Water Concerns – Looking to the Future

I am always amazed when I read an article about water management and learn that the total focus is on the mechanical means to conserve water (improving irrigation systems). However, no one mentions the natural ways. I just read an article in Turf Magazine titled “The Changing Landscape of Water.” It was written by Anne Michelsen and she brings up some very solid statistics about the issues we face with water conservation, both nationally and regionally. The article informs us, YES, we have or will have an issue with available clean water, and it goes on to list the ways landscapers from various parts of the country are dealing with it. Options include reducing turf areas, installing artificial turf, hardscapes and improving the older irrigation systems with more up-to-date, water-efficient systems. These are all good ideas, but they miss the one area that would reduce water usage the most – amending the soil with organic matter. This is a bottom up approach, rather than top down, in other words “make the soil better.” It’s right there under your feet, look down – the solution is not the grass; it is under the grass. …The Soil.

Incorporating organic matter in order to improve water retention in soil where turf is established has been written about by many people, myself included, and isn’t something new. Not only is it good for soil biology, but it is very helpful in retaining soil moisture (especially helpful in sandy soils), reducing run off in clay soils (by making the soil more permeable), holding more water in loose soils like sand, improving the cation exchange (which has to do the with positive or negative ion charge of the soil particles especially clay soils and the ability to release nutrients and make them plant available), creating soil conditions to promote the increase in the population of earthworms, and the list goes on.

All the ideas presented in the Turf Magazine article will help, but we will still want to have a turf area to play ball on with our children, or just for the sheer beauty of a nice grassed area. It is kind of difficult to wrestle with our kids on hardscapes or a desert landscape with cactus growing in it. Nice turf feels good between your toes. Have you ever tried this with artificial turf….no way.

I think you may get the idea, but let’s look at a natural idea and all the benefits derived from it.

The U.S. Composting Council has written articles about the idea of adding organic matter to the soil. They are currently pushing for 5% organic matter in the soil, and so are many others like the Michigan State University Extension and Rodale Institute. The list is much longer, but let’s just concentrate on what the basics are.
Soil scientists report there are tremendous benefits in adding organic matter to the soil. Even though numbers are not exact from one source to the next, they all point in one direction – it is a natural way to retain more water. For example, is has been reported that adding 1 to 2 percent organic matter to the soil can increase its ability to hold water by 2 times or more.

One example that I have written about before was work done by Agresource, a compost manufacturing company in New England. They wrote an article about a public works manager in Massachusetts who topdressed 40 acres of athletic fields 3 years in a row with 25 cubic yards of compost and used core aeration to incorporate the compost. The results; their water usage went from 3 million gallons per year to 0.6 million gallons, a reduction of 2,400,000 gallons of water. WOW! In addition, from 2001 to 2004 (12 years ago and we still haven’t gotten it) their fertilizer and chemical bill dropped from $75,000 to $28,000 and they reduced overseeding by two thirds. This is staggering, and when you think not only about the huge reduction in water usage, but also about using fewer chemicals and less fuel for overseeding, the benefits to Mother Earth get even better. I have seen great results on my own lawn, which I have topdressed multiple times. When the dry weather hits, my lawn is the last to brown out and the first to green up again.

I can tell you it drives me crazy when I see a state like California, which is on the leading edge when it comes to so many things, but can’t seem to catch on to a simple thing like using compost on their turf grass to save what little water they have. In the same July article in Turf Magazine, it was stated that Gerry Brown, the Governor of California, ordered everyone to reduce water usage by 25%. It is ironic to think that if he told everyone to get on a compost application program, after a couple of years, the water use could easily been cut by 3-4 times, not just 25%. I am sorry, but it just seems dumb to me. Can you imagine how much less water could be used across the entire United States if we just got smarter about the use of compost? Oh yeah, and based on research from Washington State University, this same technique will make dense soils more porous, allowing them to accept large volumes of storm water.

Not only does adding organic matter to the soil save water, improve the soil, reduce our dependence on chemicals and is safer for our children and pets, but it also takes all kinds of material out our waste stream and allows people to turn those materials into compost so the cycle can repeat itself in a healthier, more natural way. If this doesn’t make the most sense to anyone what does?

Save water, save water, save water, yes – but let’s get smart about how we do it and, in the process, solve numerous other problems. I could go on and on about the benefits of using compost; the only problem I can see is that people need to wake up to the fact that water is and will be our most valuable resource. You can have all the gold, silver or cash in the world, but you can’t drink it and neither can your children or grandchildren. Stabilized organic matter, in the form of good quality compost applied to our turf grass, is a really great answer to saving water and improving our planet.