What do isotopes in water have to do with soil? One of my go-to podcasts is Down to Earth hosted by The Quivira Coalition. The Quivira Coalition is a non-profit organization based in Santa Fe, New Mexico dedicated to building economic and ecological resilience on western working landscapes. According to their website, the coalition was formed to preserve the region’s rich agricultural heritage. It states:
The Quivira Coalition is based in New Mexico and is dedicated to building ecological and economic resilience in the arid southwest. A tricky idea, indeed!
“In 1997 two conservationists and a rancher who believed that a ranch that supported wildlife and a healthy ecosystem could also support a viable ranch business, came together to create the Quivira Coalition. Then, in 2003, twenty ranchers, environmentalists, and scientists met for forty-eight hours to figure out a way to take back the American West from the decades of divisiveness and acrimony that now truly jeopardizes much of what we all love and value. But we also met to take the West forward, to restore ecological, social and political health to a landscape that deserves it and so desperately needs it.”
One of their recent podcasts, titled The Science of Water, features the work of Dr. Kate Zeigler, a geologist/ hydrologist.
Dr. Kate Zeigler
Dr. Zeigler’s work has focused on groundwater recharge rates in the dry southwest where the average annual rainfall is seven inches. The soils in this region recharge very slowly, often percolating through the soil at the same rate your finger nail grows. She goes on to explain that not all water is the same. As groundwater ages, the isotopes in it change. By studying the changes in protons versus neutrons in the individual atoms in the water, they can determine how old the groundwater is and how fast the aquifers are recharging, or how fast they are being depleted. With the philosophy that knowledge is power, they share this information with farmers and ranchers as a tool for decision making.
This is Red Canyon. The QC restored it into the living, breathing parcel of land it used to be before poor land management practices nearly destroyed it.
By sharing this information she is able to show them how old the groundwater they are pumping is. They can also test if the water table is recharging or not and how many years it is before their wells go dry.
Like much of the soil health movement, Dr. Zeigler explains in the podcast how farmers are sharing information at a grassroots level and changing their practices to better manage soil health and water infiltration.
Farmers are innovative given the right information. Working in partnership with local Soil and Water Conservation Districts, they are rediscovering dry land farming techniques, adopting more adaptive grazing practices, and better conserving water through low tech innovations that protect and build soil health. She also speaks to the barriers and challenges that commodity markets, government policy, and climate change play in farmers and ranchers adopting these practices and achieving farm profitability.
In the podcast Dr. Zeigler talks about how she has been educated by farmers, how different landscapes need different solutions and how partnerships and trust are helping to move agriculture in a direction that heals. She speaks about how, if a farmer is shown that their well will be dry in ten or twenty years, they will make changes. They will seek out solutions that will preserve the future and resilience of their farm.
While landscapes vary widely, the basic concept of soil health and the principles that build it hold true. Minimizing soil disturbance, increasing diversity, keeping the soil armored and living roots in the ground, and properly integrating livestock as the biological driver of soil health, are the keys to healing our agricultural landscapes. For too long we have looked at soil as a medium to hold nutrients. The idea that “we must replace the nutrients that are harvested” is reductionist thinking and a false narrative. Given the right conditions, healthy, living soil will extract nutrients from the soil and air to feed our crops. Regardless of where you live and farm these concepts hold true, as does the need to build trust, empower farmers and ranchers with knowledge, and build grassroots farmer to farmer networks.