Soil for Water Project Gaining Momentum

Soil for Water project field trip surveying grassland soils by Mike Morris

The Southwest Hub recently met with National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) representatives. NCAT are "a national nonprofit that helps people by championing small-scale, local, and sustainable solutions to reduce poverty, promote healthy communities, and protect natural resources."  We asked Mike Morris, director of NCAT’s Southwest Regional Office (which covers TX and NM) to tell us more about their "Soil for Water" project. 

San Antonio, TX

From its Southwest Regional Office in San Antonio, NCAT has launched a long-term project called Soil for Water, whose mission is to catch and hold more rainwater in the soil.

Project Director Mike Morris of NCAT explains that the project grew out of the Texas drought of 2010-13. “In those desperate times we were hearing about all kinds of expensive engineering schemes—new reservoirs, pipelines, and such. But the idea of taking better care of soil never seemed to come up at all. And some of us wondered if it wouldn’t be cheaper, less legally complicated, and more permanent just to show landowners how to make their soils healthier, increasing organic matter levels and capturing more rainwater on their own land.”

From that simple question and initial funding from the Dixon Water Foundation and Meadows Foundation, the Soil for Water project was born.

The project takes a biological approach, increasing the infiltration and water-holding capacity of soils by making them healthier: higher in organic matter and teeming with fungi, bacteria, earthworms, and other living organisms. All activities are guided by five cardinal principles of soil health: (1) Keep the soil surface covered (armored) with vegetation at all times; (2) Keep live roots in the ground; (3) Promote biodiversity; (4) Minimize soil disturbance; and (5) Incorporate livestock.

That last one (livestock) is of special interest, as the project is building a network of ranchers who are trying regenerative grazing methods and sharing their results. Network members get help setting up grazing demonstrations on their property and conducting long-term rangeland monitoring—so they can tell if their soils and vegetation are improving. Ten ranches are already full-fledged members of Soil for Water network, and many others are signing up.

There’s no question that healthy soils hold vast amounts of water. And there are well-documented examples from around the world where soils have been brought back to life in a matter of just a few years. For example, from 1991 to 2015 North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown increased his infiltration rates from about one-half inch per hour to 8 inches per hour.

That’s all true,” notes Morris, “and we know that livestock can be a powerful tool for improving soils. But the last thing in the world our project wants to do is over-sell the benefits. We don’t know yet how well these methods work in, say, the Texas Hill Country or the Trans Pecos. We don’t know how much it costs or how long it takes. So our project is all about citizen science. We support landowners who want to find out answers for themselves. We make it easier for them to get started. We help them learn from other landowners. We try to keep things interesting. And we don’t mind having a little fun along the way.”

The Soil for Water Project is proud to be hosting a two-day Agricultural Resilience Clinic with New Zealand agroecologist Nicole Masters, on October 18-19, 2019 at the Kerr Wildlife Management Area, near Hunt, Texas. To sign up for the clinic, find out about joining the landowner network, or learn more about the project, visit the Soil for Water website.