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Our Turn at This Earth: Could Regenerative Agriculture Save the Ogallala Aquifer?

Author: Julene Bair | Published: August 2, 2018

That’s the question I first asked myself some months ago when I began learning about the Soil Health movement. I’d seen a video of Ray Archuleta, the agronomist who spearheaded the movement, demonstrating how non-tilled versus conventionally farmed soils absorb water. When he placed a clump of soil from a field that had been tilled year after year into a jar of water, it immediately fell apart and turned the water brown, while a clump from a field farmed without tillage held together for over 24 hours. In another test, simulated rain just sat on top of the soil from the tilled field, while it thoroughly saturated the non-tilled soil. Ray attributed these differences to there being more pore spaces in the non-tilled sample.

Excited by the implications for water conservation, I paid a visit to the well-known North Dakota soil health advocate Gabe Brown, who showed me how that porosity occurs. In a field where he’d harvested corn the previous fall, then planted a cover crop of rye and hairy vetch, he pulled a vetch plant from the ground and pointed to chunks of soil that clung to its roots. Plant roots, he explained, secrete what he called exudates, which serve as food for microbes and other soil life, including fungi. The fungi return the favor by exuding glomalin, a sort of biological glue that allows soil to stick together. The resulting chunks of soil, known as aggregates, create the pore spaces that allow water to infiltrate and be retained.

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When Nature Says ‘Enough!’: The River That Appeared Overnight in Argentina

A new watercourse is playing havoc with farmland and roads and even threatening a city – but also highlights the potential cost of the country’s dependence on soya beans

Author: Uki Goñi | Published: April 1, 2018

After a night of heavy rainfall, Ana Risatti woke to an ominous roar outside her home. Mistaking the noise for a continuation of the night’s downpour, she stepped outside to look.

“I nearly fainted when I saw what it really was,” said Risatti, 71. Instead of falling from the sky, the water she heard was rushing down a deep gully it had carved overnight just beyond the wire fence around her home.

The sudden appearance of a network of new rivers in Argentina’s central province of San Luis has puzzled scientists, worried environmentalists and disheartened farmers. It has also raised urgent questions over the environmental cost of Argentina’s dependence on soya beans, its main export crop.

“The roar was terrifying,” said Risatti, remembering that morning three years ago. “The land had opened up like a canyon. Water was pushing through as far as I could see. Huge mounds of earth, grass and trees were being carried along the water surface.”

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How You Can Help Fix the Global Water Crisis

Humans may be depleting our water supply, but innovative methods say there’s a way to replenish it.

Author: Elaina Zachos | Published: December 27, 2017

The average American directly uses about 2,000 gallons of water each day. Your morning shower takes 17 gallons of water and growing the coffee beans for your cup of joe took upwards of 34 gallons. It takes 13 gallons of water to generate one gallon of gas, which adds up on your commute to work or school. The desktop computer you’ll sit at for a good portion of the day took about 7,300 gallons of water to make.

Before lunch, you’ve used up thousands of gallons of water. (Use this calculator to figure out your water footprint.)

Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project and former National Geographic Society Freshwater Fellow, demystifies humanity’s obsession with water in her new book Replenish. When National Geographic caught up with her in New Mexico, she explained how people are coming up with innovative ways to conserve water before we run dry.

The book begins in a Colorado canyon. Can you describe the scene?

The opening of the book describes a trip up through a canyon known as the Cache la Poudre. There had been a fire in this canyon the previous year, so you could see the blackened trees. I was heading to a family wedding, an outdoor wedding, and it looked like it was going to just start to pour at any minute. I was contemplating the sky. The wedding happened OK, but this was the beginning of a deluge that produced an enormous amount of flooding. Because the trees had been burned so recently, there was just a lot of erosion and a lot of tree trunks moving down through that canyon.

I opened the book with this story because I was there to see the canyon right before this happened but also to indicate that the combination of wildfires and flooding and drought is coming together. We’re moving into a very different period where the past is not going to be a very good guide for the future.

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Author Judith Schwartz Examines Water Management

Author: Tracy Frisch | Published: July 19, 2017

When writer Judith Schwartz learned that soil carbon is a buffer for climate change, her focus as a journalist took a major turn. She was covering the Slow Money National Gathering in 2010 when Gardener’s Supply founder Will Raap stated that over time more CO2 has gone into the atmosphere from the soil than has been released from burning fossil fuels. She says her first reaction was “Why don’t I know this?” Then she thought, “If this is true, can carbon be brought back to the soil?” In the quest that followed, she made the acquaintance of luminaries like Allan Savory, Christine Jones and Gabe Brown and traveled to several continents to see the new soil carbon paradigm in action. Schwartz has the gift of making difficult concepts accessible and appealing to lay readers, and that’s exactly what she does in Cows Save the Planet And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, which Elizabeth Kolbert called “a surprising, informative, and ultimately hopeful book.”

For her most recent project, Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World, Schwartz delves into the little-known role the water cycle plays in planetary health, which she illustrates with vivid, empowering stories from around the world. While we might not be able to change the rate of precipitation, as land managers we can directly affect the speed that water flows off our land and the amount of water that the soil is able to absorb. Trees and other vegetation are more than passive bystanders at the mercy of temperature extremes — they can also be powerful influences in regulating the climate.

The week after this interview was recorded, Schwartz travelled to Washington, D.C., to take part in a congressional briefing on soil health and climate change organized by Regeneration International. As a public speaker, educator, researcher and networker, she has become deeply engaged in the broad movement to build soil carbon and restore ecosystems.

ACRES U.S.A. Please explain the title of your book, Water in Plain Sight.

JUDITH D. SCHWARTZ. The title plays on the idea that there is water in plain sight if we know where to look. It calls attention to aspects of water that are right before us but we are not seeing. By this I mean how water behaves on a basic level, not anything esoteric.

ACRES U.S.A. How should we reframe the problems of water shortages, runoff and floods?

SCHWARTZ. Once we approach these problems in terms of how water moves across the landscape and through the atmosphere, our understanding shifts. For example, when we frame a lack of water as “drought,” our focus is on what water is or isn’t coming down from the sky. That leaves us helpless because there’s really not much we can do. But if we shift our frame from drought to aridification, then the challenge becomes keeping water in the landscape. That opens up opportunities.

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Fertilizers, a Boon to Agriculture, Pose Growing Threat to U.S. Waterways

Author: Tatiana Schlossberg  | Published: July 27, 2017 

Nitrogen-based fertilizers, which came into wide use after World War II, helped prompt the agricultural revolution that has allowed the Earth to feed its seven billion people.

But that revolution came at a cost: Artificial fertilizers, often applied in amounts beyond what crops need to grow, are carried in runoff from farmland into streams, lakes and the ocean. New research suggests that climate change will substantially increase this form of pollution, leading to more damaging algae blooms and dead zones in American coastal waters.

study published Thursday in Science concludes that eutrophication, excessive nutrient enrichment, is likely to increase in the continental United States as a result of the changes in precipitation patterns brought by climate change. Heavier rains caused by warmer temperatures will cause more agricultural runoff, sluicing more nutrients into rivers, lakes and oceans.

The authors found that future climate change-driven increases in rainfall in the United States could boost nitrogen runoff by as much as 20 percent by the end of the century.

“When we think about climate change, we are used to thinking about water quantity — drought, flooding, extreme rainfall and things along those lines,” said Anna Michalak, a professor of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif., and one of the authors of the study. “Climate change is just as tightly linked to issues related to water quality, and it’s not enough for the water to just be there, it has to be sustainable.”

Excess nitrogen from the fertilizers can cause eutrophication in the ocean, which can lead to harmful algae blooms or hypoxia — reduced levels of oxygen that create conditions in which organisms can’t survive.

The study’s authors looked at three emissions scenarios — high, stable and falling — in both the near and far future in more than 2,100 “subbasins” or watersheds in the continental United States.

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Reconsider the Impact of Trees On Water Cycles and Climate, Scientists Ask

Published: March 20, 2016 

Forests and trees play a major role on water cycles and cooler temperatures, contributing to food security and climate change adaptation. In recent decades, the climate change discourse has looked at forests and trees mostly as carbon stocks and carbon sinks, but now scientists are calling for more attention on the relation between trees and water in climate change.

Scientists suggest that the global conversation on trees, forests and climate needs to be turned on its head: the direct effects of trees on climate through rainfall and cooling may be more important than their well-studied capacity of storing carbon. A new publication and a symposium try to shed new light on the debate.

The research paper Trees, forests and water: Cool insights for a hot world compiles older knowledge and new research findings pointing at the important effects of trees on helping to retain water on the ground and to produce cooling moisture, which in turn have a positive impact on food security and climate change adaptation.

Authors are also participating in a two-day virtual symposium hosted by FTA, the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry. On the occasion of the International Day of Forests (March 21) and World Water Day (March 22), this virtual symposium will serve to discuss the findings of the paper and to new areas of research about the linkages of forests with water and climate.

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What We Can Learn From the California Drought

Author: Alice Cunningham| Published: February 7, 2017 

Over the past three weeks, continued rain and snow across California has, almost miraculously, lifted nearly half of the state out of drought. That’s a huge improvement from last February, when more than 95% of the state was listed as being in some form of drought. Large parts of the state have been under threat of extreme drought continuously for three consecutive years.

While those of us in California are thankful, counting on unreliable weather patterns to save us isn’t a viable approach to preparing for, or enduring, the kind of crippling drought our state has suffered through.

However, there are some very straightforward steps that can be taken to mitigate against both drought AND flood – two conditions of which California has had its share and which are linked by the extreme weather that accompanies climate change. These measures provide the most important protections that we have against drought and flood. Both are too often overlooked and taken for granted.

The first action we can take is planting trees and increasing forest cover around farmland. Trees help manage water: on average, one large tree can lift up to 100 gallons from the ground and discharge it through the air. Trees sequester carbon, clean water along streams, attract wildlife and prevent erosion through their root systems. They conserve soil by providing nutrients as their leaves and roots decay.

That takes us to our second and most important measure: healthy soil. Its holding capacity is simply remarkable: one percent of organic matter in the top six inches of soil could hold about 27,000 gallons of water per acre, according to the USDA. Increasing organic matter in topsoil increases holding capacity, making it capable of storing 20 times its own weight in water. Healthy soil makes the land itself far more resilient to drought, flood and other forms of extreme weather.

Healthy soil is full of life. Literally. Organic material, microorganisms, bacteria, arthropods, fungi, and air and water – all these things bring life to soil. This life, this fertility, makes it possible to grow plants naturally, without additional fertilizers or other inputs. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., sustainable soil management can produce up to 58 percent more food than soil managed under prevailing monoculture agricultural practices. And, the kind of healthy soil that makes this fertility possible is also porous, allowing water and air to move through it freely, a property that increases water-holding capacity, improving the land’s ability to better resist drought conditions and better work for us.

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California’s Drought Continues to Harm Native Tribes and Fishermen

Author: Kristine Wong | Published: February 3, 2017 

Native American communities have often embraced fish as an integral part of their diet and culture. For the Hoopa Valley people, a Native American tribe in Northern California not far from the Oregon border, that fish is salmon.

“We’re river people,” said tribal member Brittani Orona. “We depend a lot on water and the life that’s in the water for both our physical and cultural sustenance.” Salmon has historically been a staple of the tribe’s diet, as well as what members eat at Hoopa Valley “world renewal” dances, when they dance by the water or in a boat.

California’s historic drought—which has only just ended in Northern California after six years—has had profound impacts on food and culture for native tribes. Record-low numbers of salmon last year put many tribal members in a tough spot.

“We interviewed tribal fishermen, and they said for the first time they couldn’t catch any salmon” for their ceremonies, said Laura Feinstein, an ecologist and senior research associate at water think tank the Pacific Institute. “They had to use chicken instead.”

A new report from the Pacific Institute shows how communities particularly dependent on fish are especially at risk from the California drought. The report concludes that these groups have been affected by state policy that does not go far enough to protect non-endangered, commercially fished species.

“We wanted to talk about the connections between California water and fish beyond ‘fish vs. farms,’ because that framework ignores the people who rely on this fish for economic and cultural reasons,” said Feinstein.

As it stands, Feinstein said the state focuses its environment-related water policy on complying with the Endangered Species Act—which protects federally listed endangered runs of Chinook Salmon such as the California Coastal Chinook—through measures like maintaining adequate water flows.

Key to expanding the discussion, Feinstein said, is understanding how the California drought has affected the non-endangered species of salmon that tribes and commercial fishermen rely on. “There’s quite a bit of research on how the drought has affected the endangered salmon, but not about how it affects the non-endangered [salmon] runs,” she said.

In addition to its conclusion about commercial and tribal fishermen, the report also found that disadvantaged populations—low-income households, people of color, and communities already burdened with environmental pollution—have suffered the most from the water shortage.

In recent years, these Californians experienced a greater number of household water outages (due to lack of supply), despite the fact that the utility companies charged them standard drought fees that do not account for household income level.

Drought Challenges for Salmon and Salmon Fishermen

The salmon in California have a number of factors working against them. Diminished stream flows, caused in part by the Klamath River Dam, as well as water diverted by other dams and structures, block the fish as they attempt to swim upstream from the ocean to their historical spawning habitats, the report concluded. Additionally, higher water temperatures has caused disease outbreaks among salmon in the Klamath River in the last year, according to tribal fishermen.

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Sustainable Agriculture, Better-managed Water Supplies, Vital to Tackling Water-food Nexus – Un

Published: January 26, 2017

Highlighting the challenges associated with the inextricable links between water and food – the so-called ‘water-food nexus’ – for food security, as well as for sustainable development, the United Nations agricultural agency today outlined steps that can be taken to improve water sustainability for current and future needs.

“The magnitude of the water-food nexus is underappreciated,” said Pasquale Steduto, UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Regional Strategic Programme Coordinator for the Near East and North Africa regions.

In his briefing during an event at UN Headquarters in New York, the FAO official also pointed to the fact that a person needs between two to four litres of water for daily consumption, and for domestic uses (washing, etc.) between 40 to 400 litres per family.

But for food and nutritional needs, the requirement is between 2,000 and 5,000 litres per person, depending on diet, or “roughly one litre per kilo-calorie” he explained.

He further emphasized that the nexus is particularly significant for strengthening food security given that the world population is estimated to cross the nine billion mark by 2050, another 50-60 per cent food would need to be produced over current levels to feed everyone.

“This would imply having at least 50 per cent more water – which we will not have. Estimates show we can mobilize up to 10 per cent more, [highlighting] the issue of water scarcity,” added Mr. Steduto.

He also stressed the significance of water for the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

While Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) explicitly calls for ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, water is a key component for other Goals including those on poverty (SDG 1), hunger and malnutrition (SDG 2), and climate change (SDG 13).

Thus, highlighting the need for intensification of sustainable agriculture, Mr. Steduto called for improving efficiency in the use of resources; protecting and conserving natural resources; having a people-centred approach and protecting rural livelihoods; strengthening resilience of people, community and ecosystems, particularly to climate change; and ensuring good governance to safeguard sustainability for natural and human systems.

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Applying the Circular Economy Lens to Water

Author: Nick Jeffries | Published: January 26, 2017 

Water is in many ways a poster child for circularity. For the last 3.8 billion years, the earth’s stock of water, a constant 1.4 billion km3, has continuously circulated through the many stages and processes of the hydrological cycle, powered by the energy of the sun. In the last hundred or so years, a blink of an eye in planetary time, human activities have started to disrupt this well-tuned circularity in ways that risk our future prosperity as well as the health of the planet.

Water is a remarkable substance. Its apparent simplicity belies its raft of peculiar properties, many of which are crucial to life on earth. These idiosyncrasies include the fact that its solid state – ice – floats on its own melt (insulating any life beneath it); its boiling point is much higher than similar hydrogen compounds (so it exists at a liquid within a temperature range ideal for life); and it dissolves more substances and stores more energy than any other liquid (making it an extremely useful medium for many of life’s processes). Water’s strangeness not only supports the processes of life, but is a major constituent of it – a new born child is 75% water. Perhaps oddest of all, water in its purest form (two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen) is hypertonic: if imbibed, it will strip the water out of your cells and could kill you.

“WATER WATER EVERYWHERE, NOR ANY DROP TO DRINK”

We live on a blue planet, but most water is not in a form or a place that can fulfil easily the basic needs of humankind. The great majority of it is seawater – only about 2.5% is freshwater and most of this is out of reach, locked up in icecaps, glaciers or deep underground. The actual percentage easily accessible to us is more like 0.007%. Luckily, this is a small fraction of a very large number, so there is in fact more than enough volume to meet the needs of the human population. The challenge lies in managing this water well.

In many areas of the world this challenge is not being sufficiently met leading to a multiplicity of lost opportunities and negative impacts. These consequences inevitably become more severe as the level of economic development reduces.

In 2014, a drought in California led to the loss of 17, 000 part-time or seasonal jobs and $2.2billion in agricultural revenue. In the UK, leakages from the water network is equivalent to 20% of the nation’s water supply or 21.5 million people, thereby increasing the cost of providing water. During a recent dry period in Sao Paolo, low rainfall and polluted reservoirs meant daily shut-offs to urban water supply, electricity prices to rise by 80% and businesses to scale down or even close. In China, a major problem relates to the contamination of surface water and groundwater by industrial effluent, driving water scarcity and creating a significant public health risk. It is estimated that 11% of cases of cancer of the digestive system may be attributable to polluted water.

However it is the poor who suffer the most extreme consequences of inadequate water resources. In many African countries, people must walk for many hours each day to fetch water from sources that are often contaminated. This task often falls to women who are vulnerable to attack, or to children compromising their education. Poor quality water causes illness, leading to a loss of work productivity and requiring expensive treatment. Worse still, according to the UN, water or waterborne diseases lead to the deaths of over 3.4 million people per year, the majority of these deaths are children under the age of five. The rising severity of consequences as economic level falls offers a good illustration of the paradox: the poorer you are the more you pay for things, relatively speaking.

Considering all of this it is easy to understand why the World Economic Forum cites “a global water” crisis as the biggest threat facing mankind in the next century.

Therefore we should ask whether the circular economy, a new framework for thinking about the economy that has already helped identify potential solutions to other big global resource challenges, could contribute to creating a better relationship between people and water: one that is resilient, regenerative, and works in the long term.

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