A weekly blog for all things conservation
By: Nathan Dewing, Agricultural Team Leader
Think about all the places where you like water to be. The list might include the backyard babbling brook, the seashore, beside the Lake House, under your boat, household plumbing, and your glass complete with ice cubes. There are also plenty of places where you don’t want it like your yard, driveway, basement, or living room. To get it right, we must look at our soil.
Water infiltration into the soil is key to any discussion about excess surface water. As has been said many times, when we talk about runoff problems (like flooding), we are probably talking about symptoms. The real problem is likely infiltration (or something deeper). Certainly, our development practices have decreased our soil’s ability to absorb water, but so have our modern farming practices, which is exactly opposite of what farms and crops need. We can learn again how to get water into the soil.
A healthy soil’s volume is 50% open space. These pore spaces are for holding and transporting air, water, and dissolved substances. All too often, our soil management destroys these vital pores, reducing soil to a compacted mass of sand, silt, and clay, with little capacity for water, not to other essential soil organisms.
Conventional thinking has been that we can increase a soil’s ability to absorb water by breaking it up. We turn it, break it, groove it, perforate it, rough it, slice it, dice it, you name it. Makes sense at first, until we find that following its first water contact, it seals up tighter than it was before. We set the soil back whenever we destroy its hard-earned pore space. This is one of the concepts that motivates farmers and growers to learn about producing crops without tillage. “No-till” they call it, and the practice of it is growing. In 2002, 20% of Pennsylvania Crops were produced without tillage. By 2014, that number had increased to over 60%.
Getting water into the soil benefits the entire community in a myriad of ways. More water in, means less water running off. Less runoff means less surface water contamination. More water in, means more crop to harvest. Our management makes a difference. One farmer tells his story about changing soil management practices, allowing soil to develop structure (including these vital pore spaces). He recounts seeing water infiltration increase from 1 inch per hour to over 5 inches per hour in a few short years. Even to the point where his neighbors were asking him to hide his bumper-crop of hay because it would affect their crop insurance payments in a “drought” year.
Healthy soil starts with allowing good structure to develop. US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) notes 4 keys to developing good soil structure. They include minimize soils disturbance, keep the soil covered, maximize living roots, and energize with diversity.
NRCS lists the core functions of soil as: Supplying plant roots with water, air, and nutrients with minimum of inputs, Absorbing even the most intense rainfall with minimum of runoff, Breaking down and recycling "wastes" such as plant residues and manure, and Functioning on the highest level possible with minimum inputs.
Every ounce that goes in is an ounce that can’t wreak havoc down-hill. It’s all determined where water meets the soil.
The Bradford County Conservation District is committed to helping people manage resources wisely. You can visit the Bradford County Conservation District at 200 Lake Rd in Wysox across from the Wysox Fire Hall. Contact us at (570) 485-3144 or visit our web page at www.bccdpa.com.
Various staff at the Bradford County Conservation District