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Soil Health Practices for Mitigating Natural Disasters

Posted by Elizabeth Creech, Natural Resources Conservation Service in Disaster
Feb 28, 2018
Agricultural damage from Hurricane Harvey
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue surveyed agricultural damage from Hurricane Harvey from Houston to El Campo, Texas, on September 21, 2017. Photo credit: Lance Cheung, USDA

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reports that more than 25 million Americans – almost 8 percent of the population – were affected by major disasters in 2017. From severe flooding in Puerto Rico and Texas to mudslides and wildfires in California, major natural disasters in 2017 cost over $306 billion nationally. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information, this is a new annual record.

Dr. Daniel Kaniewski, FEMA’s Deputy Administrator for Protection and National Preparedness, said, “Investing in mitigation activities before the next disaster is the key to building a more resilient nation.” We cannot prevent natural disasters, but we do have the power to prepare for and potentially reduce their impacts through advanced planning.

What is the role of soil health in natural disaster mitigation?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to preparing for natural disasters. Steps for planning ahead will engage our nation’s infrastructure, emergency responders, private citizens and members of every level of government. Dr. Bianca Moebius-Clune, Soil Health Division Director with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), believes our nation’s farms, ranches, forests and even backyards have a role to play in providing mitigation benefits as well.

“We can’t make it rain, nor can we prevent a hurricane,” says Moebius-Clune. “But land managers can manage their land to increase the soil’s ability to take in, or infiltrate and drain, rainwater.” Increasing the amount of rainwater that infiltrates into the ground across the landscape ultimately decreases soil erosion and the potential for flooding by giving rain that could become flood water a place to go. “Soils that hold more water are also beneficial to crops in periods of drought,” adds Moebius-Clune. “That is another significant benefit of soil health management practices.”

By building healthier soils, land managers across the nation can increase human safety and protect critical infrastructure for all Americans when disaster events occur. Natural disasters impact us all. Improving the health of our nation’s soils is one step we can take to prepare for and ultimately mitigate those impacts.

What does managing for soil health look like?

Soil health is the capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem to support plants, animals and humans.

Whether managing an urban backyard or 1,000 acres of cropland, Moebius-Clune notes that key soil health management principles remain largely unchanged. “Healthy soils are generally undisturbed with abundant and diverse life, no compaction and relatively high levels of organic matter and stable aggregates.”

NRCS recommends four major principles for building healthy soils: minimize soil disturbance, maximize soil cover, maximize biodiversity and maximize the presence of living roots.

Farmers are encouraged to adopt conservation practices like no-till, crop rotations and cover crops to achieve these goals, but farmers aren’t the only ones able to make a difference. Soil health management principles can apply in nearly all human managed landscapes when properly adapted, even in small backyards.

How do soil health management practices apply to suburban and urban environments?

“Many of us are land managers around our own homes,” says Moebius-Clune. “If we can maintain a diversity of organisms – including plants that provide living roots throughout most of the year – and if we can refrain from disturbing and compacting our soils as much as possible, we can ultimately improve the ability of our backyard soils to take in water.”

With the amount of urban land in the United States more than quadrupling over the past 70 years, the land stewardship of private homeowners can contribute more to mitigation now than ever before.

“Roughly two-thirds of the land in the lower 48 states is privately owned, says Moebius-Clune. “The management decisions we make across every piece of that land contributes to the impact of those rainfall events that can either recharge the soil and groundwater, or contribute to the next flood.”

For more information on how you can build healthy soils, visit our website at www.nrcs.usda.gov.

A house with a rain garden
Rain gardens are depressed areas planted with perennial flowers and native vegetation that are meant to infiltrate rainwater. Rain gardens can be planted in yards or curb strips to provide plant diversity and living roots and ultimately improved water infiltration. Photo credit: Jason Johnson, USDA-NRCS
Category/Topic: Disaster

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Comments

JOSEPH DUNN
Mar 01, 2018

I work as both a soil conservation district manager and my home town's emergency manager. I am also a practicing forester. There needs to be a prioritization of scale based on density. Long ago the Washington Areas Council determined that after a certain percentage of impervious coverage that water quality would be impaired. As an Emergency Mgr. I would find it helpful to know when density, impervious cover combine to a point where measures need to be addressed. While the approach of soil health practices is good everywhere so apply them everywhere. This does not take into consideration the cost nor the priority. More helpful would be a layout where a 1/4 acre residential over a drainage area cover with 15% impervious cover needs to apply soil health practices rather then the 10 ac residential rural zoning with 1% impervious over the drainage area. USDA's Urban Hydrologic Model TR55 has a widely used chart regarding the runoff potential of a variety of soil types based on cover/zoning. A similar expression would be helpful to planners when considering developments, re-zoning, variances or master plan reviews. In this data the Town's Emergency Manager and Municipal Planner can find common ground.

Thanks for hearing me out.

Jim Boak
Mar 11, 2018

I have been involved in agricultural production for over 60 years and involved in almost every facet of the industry.
When I look back to how my father and our neighbours managed their farms compared with today the differences in the the environmental impact of my fathers management compared to what I ended up doing are quite alarming. My father's operation had a positive impact on the environment whereas the management methods I and my colleagues employed have had a negative impact on the environment.

The most obvious differences are the rapid growth of corn and soybeans planted as row crops, the loss of cereal grain acres, the concentration of livestock, the removal of fences and the value of the end use product (feed and food) not changing in relation to the increase in the input costs.

We are not able to do a paradigm shift backward but it would be very easy to shift away from row crops to solid seeded crops especially in corn and soybeans. The equipment exists and the knowledge exists. The ability to think out of the box has the brakes on progress. The shift to solid planting would automatically bring cereals like wheat back into the rotation as the equipment would be in common reducing both the cost and and the time required as well as resulting in better soil health and lower input costs.

We should be looking into promoting and supporting solid seeded methods which result in significant economic and environmental improvements.