Our Water Matters: Soil for Water

Though often overlooked, healthy soil has a tremendous capacity to hold water. With over 95% of Texas land under private ownership, education of the state’s landowners is indispensable to improving soil health and increasing our resilience to drought and climate uncertainty.

Soil for Water is a free and collaborative program initiated in 2015. Its easy-to-use soil monitoring tools, workshops and webinars are intended to help ranchers and farmers regenerate their soil. The program is administered by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) with funding from the Hershey Foundation, the Meadows Foundation, and the Dixon Water Foundation. According to Peggy Sechrist, a Soil for Water founder and Fredricksburg-area rancher, “The goal for Soil for Water is to disseminate really useful information for land managers/producers to be able to improve their land for water capture.”

Darron Gaus, a sustainable agriculture specialist with the program, explains that the idea for Soil for Water came from the hard lessons of the 2010-2012 drought in Texas. The drought was “devastating enough for groups to start forming and discussing how Texas could learn from this and be better prepared.” To the astonishment of some, “soil was barely mentioned” in the many reports on potential responses to drought. Several local experts, including Sechrist, Dr. Richard Teague and Mike Morris, recognized the “huge miss here,” according to Gaus, and began discussing “the potential for soil to be a sponge that could change the face of droughts and floods.” The resulting mission of Soil of Water is focused on “capturing and holding more water in our soils and educating on soil health through peer-to-peer networking.”

One tool in this networking approach is a series of videos available on the NCAT website. According to one of the videos, “Forty percent of all land in the U.S. is farm or ranch land. But it’s at risk––” due to its degraded condition. “Unhealthy soil doesn’t absorb much water,” the video continues. “Healthy soil acts like a sponge capable of holding hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per acre. It can prevent erosion, runoff, and flooding. During a drought, the water in soil keeps plants alive.”

The promotion of these sponge-like properties involves adding (or leaving) organic matter in the soil. “When you increase organic matter in your soils, you’re giving yourself more water,” according to Dale Veseth, a Montana rancher in one of the videos. “Even under the hardest drought conditions there are management steps people can take that will allow them to stay on their ranches and be sustainable over the long haul.”

These management steps involve the application of the five principles of soil health: 1) cover the soil, 2) increase biodiversity, 3) minimize soil disturbance, 4) integrate livestock, 5) continuous living root. Soil for Water provides informative videos on each of these principles.

In a video entitled “Keep the Soil Covered,” a narrator points out that it “doesn’t really matter how much rainfall you get … it’s how much you keep” by covering the soil to optimize its “water-holding capacity.” Orion Weldon, a farmer in Spicewood, states that by covering the soil, “you’re reducing the temperature, and you’re also creating a layer that keeps moisture in. And if you do at least that you are halfway there.” 

It’s all a process, according to Weldon. Damaged, unhealthy soils have mostly bacteria. “But as you start to get moisture in the soil and cool it down, you start to get fungi growing.” As the ratio of fungi increases, the majority of the soil will eventually be made up of fungi, which “is incredibly powerful” because the fungi create what are known as soil aggregates. “The bigger your soil aggregates, the bigger the spaces in between, and the bigger the pore space in between those aggregates, the more water-holding capacity,” explains Weldon. This water-holding capacity is the key to making farms and ranches more productive and profitable. 

As average temperatures across the Big Bend region continue to rise and rainfall patterns become more unpredictable, these sorts of soil regeneration techniques could make a huge difference. If employed together with other common sense strategies, such as managed grazing systems, frequent crop rotations, and livestock and plant diversification, soil regeneration could prove indispensable to safeguarding our water and food supplies in an increasingly arid climate.

Visit soilforwater.org to learn more.

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He is also chairman of the Presidio County Water Infrastructure Steering Committee. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013.