improved soil fertility when biochar use, combined with planting perennial tree crops, pulls more CO2 out of the air.  That carbon is then stored in increased amounts in above-ground biomass and root systems.  Those trees’ root systems then further contribute to soil health.  Additionally, the ability to sell perennial crops with higher yields, gained when using biochar and natural fertilizer, will generate higher revenues.

P1020873.jpgBins used to compost biochar with different fertilizer materials

Biochar systems, when properly designed, aregreenhouse-gas neutral.  They even become greenhouse-gas negative when they sequester carbon in woody biomass, roots and soils, and more microbes increase soil carbon.  As well, heat or combustible gases can be recovered from the biochar production process to generate usable renewable energy or electricity. In Africa, biochar produced with individual “cook stoves” has been used to generate heat as a clean, renewable energy for cooking.  When biochar is produced on a larger scale in big machines, a combustible, renewable gas can be fed into an electric generator to serve a micro-grid. Energy production from biochar production in some cases in Africa could generate revenues.

As well as direct benefits to agricultural production, biochar combined with agroforestry can improve water use efficiency; protect watersheds, water quality and water quantity; and decrease deforestation pressures.Without these measures, the outlook for subsistence farmers and food security in Africa is grim, especially in the face of increasing duration and frequency of droughts due to climate change and explosive African population growth.

P1020884.jpgPlots for testing the impact of different biochar plus fertilizer combinations

IN THE FIELD

On a recent trip to Ethiopia, I visited a biochar pilot project conducted at the University of Jimma in collaboration with Cornell University.  The project is evaluating the effectiveness of different formulas for co-composting biochar with natural fertilizers.  This work is being done in tandem with several dozen farmers incorporating biochar in their fields.

Jimma is on the Awetu River about 150 miles southwest of Addis Ababa, not far from the lakes of the Great Rift Valley.  It was my first visit to sub-Saharan Africa and my first visit to fields of small farmers there. Milkiyas Ahmed, a faculty member at the Agricultural College, gave me a tour of the biochar production machines.  I saw vats where the biochar co-composting is done, and plots where different crops are grown, with and without the biochar amendment.  In the trees around the experimental plots, black-and-white monkeys eyed the tender young plants.  A guard stood ready to scare them off if necessary.

P1020922.jpgA farmer in the village who has seen gains from biochar

We walked through the village of farmers with whom Milkiyas worked.  We visited fields of the farmer who set the highest bar for producing and using the biochar.  His method for making biochar in a hole in the ground was a very low-cost method indeed. The multi-cropped fields, containing a variety of perennial trees, enhanced a beautiful landscape.  There were two young boys swimming in a stream that ran through the fields on that warm Sunday afternoon.  One could only hope and expect that the water quality was safe and swimmable — which it could be with the right set of agricultural practices.

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All photos © Alice LeBlanc.

Hatcheries: Helpful or Harmful?

By Bianca T. Esposito, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison Jones, NWNL Director)

NWNL research intern Bianca T. Esposito is a senior at Syracuse University studying Biology and minoring in Economics. Her research focuses primarily on how watershed degradation affects biodiversity.

Salmon Fish Ladder.jpgFigure 1. Salmon utilizing a manmade fish ladder to bypass a dam in their quest for migration. (Creative Commons)

“Elders still tell stories about the tears tribal fishermen shed as they watched salmon throwing themselves against the newly constructed Grand Coulee Dam.”
-John Sorois, Coordinator of Upper Columbia United Tribes

What are the impacts of hatchery and why do we need them? Hatcheries were created in the late 1800’s to reduce the decline of fish populations caused by hydroelectric dam development. Hatcheries (Figure 2) are part of a fish farming system that produces artificial populations of anadromous fish for future release into the wild. Upon release, these fish enter a freshwater location, specifically a tributary, with no dam to bypass on their way to and from the ocean. Anadromous fish, such as salmon, white sturgeon and lamprey spend most of their life at sea, but return to their native tributaries in freshwater to spawn. Once anadromous fish spawn, they die off and the life cycle is continued to be carried out by the next generation of juveniles. Since returning to their native breeding grounds is a necessity for anadromous fish, hatchery-raised fish released into tributaries without dams is one way to combat this impediment of migration that dams have created.

In this blog, we will look at hatcheries as they relate to the declining salmon populations in the Columbia River Basin.

Besides hatcheries, another way for salmon to bypass the dams constructed along the Columbia River Basin is with the use of fish ladders or fish passages built on the dams (Figures 1 and 3). However, these methods can be harmful to the salmon. Fish ladders require that salmon climb up many platforms to access the reservoir on the other side of the dam. There is evidence that supports claims of an increased rate of exhaustion in salmon utilizing the ladder. Ultimately this leads to avoidance of the ladder and decreased migration rates of salmon.

Jones_070623_WA_1904.jpgFish ladder at Rocky Reach Dam on the Columbia River

Hatcheries are an attempt to overcome this low success rate of released salmon returning to tributaries. Stock transfers are one hatchery approach whereby salmon eggs are incubated and hatched in one part of the basin and then shipped to streams all over for release. This method of stock transfer is used to re-populate areas in which salmon populations are declining, or in places they no longer inhabit. However, because of the changes in location, these farmed salmon have trouble returning to the reassigned tributary, since  instinctively they would return to their birth stream.

Another major problem hatcheries face is that once artificially-grown salmon are released, they still have to face the same problems that confront wild salmon. These challenges include water pollution, degraded habitats, high water temperatures, predators and overfishing. However, the salmon who mature on the farm have no prior experience on how to handle these threats, which is one reason they face very low survival rates. Overall, these artificial salmon are not considered as “fit” for survival, nor do they have the ability to adapt to the environment in which they are released because they grew up on a farm.

USFWS Fish Transfer to Little White Salmon NFH (19239836984).jpgFigure 2. The raceways where salmon are kept at Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery in Washington State. (Creative Commons)

In the 1980’s fisheries moved towards a more “ecosystem-management” approach. They began conserving wild, naturally spawning stocks, as well as hatchery-bred fish. Yet, the overbearing problem with this method was that if hatchery-bred fish were to mate with wild fish, it could cause genetic and ecological damage.

A shift has been made towards utilizing “supplementation facilities”, a more natural, albeit artificial environment for raising the fish that includes shade, rocks, sand, and various debris typical of their natural habitat. This natural approach allows the salmon somewhat “ready” for the wild. The idea behind this technique is that after the salmon are released into streams and spend time in the ocean, they know to return to that tributary to spawn, instead of the hatchery. While this method has increased the number of adult salmon returning to spawn, it still bears the negative possibility of genetically compromising the remaining gene pool of the wild fish.

Besides the genetic problems faced with breeding artificial salmon alongside with wild salmon, breeding solely within hatcheries can also ultimately lead to inbreeding depression. This results in the salmon having a reduced biological fitness that limits their survival due to breeding related individuals. Additionally, artificial selection and genetic modification by fish farms can also cause reduced fitness in reproductive success, swimming endurance and predator avoidance. Another reason farmed salmon are not as “fit” as wild salmon is due to the treatment they receive in the hatchery. The food salmon are fed is not healthy for them – its main purpose is to make them grow faster. This forced rapid growth can lead to numerous health problems.

Diseases experienced in fish farms are also experienced in the wild. They occur naturally and are caused by pathogens such as bacteria, viruses and parasites. What exacerbates disease in a fish farm is overcrowding, which makes it fairly easy for the disease to spread throughout the hatchery. Specifically with viral infections, those who may not show symptoms of disease can be carriers of the virus and transmit further, whether in the farm or after their release into the wild. Consequently, once they are transported and deposited across river basins to be released, these diseases then go on to affect wild salmon with no immunity to the disease they have acquired. This decline in wild salmon has also caused declining effects in their predator populations, such as bears, orcas and eagles.

John Day Dam Fish Ladder.jpg Figure 3. The fish ladder at John Day Dam in Washington State. (Creative Commons)

Along with all the negatives that come with farm fish, the high production from hatcheries eliminates the need to regulate commercial and recreational harvest. So, because of the production from hatcheries, overfishing continues. Hatcheries have become a main source of economic wealth because they provide for the commercial harvests, as well as local harvests. A permanent and sustainable solution to combat the decline of wild salmon populations remains to be found. This problem continues to revolve around the construction and use of hydroelectric dams which provide the main source for electricity in the region; greatly reduce flood risks; and store water for drinking and irrigation.

The concept that hatcheries are compensating for the loss of fish populations caused by human activity is said by some to be like a way to “cover tracks” for past wrongdoings because it does nothing to help the naturally wild salmon at all. Hatcheries are only a temporary solution to combat the decline of the salmon population.

Jones_070615_BC_3097.jpgFish and river steward on the Salmo River

What we really need is an increase of spawning in wild salmon and to ensure that they have a way to survive the dams as they make their way to sea. Reforestation and protection of small spawning streams is one part of the solution. A more permanent, albeit partial, solution would be to find a way to advance the electricity industry reducing the need for hydropower. Until we find a way to make this happen, hatcheries seem to be a helpful way to continue to support the salmon-based livelihoods, as well as human food needs and preferences. Unfortunately, hatcheries do nothing to help the current situation of wild anadromous salmon in the Columbia River Basin.

In April of this year, the Lake Roosevelt Forum in Spokane WA outlined a 3-phase investigation into reintroducing salmon and steelhead to the Upper Columbia River Basin in both the US and Canada. In March 2016, Phase 1 began, dealing with the planning and feasibility of possible reintroduction. The study, expected to be released in 2018, concerns habitat and possible donor stock for reestablishing runs. All work on the studies are mostly complete and are predicted to be suitable for hundreds to thousands, or even millions of salmon. Forty subpopulations of salmon species have been identified and ranked for feasibility, including the Sockeye, Summer/Fall Chinook, Spring Chinook, Coho and Steelhead. The Confederated Tribe of the Colville Reservation stated they are waiting for one last permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Then they can begin the second phase of the decades-long research process using pilot fish release this fall.

Jones_110912_WA_2832-2.jpgChinook hatchery salmon underwater

Phase Two will be the first time salmon have returned to the upper Columbia River Basin in almost 80 years. This blockage came from the completion of the Grand Coulee Dam in the late 1930’s and Chief Joseph Dam in 1955. The Confederation Tribes of the Colville Reservation fish managers plan to truck these salmon around the dam, since constructing a fish ladder would be too costly. Funding currently comes from tribes and federal agencies. Possible additional funding may come from the Environment and Climate Change Canada and the renegotiation of Columbia River Transboundary Treaty.

Renegotiations of the 1964 Columbia River Transboundary Treaty between the United States and Canada is currently underway. The first meeting took place in Washington D.C. on May 29 and 30, 2018. Just weeks ago the U.S. emphasized their stance on continuing careful management of flood risks and providing a reliable and economical power source while recognizing ecosystem concerns. The next meeting will take place in British Columbia on August 15 and 16, 2018. However,  tribes are not pleased with their exclusion from negotiating teams. Tribes excluded consist of the Columbia Basin’s Native American tribes, primarily in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, and First Nation tribes in British Columbia, Canada.

Jones_070614_BC_0372.jpgMural of human usage of salmon in British Columbia

NWNL Director’s Addendum re: a just-released study: Aquaculture production of farmed fish is bigger than yields of wild-caught seafood and is growing by about 6% per year, yielding 75 million tons of seafood.  While it is a very resource-efficient way to produce protein and improve global nutrition and food security, concerns are growing about the sustainability of feeding wild “forage fish,” (eg: anchovies, herring and sardines) to farmed fish so they will grow better and faster. These small fish are needed prey for seabirds, marine mammals and larger fish like salmon. A June 14 study suggests soy might be a more sustainable alternative to grinding fishmeal for farmed seafood and livestock.

Bibliography:

Close, David. U.S. Department of Energy, accessed June 5, 18 by BE, website
Northwest Power and Conservation Council, accessed June 12, 18 by BE, website
Animal Ethics, accessed June 12, 18 by BE, website
Aquaculture, accessed June 12, 18 by BE, website
Luyer, Jeremy. PNAS, accessed on June 12, 18 by BE, website
Simon, David. MindBodyGreen, accessed on June 14 by BE, website
Kramer, Becky. The Spokesman-Review, accessed on June 14, 18 by BE, website
Harrison, John. Northwest Power and Conservation Council, accessed on June 14, 18 by BE, website
Schwing, Emily. Northwest News Network, accessed on June 14, 18 by BE, website
Office of the Spokesperson. U.S. Department of State, accessed on June 14, 18 by BE, website
 The Columbia Basin Weekly Fish and Wildlife News Bulletin, accessed on June 14, 18 by BE, website

Unless otherwise noted, all photos © Alison M. Jones.

Agua es Vida

By Connie Bransilver for NWNL
(Edited by Alison Jones, NWNL Director)

Photographs by Connie Bransilver

Connie is a Founding Senior Fellow at International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP, NWNL’s Fiscal Sponsor). She  recently returned to her native New Mexico from Naples, FL. Connie has been a professional nature photographer for 26 years, working in all seven continents. Her major work has been with rare lemurs in Madagascar, and human-wildlife interactions throughout Indonesia. See more of her work on her website.

IMG_6579 Rio Grande north of Montano.jpgRio Grande north of Montano, New Mexico

Throughout the middle Rio Grande Basin acequias (ditches) and the public paths on either side, connect neighbors, knit communities, irrigate agricultural fields in season, and are now caught in a Gordian Knot of rights to scarce water. Their cultural and social significance for traditional Hispanic and tribal communities are deep. But after the mid 1800s, when the United States acquired the southwest from Mexico, the value of water, always scarce, ran counter to those values.

Understanding the centrality of the acequias in traditional agrarian life along the Rio Grande is understanding the dependence of Native American, Spanish and eventually, even Anglo lives in honoring, beneficially using, and exploiting the waters. Traditionally, acequias provided water for all uses, along with communal obligations for their care and maintenance. They endure because of “querencia,” meaning attachment to place and respect for the land, nature and the miraculous water that sustains body, mind and spirit. The questions of who, if anyone, owns the rights to what water usage has split villages and cultures, and clogged courtrooms for hundreds of years.

IMG_4314 Acequia path dogwalker.jpgAcequia path dog-walker 

Rio Grande headwaters lie in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. Passing through New Mexico the Rio Grande trickles along 1,885 miles into the Gulf of Mexico, creating the Texas-Mexico border and making the Rio Grande the fourth longest river system in North America. Agua es Vida; so custody battles between Colorado, California, the Navajo Nation, pueblos along the river, burgeoning cities (like Albuquerque), and dams (like Elephant Butte holding water for Texas and Mexico) result in traditions butting against new laws and regulations, and fierce court battles without clear resolution.  Demands grow as water becomes increasingly scarce.

Once alive and sacred, the Rio Grande formed the centerpiece of the Puebloan world. Wide, muddy, meandering, shifting braids of water, sometimes drying to a trickle, other times widening into a broad swamp (or cienega), taking homes and fields hostage, are now harnessed by technology, governed by an elaborate web of laws and uses for economic growth.  Therein lies the essential conflict: competing claims challenging ownership of the flow.

IMG_4358 Weir open for flow.jpgWeir open for flow

The first Spaniards reached the middle Rio Grande around 1541, but did not find the gold they sought. Instead they found, and used, the natives who suffered at their hands until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. By 1692 Spain had sent armed soldiers, settlers (including, we now know, many Jewish “conversos” fleeing the Inquisition) and priests to tame the Indians.  With Juan de Oñate and his men came the systems of acequias and land rights via massive land grants from the King and Queen of Spain to secure settlement. Foreign to the native populations living along the river, this Iberian mastery of controlling and distributing water was rooted in the Moorish occupation of Iberia, and also in ancient Rome and the Middle East. Native Americans had instead lived with the rhythms of the river, never aiming to master it. Those who survived, and whose pueblos remained viable, soon adopted the network of acequias to maintain their agriculture, still based on the golden triangle of corn, beans and squash that provide a nearly complete human diet while simultaneously regenerating the soil.  Spanish recipients of huge land grants applied their own brand of subsistence agriculture. Both communities honored the land and the water.

IMG_4359 Acequia, paths and adobe home.jpgAcequia, paths and adobe home

Spain yielded to Mexico, then Mexico lost this land to the United States in 1847 in the Mexican-American War.  Then followed a wave of Anglos arriving from the East who sought fortune. They also brought a profound ignorance of the indigenous, irrigation-based culture that had sustained this fragile land for centuries.

Now the mighty Rio Grande’s life-giving waters are shrinking. Warmer winters yield less moisture, increasingly delivered as rain rather than snow in the headwaters. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that the San Juan Mountains are “at the bull’s eye of the future drought region.”1 While Anglo technocrats consider the acequias as anachronisms, the acequias have recently joined into a state-wide umbrella organization to push back against unrestricted transfers of water rights.  In this part of the world, water rights, or the right to use water transfer separately from surface rights.

IMG_4323 Weir releasing irrigation water.jpgWeir releasing irrigation water 

And what of the competing needs for water? Increasingly the courts are looking at Queen Isabella’s 1492 will, forming the basis of Pueblo, Spanish and Mexican claims to water. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially ended the war with Mexico, acquired Nuevo Mexico and other lands in the West, and honored existing claims to water that were in place at the time. Those rights extend back to the 1492 will. Thus the claims to precious water in the Middle Rio Grande — between Cochiti Dam to the north and Elephant Butte Dam to the south, where half the state’s population resides — may ultimately be defined by that 500-year-old Spanish document.

In the meantime, my village, Los Ranchos, and all the adjacent villages along the Middle Rio Grande, share the pathways and rural culture of the web of acequias. Neighbors greet neighbors and work together to maintain the water flow – Hispanics, Anglos, Indians and all the mixtures among them. Questions about how the river can meet all the demands of its people might even be turned around. Maybe current residents value the agricultural ambiance and natural environment supported by the water and the acequia systems more than continued growth. A broader conversation on the value of water might begin now.

IMG_6578 Rio Grande north of Montano from balloon.jpgRio Grande north of Montano from balloon

Footnotes

 

  1. Reining in the Rio Grande – People, Land and Water, Fred M Phillips, G. Emlen Hall, Mary E. Black. University of New Mexico Press, 2011.

Other Sources

Iberian Origins of New Mexico’s Community Acequias, Jose A. Rivera, University of New Mexico and Thomas F. Glick, Boston University. NewMexicoHistory.org.
Prior-appropriation water rights,” Wikipedia.
“New Mexico files counterclaim in water suit: Texas accused of mismanaging water, hurting farmers in NM,” Michael Coleman, Albuquerque Journal Washington Bureau, Albuquerque Journal, May 24, 2018.

 

Wild and Scenic River: Missouri River

The Missouri River is the longest U.S. river – longer even than the Mississippi River into which it flows.  Two sections of the Missouri River that flow between Nebraska and South Dakota have been protected from development under the Wild and Scenic River Act, established in 1968.  Fifty-nine miles were added on November 10, 1978, and thirty-nine miles on May 24, 1991.  Taken together,  ninety-eight miles of the Missouri River have been classified as being of “Recreational” importance, based on their many access points, roads, railroads, and bridges.  The designated areas are from Gavins Point Dam to Ponca State Park NEB and from Ft. Randall Dam to the Lewis and Clark Lake.

According to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System website, these two designated stretches of the Missouri River are among the last free-flowing segments of the river, and thus still exhibit the river’s dynamic character in its islands, bars, chutes and snags – characteristics that make it a “braided river.” The Missouri River is the primary western tributary to the Mississippi River, a NWNL case study watershed. For more information about the these reaches of the Missouri River, view the NWNL 2017 Missouri River – Nebraska Expedition on our website.

The following pictures are from that expedition and the 2017 Central Platte River Basin expedition. 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/missouri-ne-sd.php

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.