Healthier Rivers Through Urban Agirculture

| 4/13/2011 11:02:57 AM

Water QualitySpring is the time of year when the region’s Riverkeepers are particularly concerned about water quality and stream health.  With the onset of strong seasonal rains comes the risk of sewer overflows from combined sewer systems throughout the Kansas City Metro area, and the result is increased pollution of our creeks, streams and rivers. 

The growing popularity of urban agriculture presents an opportunity to reduce the amount of water and pollutants entering our combined sewer systems.  Urban farmers and our community as a whole have much to gain from implementing a few simple techniques to reduce runoff and pollution of our urban watershed.  Our productive urban landscapes (i.e., farms and gardens) have the potential to be more environmentally friendly than the many chemically treated lawns and unproductive green spaces we currently see throughout our city.  Converting a lawn to an organically managed agricultural landscape can promote a healthy environment and capture ecosystem services (such as food production) which were previously underutilized.  But to realize these benefits, it is important that we keep several key design principles in mind as we build our urban farms and gardens. 

1. Soil Management

From the perspective of storm water management, an important benefit of creating productive urban landscapes is that farmers tend to reduce soil compaction in the process.  Storm water runoff is aggravated by the many impervious and compacted pervious surfaces in our cities.   

Urban farmers generally work hard to reverse soil compaction and create spongy, loose soils for their crops to thrive.  High organic matter content is particularly beneficial to plant health and also increases the soil’s nutrient and water holding capacity.  But once we have created healthy soils, we have to prevent them from being eroded or compacted again. 

On small urban operations, farm-scale mulching is both feasible and very useful.  Under the protective cover of mulch soil is less subject to erosion and compaction by heavy spring rains.  However, mulch can slow down spring soil warming and farmers may decide to delay applying mulch until after the soil has warmed up sufficiently. 

Special attention is often warranted when farming on slopes;  building terraces, contour farming and alternating permanently planted green strips with growing beds are techniques that have been widely used to control erosion on large-scale farms and may be appropriate for small urban farms as well.  Also, all farmers should consider ways to minimize tillage as it tends to degrade the soil and create a new layer of soil compaction a few inches down. 

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