Wikipedia defines hydrology as “the scientific study of the movement, distribution and management of water on Earth, including the water cycle, water resources and drainage basin sustainability.”

Crop Comments: Failing Hydrology 101The October 2022 edition of Organic Vision (a periodical of the Global Organic Alliance) featured an article titled “The Heartland” – and Kansas was a logical starting point. The author discussed sustainable farming there, writing that the results of regenerative agriculture, with intensive rotational grazing and no-till cropping, are almost miraculous. Soils, so managed, build up quickly, commonly absorbing five to 10 tons of carbon/acre/year. Water infiltration increases dramatically also.

An example is cited of one old farmstead in Kansas where, after a few years of holistic grazing, soils achieved infiltration rates of 15 seconds for the first inch of water and 45 seconds for the second inch of rainfall.

Author Charles Eisenstein stated that at the start of the experiment at the old farm, the water infiltration rate was 45 minutes/inch. With water infiltrating this poorly, most runs off during rainstorms, carrying topsoil away. Such runaway precipitation never reaches the dwindling Ogallala Aquifer below that needs recharging. That subterranean reservoir extends from north Texas to South Dakota.

Over time, springs, streams and wells go dry. The resulting parched soil provides no water for evapo-transpiration, worsening droughts and dehydrating the landscape. The result is a flood/drought seesaw instead of reliable year-round rain – and an aquifer that is slowly but surely being depleted.

It appears that in America’s Heartland, countless land non-stewards – enrolled, figuratively, in this hydrology course – should sign up for summer school.

Desertification is defined as “land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas, collectively known as drylands, resulting from many factors, including human activities and climatic variations.”

Eisenstein next leads his readers southwest, to the ranch of a friend in a desertifying region of New Mexico. That friend was photographed standing in head-high grass – a species normally growing three feet tall. A previously dry stream on this rancher’s property now flows year-round, even in drought years. One mile past his property, the stream runs dry again, past the spread of another cattleman, who said his upstream neighbor must be lucky enough to get more, very localized rain.

Eisenstein mentioned other cases where dead springs revived, streams start flowing again and plant and animal species not seen in the area for decades reappeared.

Also in New Mexico is Allan Savory’s Center for Holistic Management (CHM). Savory showed how much of the land near CHM became even more desolate than it was originally. This land, once thriving with cow/calf operations (and during earlier times with buffalo and antelope) isn’t suffering from over-grazing, but rather from under-grazing. He stressed that the critical linkage, from soils to crops to animals, had weakened, rapidly approaching breaking point. The whole ecosystem suffered, including humans at the top of the food chain.

In America’s Southwest, cow/calf grazing operations are increasingly uncommon, as steers are moved off grass onto paved confinement feedlots at much younger ages. Savory stressed that this fragile land suffered from reduced animal numbers, needing to be grazed. Grazing animals’ waste provides organic matter and other soil nutrient benefits that sustain grassy-type, mostly perennial crops and maintain soil’s water retention capacity, enhancing biodiversity.

He stressed that in history, 20 major civilizations have collapsed due to loss of biodiversity: “Moreover, that ongoing loss of this biodiversity in the U.S. could at some point qualify our own country to become the 21st member of that dubious ‘Hall of Shame.’”

At CHM, Savory successfully proved that classic cattle grazing practices can reverse these discouraging trends in which soil, crops, livestock and people suffer. He’s shown that cattle fenced in an area greatly improves sward health, compared to unpastured land on the other side of the fence. The grazed paddock and the adjacent ungrazed parcel received the same meager 10 to 12 inches of rain, proving that the grazed portion clearly puts its limited precipitation to better use.

Let’s put numbers on reduced soil health, as shown by lost soil organic matter (OM), as I attempt to answer a frequent question: “How does losing soil carbon intensify climate change?” The increasingly common soybean/corn “non-rotation,” with its non-fibrous root systems, does not build soil. Here, fibrous-rooted small grain cover crops are conspicuous by their absence; their presence would have helped retain soil, its nutrients and snow during winter. Such mismanagement is accompanied by degraded OM.

Soil’s OM is approximately 58% carbon by weight. A six-inch-deep acre of topsoil is presumed to weigh 1,000 tons (2 million lbs.). For each percent of OM lost on an acre of cropland, 11,600 lbs. of carbon are liberated into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Losing that 1% OM also reduces that acre’s water-holding capacity by 16,000 gallons (about 1.5 quarts/square foot). More and more, these climate change developments forge weather patterns that trap us in a flood/drought seesaw dilemma instead of reliable year-round rainfall patterns.