Healthy soil, healthy water, right?

Originally published: 
February, 2020

Despite decades of research demonstrating links between many agricultural practices and water quality, the ability to predict water quality on the basis of changes in soil health remains severely limited. Soil health refers to the capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem over time.

In a recent workshop paper, SEAS Assistant Professor Jennifer Blesh and her colleagues sought to gain a better understanding of how soil health affects downstream water quality—and how researchers and policymakers could prioritize different conservation practices while exploring more innovative soil health management strategies, especially ones that improve the biological functions of soil.

Continuum of Practices

Index Value

Their paper, On Quantifying Water Quality Benefits of Healthy Soils, published on February 19 in the scientific journal, BioScience, is the result of a workshop sponsored by CIGLR and the Michigan Environmental Council. The two-day meeting connected researchers who model water quality with those who study soil processes in agriculture, to formulate strategies for collaboration, and increase understanding of the capacity for management practices that build soil health to mitigate watershed-scale nutrient pollution. In it, the researchers describe the value and challenges of different approaches to linking soil health and water quality with a focus on the Great Lakes region. The team identified critical research needs, including paying greater attention to a broad range of conservation practices, such as increasing crop diversity in agricultural fields, and improving the ability to include biological indicators of soil health in watershed models. In addition, the researchers discussed the key barriers that would lead farmers to adopt conservation practices, and determined that scientific understanding alone is insufficient to drive widespread change.