World Water Day 2022 Groundwater: Making the invisible visible

Watered Fields

Our Efforts Above Ground

Secure What Is Hidden Below

Across the world, water remains one of the most vital resources for human, animal, plant and ecosystem health.  Whether we live in an area where water is not typically scarce or in an area where water availability is a constraint for community health and growth, the need for reliably safe, sufficient water unites us all.  Water is what we are made of and what makes our lives and livelihoods whole.

In agriculture, we are especially tasked with being good stewards and champions of water management.  While groundwater provides vital irrigation for hundreds of millions of acres worldwide, it is also responsible for supplying drinking water to roughly half of the population of the world. Despite this dual importance, groundwater is often overlooked across the U.S. and around the globe. The unmitigated effects of climate change mean that the quality and quantity of available groundwater are in more danger now than perhaps at any time in our history.

If we truly believe groundwater is as important as we say it is for life and health, what steps are we taking to protect it for the long-term?  Many of the regenerative, climate-smart, carbon cropping practices that are being promoted worldwide are based on the need for us to drive carbon from the atmosphere into the ground, sequester it there and eliminate additional carbon from being emitted.  These practices, such as reduced or no-till, cover cropping and sustainable livestock and pasture management have the additional benefit of protecting groundwater availability and purity. Using conservation practices, we build healthier soils; soils that maintain stable structures, cycle nutrients and support healthy and diverse root systems. In turn, we are also building a framework that allows for water to enter soils efficiently and be captured for optimal use.

Securing groundwater through conservation agriculture

The use of cover crops, plant species that are either planted with, before or after the primary crops, allows for nutrients freely available in soils to be captured, utilized and cycled before they can be lost via runoff, leaching or other methods that cause pollution to ground or surface waters.  Cover crops protect the soil surface from being left bare and vulnerable to wind and water erosion, which could erase the natural process of in situ soil development and be detrimental to water capture and storage.These varied species of cover crops bring with them diverse root sizes and structures that provide new, vital channels for precipitation to vertically enter the soil structure and replenish groundwater reserves, rather than be lost horizontally from runoff. These additional plant species also accelerate the accumulation of organic material and organic matter in the soil, which can be directly correlated with additional water holding capacity. According to the United States Department of Agriculture -Natural Resources Conservation Service, a 1% increase in soil organic matter can increase water holding capacity by over 20,000 gallons per acre. 

In a similar way, the reduction or elimination of tillage and soil disturbance can have a profound impact on groundwater.  Tillage hinders the stable progress of soil structure development.  By reducing even just one tillage pass, soil aggregates are allowed to build and mature for a longer period of time and soil structure is preserved for more beneficial water retention and accessibility.  Movement towards the elimination of tillage and soil disturbance has the capacity to create soils with balanced macropores, micropores, water and air content.  This balance translates to optimal water infiltration into the soil, robust water filtration within the soil structure and ultimately, replenished groundwater levels.

The conservation practices mentioned, as well as a host of others, help maintain a more stable, quality supply of groundwater.  Available, safe groundwater is vital to maximizing plant and animal growth, which are essential for resilient human and ecosystem communities in the face of a warming climate.

 

Article by John Pullis & Seth Urbanowitz, Agronomists at Agoro Carbon Alliance US.