Whether you realize it or not, our lives are impacted each day by watersheds.
“Everybody on the earth’s surface lives in a watershed. They may not know that, but unless they’re living on the International Space Station, they’re standing in a watershed,” Aaron Hoff, manager of the Tarrant Regional Water District Watershed Programs, said.
If you are wondering what a watershed is, Hoff explains in simple terms a watershed is a specific geographic area where all the water drains to a certain point, such as a river or lake. In fact, every square inch of land on Earth is part of a watershed according to the EPA, which means rural prairies, urban streets and everything in between are part of some watershed.
Watersheds are incredibly important because they ultimately impact water quality and quantity. Not only do we all live in watersheds, Hoff said we depend on them for clean water, food, work, recreation, and considerably more. When watersheds are healthy, they can function as nature intended, providing us all these benefits. However, the activities we do on the land, such as applying fertilizer, disposing of chemicals or building homes, can threaten the condition of our watersheds.
“I think that’s really what it comes down to is a healthy watershed means healthy people, healthy economy, healthy land, healthy water. So, one begets the other,” Hoff said.
Kyle Wright, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) state water quality specialist, said healthy watersheds serve a number of functions, including stabilizing soil and preventing erosion. Watersheds are also designed by nature to catch, hold and slow down storm waters and help mitigate flood risk.
“Watersheds are extremely important – they provide so much to us through the benefits of being able to filter and clean our runoff water as it comes off of these lands,” Wright said.
Farmers and Ranchers Take Action
Farming and ranching are essential activities done within our watersheds that provide us with food and fiber. Wright said in his career, he has never worked with a farmer or rancher who did not recognize the natural value of their land.
“They value it. They appreciate it. All the farmers and ranchers who I know are interested in taking care of their land and improving it as much as they can,” Wright said.
The NRCS in Texas is helping farmers do just that. Wright said NRCS partners with farmers and ranchers by providing technical and financial assistance to help address resource concerns on their land in a sustainable manner. Through programs like the National Water Quality Initiative and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, farmers and ranchers implement practices that protect water quality and conserve natural resources on their land.
One of the practices Wright said farmers implement on their crop fields to protect watersheds is nutrient management. By mapping out a nutrient management plan, farmers apply fertilizer in the proper amount, time and placement needed for their crops to grow healthy.
“By applying only what the crop is going to uptake, they’re greatly reducing the chance that any will run off into our watersheds,” Wright said.
Wright added, soil health is an important component of watershed stewardship. To improve soil health on their farms, he explained farmers are using reduced till or no-till practices. Not disturbing the soil surface through tillage reduces erosion and possible runoff and improves soil health.
Another practice farmers use is residue management, controlling the amount of residues left in the field. Wright said one way farmers can implement this practice is by growing high-residue crops and low-residue crops in a rotation. When combined with reduced or no-till practices, this increases the organic matter on the soil surface, which helps reduce erosion.
“As these organic matters are decomposed on the surface of the soil, they’re going to improve the health of the soil, which will allow for more infiltration and water-holding capacity in the soil,” Wright explained.
He also said filter strips and buffers are critical practices for watershed protection on both farms and ranches. Planting vegetation that is thicker and lusher in these filter strips around the boundaries of a farm or along the edges of a stream on a ranch can help trap contaminants as that water leaves the fields and continues its journey through the watershed.
From a ranching standpoint, Wright said prescribed grazing is the number one practice ranchers can use to protect watersheds. Prescribed grazing can help by limiting or controlling the access of livestock to prevent overgrazing in particular areas of a pasture. This protects grassland across the ranch and provides better ground cover to protect against erosion and bacterial contamination.
Taking Action at Home
But it’s not just up to our farmers and ranchers to care for our watersheds, we all have a responsibility. Hoff said one of the biggest threats to any watershed today is the impact of changing land use, which includes areas where our homes are built. We can all take action at home to protect the watersheds we live in.
As land is developed, much of the surface becomes impermeable, or unable to allow water to infiltrate into the soil surface. Hoff’s first tip for homeowners is to utilize rainwater to their benefit.
“There are a lot of ways you can use water on your property that benefit you rather than pushing it down the nearest storm drain,” Hoff said.
He explained that homeowners can collect water utilizing a rain barrel under their gutter downspouts and use it around their yard. The rainwater can be used to water the plants in your garden or landscape and to help keep the soil around the slab of your home more stable during hot, dry periods.
Another way Hoff said homeowners can help is by increasing the variety of native plants in their yard.
“If Mother Nature had her way, she would have lots of deep-rooted native plants out there,” Hoff explained.
Homeowners should consider the type of grass used for their lawn, plants in landscaping or even consider creating a pollinator garden. Not only are many native Texas plants drought-tolerant, but they also help prevent erosion and improve water quality. Hoff said they can even create a habitat and provide a food source for pollinators and other animals.
Lastly, Hoff said homeowners should think critically about what they can do with their lawn to reduce fertilizer application.
“Odds are you’re probably putting the wrong fertilizer down or putting too much of it out there,” Hoff said.
Just like farmers conduct soil tests on their land, Hoff said homeowners can contact their local AgriLife Extension office for information on how to test the soil in their yard. By doing so, it will help homeowners understand their yard’s fertilizer needs to prevent excess fertilizer from washing down the nearest storm drain, and eventually, to nearby bodies of water. Keeping streams, rivers and lakes free of fertilizers helps keep aquatic ecosystems safe from algal blooms and water clean for drinking and swimming, Hoff said.
Protecting our watersheds requires everyone doing their part and collaboration from people, organizations, and corporations at the local, state and national levels.
“Everybody that lives on this planet needs to be involved to take care of things. Together, I feel like we can get it done,” Wright said.
Protecting our watersheds is of upmost importance. By adopting conservation-minded principles and being good watershed stewards like Texas farmers and ranchers, we can protect our most precious resource for generations to come.