Ocean Friendly Gardens
March 02 2015

Healthy Soil Supports Clean Surf

by Paul Herzog

Our partners at G3/Green Gardens Group took the initiative to bring together the world's leaders in soil and how it can help save us from drought, climate catastrophe, and water pollution. The conference, Soil In The City ("dirty" version of Sex In The City), exposed us to how we treat our soil like dirt! From coastal cities to farms to rangelands, the restoration principles are the same: turning dirt into soil.

We learned how well plants and soil work to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, which helps make spaces in soil so it acts like a sponge for holding onto water. The carbon also provides food and "housing" for microorganisms, which help filter pollutants and feed plants. Living plants "sweat" water into the atmosphere, which helps to form clouds and rain (the water cycle and carbon cycle combined)! Healthier soil makes healthier food, too. (Click here for the short version of how soil works from our friends at Kiss The Ground.) Judith Schwartz, a writer and panel facilitator at the conference, has written that soil researchers find that "restoring soils of degraded and desertified ecosystems has the potential to store in world soils an additional 1 billion to 3 billion tons of carbon annually, equivalent to roughly 3.5 billion to 11 billion tons of CO2 emissions. (Annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning are roughly 32 billion tons.)"

Andy Lipkis, TreePeople's founder and president, lead off the conference with the value of a mature oak tree (with a 100-foot-wide canopy), which can collect and filter 57,000 gallons of water during a one-inch rainstorm. In 2013, when Los Angeles only got 3.6 inches of rain, 13.68 billion gallons of it ran off its streets; that amounted to 3,420 gallons per person. (Those same trees can shade our cities, reducing temperatures by 9 degrees.) Soil microorganisms can clean that water and lock up heavy metals, according to Mitchell Paavo-Zuckerman at BioSphere 2 in Arizona. This was confirmed by Nancy Steele, Executive Director of the Council for Watershed Health in their work on the L.A. Water Augmentation Study. Getting down to details, the Council has created a short-list of plants that survive in bio-swales.

Former President George H.W. Bush agrees and hired conference speaker, Dr. Elaine Ingham, founder of Soil Foodweb Inc. to turn an earthen parking lot at his Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas into a prairie ecosystem. The approach relied on compost, rainfall, and dewfall (using plant surfaces to capture and condense water, from leaf to stem to soi). After one year, the prairie is abundant. Dr. Ingham also tackled sudden oak death, sharing that compost tea injected through tubes at the tree's dripline was able to reverse the disease. (Check out her website for an online class if you can't make it to her workshops.)

Now imagine a cross between a roadshow roadie and eco-minister and you have Ray Archuleta, Conservation Agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS, check out their short film series "Unlock The Secrets Of Soil"). Ray drove a trailer from New Mexico to demonstrate his rain simulator, with compacted soils generating runoff and healthy soils sponging it up. The sponge effect is important since humans have doubled the amount of nitrogen deposition, according to Sophie Parker, The Nature Conservancy's Director of Urban Conservation.

Like a scene out of the movie Avatar, the University of British Columbia's Suzanne Simard told us that trees communicate and move around water and carbon (food). Parent trees even support their kin. Those kin seedlings, when connected to a mychorrizal (fungal) network, are 4 times more likely to survive. Everyone in the room was awestruck and hopeful. It was an important point to note for our urban forests, where we might want to use seeds from older trees for creating sapplings.

Research done by Dr. Marty Meyer at California Polytechnic College-Pomona has proven that soil can sequester 5-6 times more carbon than plants. Dr. Meyer's has found that carbon storage is the same in urban and suburban areas, regardless of water and soil type. His work on sage scrub, which characterizes much of coastal Southern and Central California, shows more carbon storage than to non-native grasses.

But with two-thirds of the world's lands facing desertification, Allan Savory of the Savory Institute quietly but forcefully stated that we need to follow his approach of Natural Lands Management:

  • Cover bare soil with plants to help rainwater infiltrate and, consequently, plants evapotranspire (the combination of plant "sweat" plus soil evaporation), helping to create rain clouds;
  • Re-introduce managed herds of animals to eat the grasses and stimulate their growth, with the herds leaving behind poop and urine to feed soil microorganisms. Their hooves compact soil enough to ensure a plant's seeds make contact with soil to trigger germination.

Savory related that efforts to address desertification with technology, fire, and letting the environment rest all have failed. Savory consults on over 50 million acres-worth of land under Natural Lands Management. Brian Von Herzen of the Carbon Foundation offered that compost-inoculated biochar could also help. An emerging carbon trading market in California may end up turning all these healthy soil creators into "carbon farmers." The conference attendees suggested to a rep for the non-profit organization that oversees the market that while trees qualify for credits, soil does not and needs to be.

The conference finished off with actions that are all ready being taken in urban environments. Dan Noble of the Association of Compost Producers told us that compost is an easily-made product that can provide good biological and organic matter, at a fraction of the price of biochar. Dan and Finian Makepeace of the non-profit Kiss The Ground, told us about recently passed California Asembly Bills (AB):

  • AB 1826 - requires business to compost food scraps and any other organic matter;
  • AB 551 – allow cities and counties to enter into contracts with landowners to turn vacant or "unimproved" land into gardens and spaces for animal husbandry (aka chickens).

Surfrider Foundation's Ocean Friendly Gardens Program Coordinator, Paul Herzog, presented our work on education, hands-on training and changing government policy. Surfrider has actively participated in a statewide effort, lead by the California Urban Water Conservation Council, to transform the landscaping marketplace, focusing on several key drivers. Surfrider supports these:

  • Everyone getting behind a common way to describe the approach - the "watershed approach" - with an ad campaign that uses images of watershed wise gardens.
  • Government agencies collaborating with each other - and with non-profits and the private sector.
  • Turf replacement rebates that require the watershed approach.
  • Developing a workforce, trained in the watershed approach, that can do mass transformation of landscapes. Something is needed on the scale of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930's Great Depression.