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Healthy Soils Keep the Water Clean

by Kelly O'Neill, Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Did you know that disappearing undies are a sign that your soils are helping to keep streams and rivers clean?

Disappearing, degraded undies mean that the soil has more worms, insects, bacteria, protozoa, amoebas, algae, nematodes, and fungi working hard to keep the soil a thriving place for plants to grow. The more of these tiny workers you have in your soil, the healthier your soil is.

Just one teaspoon of healthy soil contains more microbes than there are people on the planet. These billions of beneficial microbes break down not only your undies, but all sorts of vegetative material. Living plants may then use these nutrients to grow, reducing the need for fertilizer applications. Soils with a strong population of beneficial predator insects have built-in control of insect pests, lowering the reliance on insecticides in crops. Diverse living organisms in soil will yield more vigorous plants, capable of resisting insect pests or pathogens.

Fungi, another type of soil worker, produce filaments and glue to hold the soil together. Worms create channels and burrows, that are easy places for plant roots to grow, and also allow rainwater to soak into the ground. So, rain falling on healthy soil is absorbed, like in a sponge. However, on compacted soil, rain runs off, carrying soil particles and any pollutants on top of the soil, such as the increased fertilizers and pesticides needed for crop production. Thus, healthy soils in gardens and agricultural fields may have both less pollution sources on the surface and less risk of loss through runoff.

Crop and livestock production depends on the soil as a living ecosystem to sustain plants and animals, not just an inert growing medium to hold water, nutrients, and plant roots. Soil health requires living vegetative cover and roots throughout the year, high plant and animal diversity, and minimal soil disturbance such as tillage and compaction.

Healthy soils are the foundation of a healthy landscape, whether crop field, pasture, lawn, garden, or forest. Our waterways depend on the health of the land around them, and we currently have much room for improvement. For example, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection estimates that one-third of the state’s streams are too polluted for aquatic life, recreation, fish consumption, or to supply drinking water.

Let’s all treat our soils like a good friend, not like dirt, so we can enjoy clean water.


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