KETTLE RIVER Q AND A Aug. 28 – Healthy water starts with healthy soil

Soil is the foundation of healthy farms, forests,cities and watersheds.

Soil is the foundation of healthy farms, forests,

cities and watersheds.

Yet we are failing, collectively, to take care of

soil health and it is starting to catch up with us.

Losing soil health is linked to a number of

concerns in the Kettle River watershed. Our

streams and rivers are carrying more silt, nutrients

and pathogens.

Storm water from intense rainfalls travels

quickly over compacted soils and urban landscapes

to pollute our streams. And nitrates and

other contaminants infiltrate our sandy soils and

contaminate groundwater.

Globally, mismanagement of soils is threatening

food production, harming coral reefs, releasing

carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases,

and creating algae blooms and vast ‘dead zones’

in lakes and oceans.

So what can we do? It turns out that taking

care of our soils means learning about their hidden

mysteries as ecosystems.

“We need to learn how to give back,” says

Sheila Dobie of the Grand Forks and Boundary

Regional Agricultural Society. “Composting,

growing cover crops to return energy to the soil

and rotating crops so we don’t deplete it—there

are many things gardeners and farmers can do to

help the soil food web.”

Recent studies show that soil contains one

third of all of the world’s organisms. One teaspoon

alone can contain billions of microbes of

thousands of different types.

When a leaf falls or a plant dies in healthy soil,

earthworms and termites quickly tear it apart

and consume it. Fungi and microbes continue

the work and make the nutrients available to

growing plants to continue the cycle.

But modern, mechanised and chemical-based

farming destroys the food webs in the soil, and

rapidly breaks down the structure that keeps soil

together. Heavy nitrogen fertilization and tilling

literally burns off the carbon stored in the soil by

stimulating microbes.

In fact, nearly a third of the world’s cropland

is losing soil faster than it is gaining. According

to Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute.

“Soil that was formed on a geological time scale

is being lost on a human time scale.”

Soil is also disregarded when developing urban

areas, and it needs to be stewarded carefully

on ranches and forestry operations to prevent

erosion and loss of productivity.

Because of their knowledge of building soil

without chemicals and pesticides, we can turn

to organic farmers to learn more about restoring

soil health.

Organic farmers have learned to keep the

soil covered with soil-building crops like fall

rye, buckwheat and clover. Clover can even be

inter-planted with other crops to give a boost of

nitrogen to the crops, at a fraction of the cost of

conventional fertilizer. Incorporating perennials,

shrubs and trees in working farms can also reduce

wind and water erosion and provide mulch

and compost inputs for crops.

“One of the biggest things we can do around

here is composting,” says Dobie. “It breaks my

heart to see us burning and polluting the air

when all of that crucial organic matter could be

returned to the soil, with even less work than


Over the coming months, the Stakeholder Advisory

Group will examine many ways of supporting

healthy aquatic ecosystems and water

supplies in the Kettle River watershed, including

stewardship of the soil.

Graham Watt is the coordinator of the Kettle River

Watershed Management Plan for the RDKB.