Why “Infrastructure” Includes the Ground Beneath Our Feet

May 13, 2021 | 2:47 pm
NRCS/SWCS photo by Lynn Betts
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

Long a joke in federal policy circles, Infrastructure Week is actually upon us. Since President Biden revealed his infrastructure plan (aka the American Jobs Plan) earlier this spring, we’ve heard a lot of opinions about what is, and isn’t, infrastructure. Now I’ll add my hot take: Soil is infrastructure.

That’s right, soil. Most of us rarely give it a thought, although it is the literal foundation of agriculture and makes the majority of our food supply possible. But more than that, I’d argue that soil—in particular, healthy, living soil—is infrastructure because it has a critical role to play in making other important things possible. Like flood control and clean drinking water, for example. And that’s why it’s exciting to see new policy proposals that would invest in soil infrastructure on US farms. Just in time for a real infrastructure debate.

Healthy soil is flood control infrastructure

When soil is healthy and full of organic matter, it acts as a sponge, soaking up water from heavy rains or rapid snowmelt and buffering farms and communities downstream. While building spongier soil is increasingly critical given climate change and the more intense storms it is bringing, the idea of soil as flood control is not new. After the Great Flood of 1951 in Kansas and Missouri, soil conservation leader Hugh Hammond Bennett wrote:

Soil conservation is an indispensable and co-ordinate part of flood control and silt control.

No single method of flood control can do an adequate job. We have seen in the recent Midwestern flood, for example, that levees high enough to withstand the largest previous floods on record were overtopped. We have also seen that the soils of fields and pastures became nearly so saturated after weeks of heavy rains that they could absorb but little more from the final big rains. To meet all kinds of flood conditions and prevent or minimize flood damages wherever they are a hazard, we must use every available method of control we know about.

Every additional gallon of water that can be stored in the soil through the use of conservation measures means one gallon less contributed to flood flows.

In cities and suburban areas, where much of the soil is covered up with impermeable pavement and buildings, urban planners often learn about the importance of greenspace and soil conservation the hard way. That was true of the Houston metropolitan area in 2017, when Hurricane Harvey—the largest rainfall event in US history—dropped as much as 60 inches of rain on the area and devastated some communities, particularly Black and Brown neighborhoods. Decades of unchecked urban growth that covered over the region’s already poorly-draining clay soil was among the factors that contributed to catastrophic flooding.

On the nation’s farms—where soil is managed most intensively—there are opportunities to build the soil’s flood control potential every growing season. Research shows the kinds of farming practices that build healthy, spongy soil. A 2017 Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analysis revealed that:

  • Improving farming practices, such as by keeping soil un-plowed, or covered with living plants, increased its ability to absorb water in 70 percent of field studies analyzed.
  • Soil’s infiltration rate—its ability to suck up water—improved by 59 percent with perennial crops, 35 percent with cover crops (planted to keep soil covered in between growing seasons), and 58 percent with improved livestock grazing practices.

The same study also modeled the flood reduction outcomes that could be achieved with efforts to implement soil-building practices on a large scale, in the heart of the Corn Belt. Converting a third of Iowa’s cropland—with a focus on the state’s least-profitable acres—to perennial crops, or to corn or soybeans grown with a winter cover crop, could reduce runoff in flood years by nearly one-fifth and cut flood frequency by the same amount. (A more recent study reinforces the effectiveness of soil management with cover crops in reducing flood frequency.)

Soil, then, is flood control infrastructure, just like levees, dams, and reservoirs. It provides a buffer from flooding not just for farms and surrounding rural communities, but also for cities far downstream. And compared with highly engineered flood control options, it’s inexpensive—just $37 per acre on average. Unfortunately, while the use of cover crops in US agriculture has increased in recent years, they are still vastly underutilized despite their benefits. In Iowa, for example, farmers have planted cover crops on less than 4 percent of all farmed acres.

Healthy soil is drinking water infrastructure (and more)

But there’s more. Healthy, well managed soil can also be a pollution prevention tool. When soil is unhealthy and not very absorbent, water will run off and take with it whatever pollutants are there on the surface. On farms, that often means nutrients like nitrogen from fertilizers that crops haven’t used. On average, one-third of the nitrogen applied to crops can leach into groundwater or run off farm fields into streams and rivers.

UCS has estimated that 800 million pounds of nitrogen applied as fertilizer in Iowa in 2017 ended up in waterways, including those supplying drinking water.

That’s a big deal for farming communities and those downstream. Our report found that if current trends continue, Iowa could spend as much as $333 million over the next five years for continued nitrate removal from drinking water. And though nearly three-quarters of this expense is borne by small rural communities, big cities are also footing large bills. Toledo, Ohio, has invested a whopping $1 billion in a new water treatment plant after toxic algae blooms driven by nutrients in farm runoff caused a drinking water crisis. And Des Moines Water Works, the utility that supplies drinking water to half a million people in Iowa’s capital city, has spent millions removing nitrates from its water sources in the perpetually polluted Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, and now finds itself needing to sink another $20 million into developing an alternative groundwater source.

The Senate recently passed a bipartisan water infrastructure bill that focuses on the systems—in many cases the literal pipes—that deliver drinking water to consumers and treat communities’ wastewater. This attention to traditional water infrastructure is very overdue: many cities (see: Flint) still contend with 100-year-old lead pipes, and many rural areas and Tribal communities have woefully inadequate drinking water and sanitation systems as well. With its attention to long-neglected needs of underserved communities, the bill has garnered praise from environmental groups, organized labor, urban Senate Democrats, and rural Senate Republicans, among others.

But we can do so much more to clean drinking water sources by investing in soil. Better soil management that keeps nutrients out of streams, rivers, and groundwater can reduce the strain on water treatment plants now plagued by farm runoff. Something as simple as planting strips of perennial prairie plants on 10 percent of a farm’s acres has been shown to slash nitrogen and phosphorus loss through runoff by 85 and 90 percent, respectively.

And it’s not just drinking water quality that it improved when soils are healthy. By helping clean up downstream water bodies like the Gulf of Mexico, soil can enhance economic opportunities for downstream communities. Industries such as commercial fishing—which, according to a 2020 UCS report, confronts $2.4 billion worth of fishery and habitat damage caused by agricultural pollution in the Gulf every year—would benefit from attention to soil-based pollution control infrastructure upstream. Outdoor recreation and tourism industries benefit from cleaner water, too.

Let’s invest in soil as infrastructure!

Happily, larger efforts to address the nation’s infrastructure needs are converging this year with the movement to build healthy soil. On Earth Day, Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) reintroduced the Agriculture Resilience Act in Congress. My colleagues wrote about this legislation (here and here) before the pandemic put it on the back-burner last year.

The reboot is largely the same bill, full of investments in research, technical assistance, and incentives to help farmers build healthy, carbon-rich soil and drastically reduce heat-trapping emissions from US agriculture by 2040. New additions to the bill include provisions lifted from another proposal, the bipartisan Strengthening Local Processing Act, which seeks to invest in a different kind of infrastructure: more local meat and poultry processing facilities to expand opportunities for small and midsize farmers (and reduce dependence on problematic Big Meat monopolists like Tyson Foods).

New in Congress this year is the bipartisan Farmers Fighting Climate Change Act, which would boost the ability of a highly cost-effective conservation program at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help farmers and their soil to be part of the climate solution. Also, the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which acknowledges and works to correct historic discrimination within the USDA, aims to ensure that Black farmers can not only retain and regain land, but also build soil health on their farms. And the Biden administration’s first annual budget proposal similarly includes increases in funding for agricultural programs that could serve as soil infrastructure R&D.

All of these proposals could and should be in the mix as Congress debates a comprehensive infrastructure bill. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan is disappointingly silent on soil, but it shouldn’t be. Taking a broad view of infrastructure to tackle related climate challenges and equitably expand economic opportunities for farmers and downstream communities would be smart politics and good policymaking. Let’s do this!

What You Can Do: As Congress begins work on a package of legislation designed to create jobs, rebuild infrastructure, and tackle climate change, we need to tell them to support robust investments in USDA agroecological systems-based research, conservation programs, and conservation technical assistance. Specifically, you can encourage them to include provisions of the Agriculture Resilience Act and the Climate Stewardship Act in infrastructure legislation. Email your representative and senators today!