FARFA’s Executive Director testifies on soil health’s role in water capture and flood mitigation

Published August 29, 2022

On August 24, FARFA Executive Director Judith McGeary testified before the Natural Resources Committee of the Texas House of Representatives. This testimony took place during a committee hearing called to review the condition of Texas’ water and flood mitigation infrastructure, consider future needs, and evaluate funding sources for water project development and existing infrastructure repairs.

McGeary’s testimony focused on the benefits of funding programs to expand regenerative agricultural methods that improve soil health, leading to enhanced water capture and reduced flooding. Below is the text of her written testimony, and you can watch her live presentation before the committee here.

 

August 24, 2022

Testimony of Judith McGeary

Dear Chairman King and Members of the House Natural Resources Committee:

My name is Judith McGeary. I am testifying today on my own behalf and on behalf of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA) on the interim charge to:

Examine the condition of Texas’ water and flood mitigation infrastructure capabilities and consider future infrastructure needs. Evaluate sustainable funding sources to provide for water project development and infrastructure repair and replacement. Examine and make recommendations for cost-effective improvements that enhance the state’s available water supply.

There is no single silver bullet for these issues. However, regenerative agriculture can be a powerful tool, addressing both water conservation, thus enhancing our state’s available water supply, and flood prevention or mitigation.

Regenerative agriculture has five principles: minimize or eliminate tillage, keep the soil covered, maintain living plant roots in the soil as long as possible, increase biodiversity, and integrate livestock. These principles enhance core ecosystem cycles such as energy, water, and minerals, by enhancing the microbial life in the soil and thus biological function.

Although the science of regenerative agriculture can be complex, the practical, on-the-ground methods to achieve it are not. Every farmer, rancher, and landowner can do it with things such as cover crops, reduced tillage, and planned rotational grazing.

The result is healthy soil – a simple term that carries myriad benefits, particularly with respect to water. Among the many benefits, healthy soils hold on to more water, thus reducing irrigation demand, improving drought resilience, and mitigating downstream flooding.  For example:

  • One 2017 Texas A&M study on ranches in North-Central Texas, showed that such grazing led to a 49% reduction in surface runoff, a 27% reduction in streamflow, and a 29% increase in infiltration. [i]
  • A 2015 report by the Harris County Flood Control District found that 2 acres of upstream native prairie would entirely offset the increased runoff from 1 acre of a new subdivision and reduce runoff from a 100-Year flood event by 35%.[ii]
  • A 2019 study estimated that healthy soils on the Katy Prairie provided hydrological ecosystems services to the Houston area valued at $331 million to $647 million dollars for reduction in impact of 10-50 year flood events, mostly due to reduced costs for downstream engineered reservoirs and corridors.[iii]

Consider two examples from different regions of Texas. The first example addresses flooding.

In August 2018, Laughing Frog Farm got over 50 inches of rain over the course of three days from Hurricane Harvey. For 16 years, the farm had used practices to build healthy soils: no plowing, no synthetic chemicals, leaving living roots in the ground 12 months a year, rarely having uncovered soil, and seasonally rotating livestock into the gardens. The result was soils high in organic matter that acted as a sponge to capture and hold water. 

On the left is a picture of Laughing Frog Farm, taken on August 28, 2018, the day after Hurricane Harvey’s rains stopped; on the right, is a picture of a nearby conventional farm, taken the same day. 

 

 

 

 

 

Laughing Frog Farm had planted the seedlings shown in the top left picture the previous Friday, the day before the rains started. Young plants are particularly sensitive to flood conditions and do not survive being waterlogged, yet all of the tender young seedlings survived the deluge. Two months later, with no fertilizer, the plants were flourishing and producing food for their local community, as shown in the picture to the left.

If Houston were surrounded by farms, ranches, and green spaces, managed using the same principles, imagine the impact on the entire community for both water conservation and flood prevention. 

These same principles also achieve extraordinary results in water-restricted areas, as shown in a second example. In the Texas Panhandle, Dr. Chris Grotegut recognized that irrigated row crop farming didn’t have a bright future because of the declining Ogalalla aquifer. So, he began transitioning his 11,000 acres to native grass pastures, with small grains. Based on monitoring on nine wells by the High Plains Water District, well levels on his property have risen more than a foot each year on average. During this same period, the other wells being monitored on neighboring farms have dropped more than 1 foot, some up to 3 feet each year.[i] He estimates that his 11,000 acres are capturing close to 1.5 million gallons of water a day. That’s enough to provide water for a small city. 

Finally, consider that the ability of healthy soils to capture water not only means less runoff, but also less sediment in the runoff. Consider the following experiment, which shows that no-till diverse crop raising and well-managed pasture both capture significant amounts of water and have significantly less sediment runoff than conventionally tilled or overgrazed pastures. This translates to cleaner water for municipal water sources, reducing costs for our cities.

From left to right: 1. Low-diversity, heavily tilled soil, 2. No-till soil with 25 years of diverse cover crop, representing about 4 to 4.5% organic matter, 3. Residual cover of tilled soil, 4. Well-managed pasture with a diversity of crops and 5. Poorly-managed pasture that has been over-grazed. Woodruff says the simulator indicates “not so much a runoff or erosion problem as an infiltration problem.” Inability of water to infiltrate the soil so it can be used by the crop. Video available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0ENNMky1sc

Many farmers and ranchers are interested in how to improve their soil health. The Soil for Water Network, run by the nonprofit National Center for Appropriate Technology, is already working with 68 Texas farms and ranches (and 200 nationally), many of whom are seeing results with modest, low-cost changes. Other nonprofits, such as Holistic Management International and the Council for Healthy Food Systems, have popular workshops on a range of healthy soils topics.

But given the size of our state, we lack resources for the sheer number of farmers and ranchers who need information on how to improve their soils under their specific ecological and economic circumstances. In addition, there are often start-up costs for things such as cover crop seed, no-till equipment, cross-fencing and other needs for rotational grazing. Programs such as the “On-the-Ground Conservation” program at the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board could make a significant impact with funding. Investing in supporting healthy soils and regenerative land management is a low-cost way to help address both water shortages and flooding in our state. 

We can reduce the need for irrigation, increase aquifer recharge, reduce flooding, and improve water quality – all while reducing costs for the farmer, making farms and ranches more productive, and producing healthier food.

Respectfully submitted,

Judith McGeary | Executive Director | Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance

Judith@FarmAndRanchFreedom.org


[i]  See Water for Future Generations, at https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/2660102026f34efa9d2d7512bf620ab8; Panhandle farmer recharges the Ogalalla: https://civileats.com/2019/11/18/high-plains-farmers-race-to-save-the-ogallala-aquifer/. Contact Chris Grotegut, DVM for more information – grotegut@wtrt.net

[i] Park, Jong-Yoon, et al. “Evaluating the ranch and watershed scale impacts of using traditional and adaptive multi-paddock grazing on runoff, sediment and nutrient losses in North Texas, USA.” Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 240 (2017): 32-44 (Hydrological modelling on 2011 Teague data showed that AMP grazing reduced surface runoff by 49% and streamflow by 27%, with infiltration increasing by 29%.  Study shows how grazing management can have a large beneficial impact on water conservation, water quality and flood risk.)  See also Teague, W. R., et al. “Grazing management impacts on vegetation, soil biota and soil chemical, physical and hydrological properties in tall grass prairie.” Agriculture, ecosystems & environment 141.3-4 (2011): 310-322.  (Foundational paper documenting a wide range of differences in parameters such as vegetation, water infiltration, soil organic matter and microbial populations as observed on working ranches in North-Central Texas with different grazing management practices.); Apfelbaum, S. A. “Summary Report: Soil Carbon, Infiltration and Vegetation at Four AMP Ranch Triads – Alberta, CA.” Applied Ecological Services Report (Mar 20016); Teague, W. R., et al. “The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America.” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 71.2 (2016): 156-164; Park, Jong-Yoon, Srinivasulu Ale, and W. Richard Teague. “Simulated water quality effects of alternate grazing management practices at the ranch and watershed scales.” Ecological Modelling 360 (2017): 1-13; LaCanne, Claire E., and Jonathan G. Lundgren. “Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably.” PeerJ 6 (2018): e4428.

[ii] Final Study Report: Cypress Creek Overflow Report.”  Harris County Flood Control District (Aug 2015).

[iii] Apfelbaum, S., et. al. “Ecosystem Services Valuation for the Katy Prairie Conservancy and Adjacent Lands: Waller & Harris Counties, Texas.” Special Report by Applied Ecological Services, Brodhead, WI (April 2019).