Soil Health

Preserving Water Quality Preserves Our Future

Most crops need fresh water to grow. While 70% of our planet is covered by water1 only 2% of that water is fresh.2 With nearly half the global population living in potentially water scarce areas, maintaining and preserving quality freshwater resources remains a global priority.3

One of the leading surface water impacts in the U.S. is from sediment.4 Agriculture can contribute to this sedimentation if conventional tillage is used. Researchers predict that more than 30 billion U.S. tons of soil will be lost annually if conventional tillage continues on a global scale.5 Thankfully this is not the case with conservation tillage gaining ground across the globe. In the U.S., 64% of cotton producers implemented conservation tillage practices to keep soil and nutrients on their fields.6 Additionally, the U.S. has set 10-year science-based sustainability goals including a 50% reduction in soil loss by 2025.

Conservation Tillage Protects Soil and Water

Conservation tillage methods vary, but all of them involve planting systems that cover 30 percent or more of the soil’s surface with crop residue after planting to reduce soil erosion by water.7 This practice has a clear and positive effect on both surface water and ground water.8 Together, cover crops and conservation tillage practices help to reduce erosion, runoff and soil compaction, and lower the risk of agricultural runoff reaching waterways. At the same time, growers are working to further reduce and manage their use of agricultural inputs that can affect water quality such as pesticides and fertilizers.

Research and Development of Conservation Practices

The cotton industry is committed to researching and developing scientific data to support pathways to achieve positive environmental outcomes, especially for water quality. Several research teams have designed field-level studies to evaluate conservation systems and how those systems can have positive impacts on surface water quality. Recent projects have focused on how conservation tillage, crop rotations, cover cropping, and precision irrigation can be used to improve water quality outcomes. Two ongoing research projects in the mid-south region seek to quantify these water quality outcomes with real surface water quality samples that are collected at key cotton production stages throughout the year. These long-term studies will provide data for growers to implement best management practices to enhance water quality.9,10

For more information, watch this webinar on the Life Cycle Assessment of Cotton:

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  1. “How Much Water Is There on Earth?,”https://www.usgs.gov/special-topic/water-science-school/science/how-much-water-there-earth.
  2. M.S. Zaman and Robert Sizemore, “Freshwater Resources Could Become the Most Critical Factor in the Future of the Earth,” Journal of the Mississippi Academy of Sciences 62, no. 4 (October 2017): pp. 348-352, https://doi.org/10.31753/6204-348.
  3. UN-Water, “Scarcity: UN-Water,” UN, May 4, 2021, https://www.unwater.org/water-facts/scarcity/.
  4. EPA. https://ofmpub.epa.gov/waters10/attains_nation_cy.control#main-content.
  5. “Climate Change and Land Use Are Accelerating Soil Erosion by Water,” ScienceDaily (ScienceDaily, August 24, 2020), https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/08/200824165633.htm.
  6. Jesse S. Daystar et al., “Sustainability Trends and Natural Resource Use in U.S. Cotton Production,” BioResources 12, no. 1 (2016), https://doi.org/10.15376/biores.12.1.362-392.
  7. “What Is Conservation Tillage?,” SARE, August 27, 2020, https://www.sare.org/publications/conservation-tillage-systems-in-the-southeast/chapter-1-introduction-to-conservation-tillage-systems/what-is-conservation- tillage/#:~:text=%E2%80%9C%5BConservation%20tillage%20is%5D%20any,reduce%20soil%20erosion%20by%20water.&text=Within%20these%20strips%2C%20soil%20below,loosened%20using%20deep%2Dtillage%20implements.
  8. http://economics.ag.utk.edu/bcstudy.html
  9. S. Afzalinia and A. R. Ziaee, “Effect of Conservation Tillage and Irrigation Methods on the Cotton Yield and Water Use Efficiency,” AGRIS (International Society for Horticultural Science., January 1, 1970), https://agris.fao.org/agris-search/search.do?recordID=US201500159881.
  10. Ag and Natural Resource Marketing – Mississippi State University, “Research Project: National Center for Alluvial Aquifer Research: Mississippi State University,” Research Project | National Center for Alluvial Aquifer Research | Mississippi State University, n.d., https://www.ncaar.msstate.edu/research/research-detail.php?id=18.