Source: National Wildlife Federation

By Trisha White

Healthy soil can protect us from drought and flood impacts, saving farms, rural communities and even the American agriculture industry, according to a new report from the National Wildlife Federation. “Can Soil Save Us? Making the Case for Cover Crops as Extreme Weather Risk Management” details the many benefits of investing in healthy soil as protection from natural disasters.

Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as drought and floods, often hitting farmers and rural America hardest. Decades of mechanized farming has left our soils degraded and particularly vulnerable to extreme weather; unable to retain water to withstand dry spells and unable to soak up excess water during flood.

Farmers are the first to feel the heat of extreme weather events — losing crops, livestock and equipment. But consumers and taxpayers also pay through higher food prices and subsidized crop and flood insurance, as well as spending extensive resources on efforts to plan for and respond to extreme weather events. From 1980-2012, 16 drought events cost America $210 billion and floods cost an average $7.96 billion per year.

"We can never prevent drought or floods, but we can get smarter about them," says Patricia White, senior policy specialist at the National Wildlife Federation and report author. "In addition to predicting extreme events before and responding after, we can build soil quality to support farms when disaster hits. That healthy soil will act as a reservoir to hold moisture during a drought and a sponge to hold water during floods. And water held in our farm fields won’t be flooding our homes and streets."

For a fraction of what we now spend on extreme weather events, America could be investing in improving soil health by promoting sustainable agriculture practices such as cover crops. USDA reports that for each 1% increase in organic matter from improving soil health, our cropland could store the amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls in 150 days. And we could reach 20 million acres of cover crops with a modest investment of just $740 million.