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Water Quality and Sustainability Grounded in Soil Health

NJAES role in statewide conference underscores importance of healthy soil.
Photo: Steve Yergeau, post-doctoral associate in the Water Resources program at Rutgers, demonstrates the penetrometer, a tool used to determine the "strength" of the soil.

Steve Yergeau, post-doctoral associate in the Water Resources program at Rutgers, demonstrates the penetrometer, a tool used to determine the "strength" of the soil.

Over the past four centuries, the landscape of New Jersey has shifted from "native" vegetation to large areas of agriculture and then gradually to urban and suburban. In addition to population density, the development of land has demanded more and more infrastructure, such as buildings, roads, and other impermeable cover. Even the unpaved areas that remain in the midst of development are often severely damaged by the human activities nearby. The rich, fertile topsoil may be removed or eroded, the topsoil or subsoil may be deeply compacted by traffic of heavy loads, or building materials may contaminate the soil during the construction process.

And so, land development has, in many ways, impaired the natural ecosystem processes that once acted to infiltrate, store, and filter rainwater and thus sustained healthy vegetation. While practices to control soil impairment at construction sites are regulated by the State–through local Soil Conservation Districts–there is still much that can be done to repair and manage the landscape for ecosystem health.

Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) has long recognized the hazards of development to soil, water, and the ecosystem and has supported education and management to prevent and ameliorate the consequences.

These issues have taken center stage at several recent conferences organized by the New Jersey Association of Conservation Districts (NJACD). The most recent widespread effort, "S.O.S. – Sustainable Opportunities through Soil," was held in May 2012 at Ocean County College in Toms River, NJ. The event, which attracted over 200 attendees, was organized jointly by NJACD, the Ocean County Soil Conservation District, and the Barnegat Bay Partnership. Other major sponsors included Rutgers NJAES and the New Jersey Association of Professional Soil Scientists.

This statewide conference targeted a wide range of land care professionals, practitioners, and policy-makers. Its goal was to develop a better understanding of healthy soils and their necessity to sustainable ecosystems and to initiate discussions in local communities about moving from gray infrastructure (referring to impermeable pavement and the need for engineered solutions) to green infrastructure (such as permeable soil/landscapes, allowing natural ecosystem functions to serve needs).

Photo: Here the penetrometer was used to demonstrate the loosening effect of a soil management implement with multiple blades that cut into soil while leaving the surface virtually intact.

Here the penetrometer was used to demonstrate the loosening effect of a soil management implement with multiple blades that cut into soil while leaving the surface virtually intact.

A new focus at the conference was the importance of maintaining soil health and how it contributes to healthy turf, a critical component of our suburban environment and an important factor in stabilizing soil. Stephanie Murphy, director of Rutgers NJAES Soil Testing Laboratory, along with Rutgers colleagues Sal Mangiafico, environmental and resource management agent, and James Murphy, extension specialist in turf management, shared their knowledge about creating and managing soil health in the suburban/urban environment for minimizing runoff and sustaining plant health.

Mangiafico stressed that the need for irrigation, as well as stormwater management, would be greatly lessened if all landscaped areas could infiltrate and store rain to their maximum extent, largely dependent on soil properties.

"Even in sandy soils, intense compaction can occur to the extent that water won't infiltrate and be stored in the rootzone," explains Stephanie Murphy "When the water runs off instead or evaporates from the surface, irrigation is required to maintain vegetation."

She adds, "You have to continually apply nutrients, because the zone of root growth is so shallow." The restricted root growth, lack of water, and lack of oxygen in soil limit the biological processes that might otherwise remedy the situation, thus continuing the cycle.

At the conference, James Murphy pointed out that turfgrass often gets blamed for negative aspects of suburban landscapes. He offered instead that it's the condition of the underlying soil–not the grass itself–that results in runoff and subsequent consequences. He discussed management options, such as core aerification, which can be used to alleviate compaction and get natural processes moving in the right direction.

Photo: The tractor-mounted "VertiQuake", a soil management implement with multiple blades that cut into soil while leaving the surface virtually intact, was used over an area of poor turf quality.

The tractor-mounted "VertiQuake", a soil management implement with multiple blades that cut into soil while leaving the surface virtually intact, was used over an area of poor turf quality.

NJAES recognizes the critical role it plays through its research and outreach on this topic. According to Jack Rabin, associate director, Farm Programs, NJAES is committed to maintaining its programs to promote soil health to New Jersey residents and businesses.

Rabin illustrated NJAES' commitment to the issue of soil quality on farmland for commercial production, pointing out that the experiment station is a key sponsor of an upcoming workshop on "Cover Crops for Soil Health on the Coastal Plain." This event is co-sponsored by USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and will be held at USDA NRCS Cape May Plant Materials Center, in Cape May Court House, NJ, on October 18, 2012.


  1. Rutgers
  2. Executive Dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  3. School of Environmental and Biological Sciences