Stop Treating That Soil like Dirt

By LaVon Griffieon

As the snow begins to melt I look out my picture window and watch the pristine white fade into a khaki brown lawn. I know there is a better way of doing business with nature than a monoculture of manicured bluegrass.

As I look south at the new subdivisions oozing out from the city in my direction, I cringe to think of what a shock the underground aquifer is in for. What used to be a quarter-section of loamy farm field is becoming asphalted infrastructure at worst and bluegrass sod on top of compacted clay at best. This bleak reality could be turned around if only more developers would grab the opportunity to incorporate some best management practices that enhance urban conservation, water quality and construction site erosion techniques into their development projects. Demonstration sites across the country prove that these practices save everyone money, especially taxpayers.

I know that farmers haven't got a great deal of room to talk. If you count farming as a form of development, which it is, Iowa is the most developed state in the country. Eighty-nine percent of Iowa's wetlands are gone, many tiled away so the land could be farmed. I remember my grandma telling me about traveling across Iowa as a child from Black Hawk County to her new home in Pocahontas in a covered wagon through a sea of prairie grass. I thought I had really accomplished something last summer when I helped friends construct a couple of prairie beds. What would Grandma, who was born in 1879, have to say about me planting 17 different species of native prairie plants in mulched beds with landscaping fabric?

I was planting the beds in an inner-city neighborhood. Some of the houses on the block are over 100 years old. The soils in the neighborhood had been compacted many times over. The prairie plants, with their deep root system, will help rain water penetrate the compacted urban soils we have created. My prairie beds will make a small dent in downstream flood management. But they will come back every year, require little maintenance and serve as a small visual oasis in a blighted neighborhood.

It may seem like a small dent, but every little dent helps because those little rain drops add up. An inch of rain falling on an acre of land produces 27,154 gallons of water. If you received 32 inches of rainfall a year, captured it all in 50 gallon rain barrels you'd have six and one half miles of rain barrels. Today's trend of asphalting parking lots, roads, driveways and playgrounds sends all the water that would have soaked into the soil down a storm sewer and into the closest body of water. As a response to those raindrops, planting my inner city prairie allows the soil left between new asphalt "fields" to infiltrate as much water as possible. It's a rather sad attempt when compared to the huge natural sponge of loamy prairie that existed here to welcome downpours in Grandma's day.

The big lesson to be learned is that for over a century we've been treating our urban soils like dirt. The topsoil is stripped off and the clay is compacted until it is like cement. We finish the job by applying a roll of bluegrass sod that has no root structure and has to be watered continually to remain green. Watering lawns wastes time, money and resources. Directing rainfall straight to the storm sewer instead of allowing it to infiltrate into the soil and be stored in an aquifer is a huge waste of taxpayer dollars. It is also environmentally damaging

We've been very successful developing conservation efforts on agricultural land in the past 50 years. Hopefully, those successes can be transferred to our urban soils. As more water shortages are reported across America, the message must get out. Urban soils deserve the same attention as rural soils, holding developers and homeowners, alike, accountable and realizing the monetary and environmental benefits.

LaVon Griffieon of Ankeny, Iowa, is a farmwife and co-founder and president of 1000 Friends of Iowa, a group that promotes responsible land use. She is also a Food and Society Policy Fellow, funded through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

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