Protecting soil and water is a topic that is on a lot of minds these days. As regular consumers of water (I try to get my 8 glasses a day) we want our water to be clean. We don’t want it polluted with any chemicals that might make it taste bad – or worse, be harmful to us. Farmers have a vested interest in keeping soil healthy to raise better crops and to have access to clean water supplies for their livestock. And we all probably care about wildlife and natural ecosystems. Fish and other aquatic animals need clean water as habitat just like you and I need clean air to breathe.
We all play a role in caring for our soil and water. Here in Iowa, the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Department of Natural Resources and Iowa State University are leading the Nutrient Reduction Strategy that will use a science driven approach to reduce nutrients (primarily nitrogen and phosphorus) in surface water from point and non-point sources. Farmers are charged with using more precise methods in applying fertilizer as well as adopting other practices that in some cases can significantly reduce the nutrients that run off fields or that are leached through the soil and into waterways. But, urban residents and commercial industries also play a part in this because water pollutants don’t only come from farms.
To learn more about some of the strategies that farmers are using to help protect water and soil, we’ve done some investigation for you.
- Cover Crops: Cover crops can reduce nutrient loss. Plants in cover crops use nitrogen and phosphorus that might leach through. Cover crops help hold top soil in place so that it doesn’t runoff into nearby waterways. Cover crops can provide environmental benefits too. Cover crops like clover can increase soil health by adding nitrogen. Cover crops help hold water in the soil.
- No-Till: By not tilling a field after harvesting or before planting the dead organic matter stays on the soil surface. This ‘litter’ can protect and hold the soil in place during a rainstorm allowing water to be absorbed more slowly and not letting it run off and carry soil with it.
- Buffer Strips near Riparian Areas: A riparian buffer zone is natural plants and habitat along streams, lakes, and wetlands. Buffer zones are an important conservation tool. They filter water runoff from fields and provide wildlife and fish habitat.
- Fertilizer & Pesticide Reduction: Precision farming allows farmers to test their fields and then record the data on maps. Farmers can then use GPS technology to apply fertilizers only to parts of the field that need it. This allows farmers to use less. Some plants and seeds have been modified to be resistant to pests. This new technology allows farmers to spray less chemicals on the crops.
- Manure Management: Animal waste is an important fertilizer for fields. But, too much can be a problem. Management systems are designed for proper handling, storage, and use of manure from confined animals. Waste from the confinement area is collected into waste storage structures.
- Off Stream Watering Tanks and Alternative Shade: Sometimes sediment can be churned up and manure can enter waterways when animals wade in the stream to drink. Animals like cattle also like to spend time near streams and take advantage of natural shade from tree growth. Off-stream watering tanks reduce the time animals spend at the stream under small acreage grazing conditions. An animal-operated pasture pump that pulls water from the creek can be installed. Animal productivity increases while protecting the riparian area. Planting shade trees away from the water and away from the stream bank will also help stream bank stability and allow for the riparian vegetation zone to improve.
- Livestock Stream Crossing: Cattle need a lot of water (sometimes 12 to 24 gallons a day!). Going down to a stream often can erode the banks of the river. Providing livestock with a controlled stream crossing will allow for them to drink or cross at managed points and reduce random trampling of stream banks and decrease the risk of animal injury. Farmers can install fencing that directs animals to a controlled access point. The access point can be covered with coarse gravel to provide the animals firm footing and discourage wallowing.
Urban and suburban residents can play a part too! Many water pollutants come from residential and commercial areas such as leaky septic systems, road and housing construction, storm water run-off from parking lots and streets, and waste water treatment problems. Here are some ideas you could implement to help mediate these problems in your community.
- Low Impact Lawns: Managing your lawn to use the least amount of water, fertilizer and herbicides possible helps prevent pollutant run-off. Plant native grass species that grow well in your local climate. Have your soil tested to find out the amount of fertilizer that is truly necessary for your lawn.
- Rain Gardens: Roof gardens are part of a low impact development strategy that help capture and utilize rainwater. A shallowly depressed landscape area is designed to capture runoff from roofs, driveways and other impervious surfaces. Water is captured in the garden where it is held for a short period of time (no more than two days) until it naturally infiltrates into the surrounding soil or is utilized by plants. These gardens are planted with water-tolerant flowers, shrubs and grasses. They make use of perennial vegetation because the root systems of these plants allow for better infiltration of the soil and help hold the soil in place.
- Silt Fencing: A silt fence is a temporary sediment control device used on construction sites or in other areas of disturbed land to protect water quality in nearby streams, rivers, lakes and seas from sediment in stormwater runoff and allow for re-vegetation or permanent soil stabilization to begin. They are simple and low cost.
- Buffer Strips near Riparian Areas: A riparian buffer zone is natural plants and habitat along streams, lakes, and wetlands. Buffer zones are an important conservation tool. They filter storm water runoff from parking lots and provide wildlife and fish habitat.
- Education Campaign: Communities could inform their residents about the potential hazardous effects of runoff including nitrates, sediment and hazardous chemicals. Materials could be provided on water quality and best practices for reducing water runoff. Materials could also be provided for the proper handling, storage and disposal of chemicals.
- Waste Disposal Program: Municipalities can form a partnership with private sanitary services or environmental service groups to help collect hazardous wastes. These ventures can be costly and would require planning before implementation. It is also important to repair and maintain waste treatment systems and septic systems to ensure they work properly and discharge is clean.
None of these solutions represent a silver bullet or perfect answer. They don’t all work in all scenarios. Ultimately it is up to the landowner to implement these solutions, picking the solution(s) that work best for their unique situation. But all of them together implemented in a scientific and cost effective manner could make a big difference in ensuring clean water and healthy soil!