Water - Quality, Quantity and Organic Agriculture

Malcolm Beck

No life, not even the simplest, can exist without water. Three-quarters of the Earth is covered with water, but most of it is too salty to drink or use in any way. Only three percent of the water on the Earth is fresh water, and of that tiny percentage, agriculture uses almost 90 percent. Each year, the three percent of fresh water available for use is getting more and more contaminated with sewage, pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides and other toxins.

Per capita water consumption is continually going up. Texas, California and Florida are already experiencing water shortages and contamination, at times severe. The problem continues to get worse as population continues to grow. Our grandchildren will live to see the population of the Earth double in their lifetimes.

The book, Tapped Out, by Paul Simon, former member of the United States Senate and now director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, presents a very gloomy forecast. Simon says, "We must act quickly to avoid a major catastrophe."

The seemingly obvious answer to our fresh water shortage is to utilize seawater. Simon points out, however, that desalinated water is much too energy consuming and expensive to be used in agriculture or industry. It costs more than $2,000 per acre to use desalinated water. Although new desalting designs are on the drawing board that may lower the costs, these are in the future and won't solve the problem. Building dams to create new lakes is not the best answer either. If a lake is built in an area where poor soil conditions exist, the lake will silt up and become a polluted mud hole. In dry areas, lakes lose an extreme amount of water to evaporation.

Global warming is also a factor in the growing problem of finding clean water. Given all these elements, it is clear that Simon doesn't exaggerate the seriousness of the water problem. Although he has some solutions to the problem, he overlooks a very important solution - organic rich soil.

Nature builds and maintains fertile topsoil. This organic rich soil collects and saves fresh water. Farmers, ranchers, landscapers and sports-turf keepers who build organic soil and use mulch see and understand the way this process works. Around Texas there are numerous sports fields and hundreds of lawns that have a thin layer of compost applied on a regular basis. There are many farmers building the organic content of their soil by recycling animal waste and by using low or even no-till methods that do not disturb the soil and keep the crop residue on top as mulch. All who use these methods report that their irrigation needs are declining. In many cases, the need for irrigation has fallen by 30 to 50 percent. Building organic content in the soil also leads to using less fertilizer and pesticides, so there is less water pollution.

Organic matter collects water, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, boron, zinc. In short, it is a general catch-all for plant nutrients. Also, with a good supply of organic matter as an energy source, the microbes that live in the soil are able to degrade and detoxify pesticides and other pollutants. This is an important element in water purity.

After realizing that 55 inches of water is lost each year from lakes and bare soil in central Texas through evaporation, Dr. Jerry Parsons, local Agricultural Extension Agent, came to the conclusion that there is only one answer to San Antonio's water problems. That answer is mulch on the soil and organic matter in the soil.

According to a USDA study, a block of soil containing 4 to 5 percent of organic matter, weighing 100 pounds and filling a space of 3 feet by 1 foot by 6 inches deep, can hold 165 to 185 pounds of water! This means that a field with similar soil could absorb a 4 to 6 inch rain in an hour. The result is that water is saved, erosion is stopped, floods are much less likely to devastate homes and businesses.

Soils rich in organic matter also produce more abundant crops. Unfortunately most soils in the United States are way below that organic content. Most soil is somewhere between .5 and 2.5 percent organic matter. One hundred pounds of that type soil can absorb and hold only about inch of rain.

When the Rio Grande Valley was first opened for agriculture, the soil organic content was between 3 and 5 percent. According to soil test labs, the soil organic content is now around percent. Lack of organic matter in the soil is the biggest cause of our water problems. California alone is losing 10,000 acres per year to desert because of lack of soil organic matter. Worldwide, 26,000 acres daily are turning to desert and being lost to useful purposes.

Agriculture and landscaping use up to 90 percent of our fresh water. Conservation must start there. Building soil organic content, growing cover crops, selecting correct plant varieties, proper tillage and recycling back to the land all organic waste, bio-solids included, are the only hope. These practices will solve our water quality and quantity problems, our soil-loss problems, and our food-production problems. Furthermore, since organic matter is mostly carbon, increasing soil organic content takes carbon from the air and places it where it is needed. That process helps check global warming. Scientist have calculated that if we build the organic content of the soil one-tenth of one percent, we would take all the excess carbon out of the air. Is this solution too simple?

It has been demonstrated over and over that organically grown plants require from 10 to 50 percent less irrigation. If 90 percent of our water goes to irrigation, saving just 10 percent of that frees up a lot of water for more agriculture, industry and human consumption.

The solution is simple. It is also elegant. By creating richer soil through adding organic material, every creature on earth would benefit by having plenty of good food to eat and fresh water to drink.



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