Challenges in soil and water conservation

Productive soils and clean water are essential elements for economic and social prosperity and environmental sustainability. Throughout history, civilizations have thrived or collapsed based on the availability of these vital resources. The lack of arable land and evidence of soil degradation have been identified as causes for the fall of many ancient civilizations, such as those in Mesopotamia, the Anasazi in the western United States, and the Mayans of Central America.

The rise and fall of these civilizations is often attributed to accelerated erosion and degradation caused by improper land management or scarce resources. We must understand and remember the lessons of the past, for those who do not heed these lessons are most likely to repeat them.
Approximately 580 million hectares of the continental United States (62% of the total land area) are used for agricultural purposes. This land is used to produce food, fiber, feed, biofuels, and pasture. This land also provides critical ecosystem functions such as nutrient and water cycling, decomposition and detoxification of wastes, and a sink for carbon and greenhouse gases. Scientifically based soil and water conservation and management principles are needed to produce environmentally safe and sustainable outcomes.
Systematic investigation of sound soil and water conservation principles began in response to the dramatic soil erosion produced prior to and during the 1930s Dust Bowl. In 1929, the Buchanan Amendment to the Agricultural Appropriations bill established a nationally coordinated effort providing funding for 10 erosion experiment stations across the United States.
The Soil Conservation Act was passed in 1935, placing soil erosion control activities in the Department of Agriculture. The scientific infrastructure available to investigate methods to mitigate the deleterious effects of erosion is now found in national, state, and county-level agencies throughout the country.
The lessons of history and the future of research are explored in a new book, Soil and Water Conservation Advances in the United States, edited by Drs. Ted Zobeck and William Schillinger, leading experts in the field of soil and water conservation. The book is published by the Soil Science Society of America, the professional home for over 6,000 members dedicated to advancing the field of soil science.
In the book, authors from each region of the continental United States describe the history of soil and water conservation in the last century, the current situation, and suggest the outlook for the future, in an easy to follow format. Each chapter is devoted to a specific geographical region, exploring how agricultural production practices must change in future years to address the newest challenges. Major issues, research, recommendations, and government programs are covered. Present research challenges are reviewed, and contributors visualize how agricultural production practices will change in future years to address the newest challenges in soil and water conservation.
“Drs. Ted Zobeck and William Schillinger are to be commended for the superb job they did in recruiting truly outstanding authors who are at the forefront of research in soil and water conservation,” says Gary A. Peterson, 2008 President of the Soil Science Society of America. “Their expertise brings great credibility to this work.”
Ted M. Zobeck is a Lead Scientist in the USDA, Wind Erosion and Water Conservation Research Unit of the Cropping Systems Research Laboratory in Lubbock, TX. His research is focused on optimizing the productivity and sustainability of agricultural management systems. Dr. Zobeck is especially interested in assessing the effects of soil management on soil quality for agricultural outcomes and quantifying the impact of wind erosion on air quality and soil productivity.
William F. Schillinger is a professor in the Crop and Soil Sciences Department at Washington State University. His research focus is on dryland cropping systems and soil management to reduce wind erosion, wheat stress physiology, improvement of precipitation storage in soil, and water use efficiency of wheat. He serves as director of the WSU Dryland Research Station at Lind and as principal investigator of the Columbia Plateau PM10 Project.  
Photo: No-till planting of spring wheat into standing stubble of the previous winter wheat crop in April 2008 on the John and Cory Aeschliman farm in the Palouse. The residue is left standing and undisturbed to protect the soil from water erosion during the winter.  Farming is conducted on slopes as steep as 45% or more. This 450-horsepower Knudson tractor is equipped with crab steering and a self-leveling cab for operating on steep slopes.  The 12-m-wide modified Greats Plains model 3010 air drill has a notched coulter in front of each seed opener to cut through residue and 2-cm-wide shanks to band liquid aqua NH3–N plus thiosulfate-sulfur about 8 cm below the soil surface. Liquid “starter” fertilizer from a separate tank delivers phosphorus close to the seed that is planted with double-disc openers on 20-cm row spacing. This field has been in continuous no-till for 30 yr. Photo: John Aeschliman, Colfax, WA.

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