Soil and Water Don’t always Make Mud

posted in: Champions, Water | 0

Surviving Aridification in a Dry Land

By Lynn Montgomery, Chair, Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD)
and New Mexico Soil Health Champion

Photo by June Admiraal, Unsplash

Soil and water can make mud when mixed, but many other things can potentially happen that make this combination very powerful. It is the fundamental process that all land-based life depends upon. Most of our food, fiber, wood, flowers and bees come from it and we ourselves are from it. It is strange we don’t pay much attention to our soil and water, as every moment of our lives involves them. It begs the question why children love mud so much. What do they know that we have forgotten? Soil and water have many values which make it incumbent on us to be involved in them.

Photo by Isabelle Jenniches (CC BY 2.0)

WATER is considered sacred by all nature-based cultures, whereas in Western culture, most consider it a necessary commodity and leave it there. Concentrating on other values of water besides economic ones is often viewed as illusionary. This can create a huge imbalance in our water resource, as the urge to create markets and make money with it causes exploitation and diminishment. 

Within the Sandia Basin, from Edgewood, through Tijeras, Sandia Crest, La Madera, and into Eastern Placitas, we are learning the hard way how this works. Wells are going dry or are seriously impaired. This is a tragedy for a lot of people, who face property values hovering around zero. They have the choice of hauling water, which ruins pickup trucks, having it delivered, or abandoning their home. As wells go dry, well rigs set up down the road. There is no enforced control or restraint. It is a free-for-all to use up the remaining water as fast as possible to make as much money as possible, now. State laws and regulations do not provide a vision of running out of water, so individual well owners are on their own. Impairment is dealt with, but it is currently impossible and extremely expensive to get any justice from the courts, especially over groundwater. The state and county governments have been very laissez-faire about these situations, as though they develop naturally. 

There is nothing natural in any of this. Under the Rio Grande Rift Valley there are large and deep aquifers. That doesn’t mean they are inexhaustible or not under threat. Future flows of the Rio are predicted to be severely reduced, cutting into recharge and skewing the highly overengineered system designed for past runoffs. If snow in the mountains gets scarce, the system fails. Pumping water out of these aquifers reduces river flows. Downstream users take a dim view of that and can force harsh restrictions. Fracking and pollution from Los Alamos pose serious threats. So, whether you live up in the mountains, or down in the Valley, you have a water problem.

“We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.”

Leonardo Da Vinci, circa 1500’s

SOIL doesn’t taste good, except to two-year-olds. Good farmers like the smell, especially if fertile, friable and teeming with life. Our occupation depends on good soil, so we know how magical it is. Things haven’t changed much since Leonardo’s time. The discovery of microbial life has helped, but knowing the soil has barely entered general consciousness. A gram of decent soil contains 100 million to one billion bacteria, several yards to several miles of fungi, several thousand protozoa, and from ten to several hundred nematodes. And this doesn’t begin to count the larger mites, spiders, centipedes, grubs and earthworms who together form a complex called the Soil Food Web. 

Image courtesy of USDA

This Soil Food Web provides many essential services to us and the Earth, the lack of which would mean we wouldn’t be here. Soil without this life is just dirt, a conglomeration of powdered minerals. It will blow or wash away, not having any stable structure. It cannot build on itself and become more fertile and productive. Soil life takes those particles of minerals and makes them available to plants. It breaks down organic matter, giving structure to the soil, vastly improving its ability to absorb and hold water and preventing erosion. Soil bacteria take nitrogen from the air and make it available, improving fertility. Soil life enables the exchange of gases in the atmosphere. If this didn’t happen, we would suffocate. 

Soil life, along with the photosynthesis plants provide, takes carbon from the atmosphere and sequesters it in the soil, potentially contributing to solving the global warming problem. Crops are much healthier and nutritious grown in living soil. The soils of the Las Huertas Watershed are surprisingly fertile. Just cover them with organic material and add water. The Soil Food Web then explodes with a riot of fecundity, waiting for a lucky seed. As a farmer on Las Huertas Creek for nearly fifty years, I can attest to this.

Right now though, erosion is rampant in our watershed, as bare, lifeless soil blows and washes away with every rain. Unpermitted roads snake through our hills turning into gullies and then arroyos, dumping tons of sediment into Las Huertas Creek. The EPA has declared the creek impaired because of this. Headcuts start to form, channeling water away from the land and sending it down the arroyos, never to soak in. When this occurs, it doesn’t matter how much precipitation is received, the land remains in drought. Our wildlife diversity has been reduced significantly because of drought and depredations of feral horses. We used to have over 200 species of plants where now we have a snakeweed monoculture. If Placitas is to continue to be a beautiful and secure place to live, we must start to take better care of our soil.

The key is establishing a cover. Exposed soil is in agony. It loses its moisture almost immediately, along with the life within it. Covering the soil is like putting a band-aid on it, letting it heal and come alive, establishing plant growth—the ultimate cover. Let’s stop treating our soil like dirt. Pick up a handful of it and feel the magic and power within.

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