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Water Conservation

by Malcolm Beck



The water supply on planet Earth is constant, the amount never varies. However, only 3 % of the water on Earth is fresh water and much of it is trapped in polar ice. As the population of our planet continues to grow water issues become greater and greater.


In central Texas the average rain fall is about 30 inches. In years with rain fall below average the farm crops, and city landscapes suffer if not irrigated. When the water use is restricted citizens become concerned. If the drought lingers, they panic and try to beg, barrow or steal water from others and searched for new supplies. More wells are drilled and creeks and rivers are dammed to make lakes.


Trapping water in lakes is not the best conservation method. The evaporation rate in central Texas averages 55 inches per year.


The best place to store water is underground in our aquifers and Texas is blessed with a few good large ones and hundreds of small sand strata aquifers. However, how to get the water into the aquifers and sand strata's is not well understood by the average farmer or rancher and is a mystery to most city folks.


Let's look at some old but vital research by the USDA. One of their studies shows that a block of soil 3 ft long 1 ft wide and 6 inches deep will weigh about 100 lbs. If it contains 4 to 5 % organic matter, it can absorb a 4 to 6 inch rain an hour and will hold about 165 to 195 lbs of water. If not used by plants the water slowly and continually goes down and can be trapped in an aquifer. The same size block of soil that has 1 % or less humus or organic matter will absorb only about 1 inch of rain or 35 to 40 lbs of water and the rest runs off to cause flooding and erosion with very little reaching an aquifer.


Soil rich in humus and organic matter is a critical part of the solution to water shortage problems. Working on our own farm and helping neighbors bale and haul hay during the big drought of the 50s I noticed there was never an even hay crop in the same neighborhood although the rain fall was the same. Bottom land and new land always made more bales per acre than old eroded fields. Barn yard manure was the fertilizer back then and where it was used the crops were best. I didn't know then, but I have since discovered why.


Information for the homeowner:

I started making compost in the mid 60s and by the mid 70s I was making and selling compost in a big way. Where ever compost was used the plants and lawns were always healthier and greener as we expected. What we didn't expect was the lawns, trees and shrubs needed a lot less irrigation. Applying ½ inch of compost to a lawn in the fall of the year would always cut the watering needs from 30 - 50 % the following year. With some people reporting irrigation was cut as much as 70 - 80 %. Naturally, the least irrigation needs were always in areas with the deeper soils.


Information for the farmer:

I went with Dr. Joe Bradford of the USDA to visit some of the no-till farmers in non-irrigated areas of South Texas . All of those farmers were making a crop and taking money to the bank while their neighbors on either side were having crop failure. The success was contributed to the previous crop litter being left on the soil surface as mulch to trap rain water, stop erosion and slowed evaporation. And, with the no till program the earth worms and the soil micro organism systems were not disrupted by the plough and the humus in the soil wasn't exposed to the air that would cause it to dissipate as CO2 . Together, this caused the soil organic content on these farms to rise 1/10 of 1 % each year. The mulch and the extra soil humus allowed a much greater amount of rain to soak into the soil. Home owners who use mulch around their trees and shrubs and compost their lawns along with the no-till farmers are doing their share to store and conserve water. However, there is more ranch land than city yards and farm lands combined.


Information for the Rancher:

The ranchers who follow the Holistic Management cattle grazing methods, taught by Allen Savory can do the most good for water quality, water supply, soil biology and the carbon cycle to clean the air. I have been on many of these ranches to see first hand the abundance of healthy forage grasses growing through a mulch of old plant matter from previous seasons. The covered ground trapped the rain to fill the aquifers and cause springs to flow in the riparian areas. The cattle were in excellent condition, I also noticed a good supply of dung beetles digging in the cow patties and forming the manure into balls then rolling them some distance before burying them deep into the ground. This beetle activity allowed more water to soak in; soil to be aerated and fertilized and it eliminate any parasites that would normally hatch from the manure. There were very few flies bothering the animals. The neighboring ranches being operated by the conventional methods had a lower stocking rate, poor grass quality and bare soil with of evidence of erosion and the cattle were bothered by more flies.


While visiting one of the Holistic Managed Ranches I got permission to take soil samples from it and the neighboring ranch. I took five samples six paces apart on each side of the fence. On the Holistic side the soil probe went in easily and all the samples pulled were a dark chocolate color showing evidence of plenty humus. On the conventional side of the fence I had a hard time getting the probe down a full six inches and the samples pulled were a light brown color indicated very little humus.


Lessons learned:

Since my early days of hay baling I have had an interest in water quantity. I have even worked for two different well drillers. But, owning my own farm and making and using compost and mulches is where I learned the most.


The only answer to our water problems is for the ranchers, farmers and home owners to study and understand the design of Nature and operate within those conservation laws.


Note : When the settlers first came to this country the numbers of grazing animals were tremendous. The numbers of the American buffalo alone was greater than all the farm animals, feed lots included, than we have today. The buffalo grazed in close herds, this forced them to bite from all the grass species, not just preferred grass. All the while they were dropping a lot of urine and manure and were always on a move. They never ate the grass down short. The prairie floor was always covered with a healthy layer of decaying grass and animal matter. And the forage grass remained abundant and healthy. And the streams flowed clear and strong. That is, until the white man came.


Malcolm Beck is a member of HRM of Texas and the compost guru of Texas. He can be reached at:

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last updated:  September 2, 2006