top of page

Water Quality: Co-Benefits of Soil Health Series

Updated: Jun 20, 2022

A river flowing over boulders and under a bridge where a train is crossing.
Boulevard Toll Bridge, Pump House Drive, Richmond, VA, USA. Photo by Salomé Guruli on Unsplash

"There are a lot of things where soil health and water quality go hand in hand," said Robert Shoemaker, nutrient management specialist with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). On episode 22-4 of our podcast 4 The Soil: A Conversation, Shoemaker joined us to talk about investing in soil health and balancing soil fertility. When we are "4 The Soil," we are 4 our waterways, too.

​Power of the 4 Core Principles

Following the 4 core principles of building soil health simultaneously increases water quality. While the DCR offers 40 different agriculture best management practices to integrate, Shoemaker said farmers particularly like growing cover crops. After removing their soybean or corn crop, they plant a rye or mixture of rye and hairy vetch. Along with keeping the soil covered and maximizing living roots, Shoemaker explained "it also helps with the water quality objectives by reducing erosion and tak[ing] up nutrients [like nitrogen] over the winter, which is a critical time." Keeping the soil covered can help the soil remain in place where it lives. It also protects and buffers the soil from intense elements such as heavy rain, wind, and hot temperatures that may cause runoff. Growing cover crops not only keeps the soil covered, but also maximizes living roots. These roots help absorb nutrients, act as an anchor, and protect the soil from erosion. By minimizing disturbance in the soil, we decrease the chance for erosion and runoff into creeks and rivers. Finally, by energizing with diversity, we promote different biological activities that influence soil structures, aggregate stability, and porosity. Healthy soil molecules attract and hold onto water and nutrient molecules, known as cation exchange capacity.

In Our Own Backyards and Farms

Shoemaker's team, the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, focuses on best management practices in agriculture. "This year alone, we have approximately 78 million dollars to help farmers [with cost-share to] put best practices on the ground to improve water quality," said Shoemaker. Agriculture is the second largest use of land and the top industry in Virginia, and so agricultural producers play a large role in water quality. But so do Virginia’s eaters, nature lovers, and water recreationers. The same principles and practices also apply to suburban lawns, public parks, and container gardens. For instance, if you're preparing your spring garden, you can build soil health and learn how to revitalize the life of the soil. Find tips and resources on the Virginia Soil Health Coalition's Urban Soil Assistance page. "If you do decide to put down nutrients, make sure you put them down at the right time at the right place at the right amount, so that we can achieve the job you want to achieve but also protect water quality at the same time," said Shoemaker.

A Look Under the Soil

Soil functions as a physical, chemical and biological filter for water. Physically, soil with good structure and aggregate stability will be cake-like and be like a sieve with pores of different sizes. The different sized pores can trap larger particles and sediments, but also absorb infiltrating water and nutrients to keep them from leaching and moving into the waterways. Chemically, soil has a slight negative charge, which means healthy soil will attract positively charged chemicals and ions in the water. "If you keep nitrogen and phosphorus out of the water and in the ground, your soil becomes more fertile," explained Shoemaker. Biologically, healthy soils host diverse microorganisms which consume and break down pollutants. "If you keep topsoil out of the water and on the land, there's an obvious soil health co-benefit in that process," said Shoemaker.


Resources Used

Click on the title to go to the website

Article: Chesapeake Bay Foundation, "Why the Farm Bill is Crucial to Saving the Bay"

Webpage: Virginia Soil Coalition, Urban Soil Assistance


Join the movement! 4 The Soil is a campaign by the Virginia Soil Health Coalition to raise awareness of soil as an agricultural and natural resource. By caring for the soil, we can build healthier communities, stronger economies, and a more resilient landscape.

Person holding a green and yellow watering can to water green plants.
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels


bottom of page