Water is a precious resource.

Humans are made up of up to 60% water (USGS). We are facing crises of water scarcity and droughts alongside historic floodwaters and storm weather events. In the face of a changing climate, how can we better work with Earth’s natural systems rather than against them?
Our landscapes are changing and so, too, must we. But how?
Research shows that conventional agricultural practices are a large driver of the current ecological crises we now face. Studies also show that synthetic chemicals leach into our soils, foods, and ultimately, our watersheds and impacting our drinking water and the delicate ecologies that live in our creeks, tributaries, and rivers. These chemicals likely threaten the ecological wellbeing as well as the economic livelihoods of entire communities who rely on healthy watersheds. Intensive tillage leaves our world’s soil vulnerable to running off into the nearest waters, damaging both our topsoil and waters.
Glyphosate, a pervasive herbicide and the active ingredient in Roundup®, binds to soil and runs off into watersheds alongside our soil. A study conducted by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the urine samples of 87 percent of the children and 80 percent of adults had detectible amounts of glyphosate, suggesting recent and constant exposure to this probable carcinogen that has been linked to a myriad of health conditions (EWG).
According to another study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, the USGS found glyphosate in 40 percent of freshwater samples and 70 percent of rain samples (Battaglin, Meyer et al. 2014). And that is just one herbicide in the agricultural chemical soup that contains countless other pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.
This webpage, developed by Only Organic, takes you on an amusing scrolling journey through the list of over 700 chemicals that are prohibited for use on organic farms. The subject matter is cleverly delivered, but the message is clear. We should all be aware that there is significant chemical use on conventional farms.
So, what is our part in healing what is broken? And how can we better understand the impact that agriculture has on our watersheds?

The Farming Systems Trial 40-Year Report

In Rodale Institute’s Farming System’s Trial 40-Year Report (FST), key insights into water infiltration and agroecological resilience in times of extreme weather patterns offer a path forward.

An overhead view of the Farming Systems Trail’s side-by-side organic and conventional plots.
The Farming Systems Trial (FST) compares various conventional and organic cropping systems across 72 different test plots. The scientific data generated by this study is key to our understanding of how soil health, nutrient density, crop yield, and water quality are impacted over a long period of time.
Data from the Farming Systems Trail 40-Year Report showed that organic systems in the study performed better than the conventional system. Organic management increases soil organic matter and decreases soil compaction, improving water infiltration, retaining more water in the soil for longer, and allowing roots to extend deeper into soil. This is especially important in times of extreme weather, such as droughts.
“Whether rainwater soaks into the soil or runs off has an impact on farmers, the community around the farm, and the overall environment. When water infiltrates the soil, crops get more consistent moisture, the groundwater is replenished, and the water is filtered before it reaches the surface. Due to improved soil health, 15 to 20 percent more water percolates through the soil in organic systems”. – Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial 40-Year Report (page 24)

“Due to improved soil health, 15 to 20 percent more water percolates through the soil in organic systems”

In times of flooding, our data shows the power of organic systems to allow water to infiltrate the soil, minimizing waterlogging and surface runoff conditions that lead to soil erosion, filtering deep into the soil rather than running-off. When a deluge of rain or flood water causes soil surface runoff on conventionally farmed land, it takes topsoil with it along with any synthetic chemicals—including fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides—that may have been applied.
The floods in California over the past few months are a perfect example of how regenerative organic farms fare better than their conventional counterparts in extreme weather conditions, as summarized by this article in Civil Eats.
According to the FST 40-Year Report, “conventional fertilizers are high in soluble nitrates and phosphates that can be lost to the environment through leaching and run off which declines water quality”.
Dr. Andrew Smith, Rodale Institute’s Chief Operating Officer, shares that “recent studies conducted at Rodale Institute demonstrate that you can have your cake and eat it too. Or, put differently, you can grow clean water while producing healthy food.”
In a research article, Dr. Smith highlights key insights from the Farming Systems Trial and the implications for soil water quality: Soil compaction in FST has proven to be lower in both organic systems compared to the conventional cropping systems, including the conventional no-till systems that had not been tilled for 12 years at the time of study. When soil is compacted, crops are limited in their ability to grow deeper roots and water cannot fully penetrate through the compacted soil, leading to a higher risk for soil erosion and limiting the plants’ ability to access the water they need to thrive in various conditions (Pearsons, Omondi et al. 2023).
In summary, one of the major takeaways from the FST 40-Year Report is that “organic management increases water infiltration, replenishes the water table, and does not contribute to the accumulation of toxins in waterways caused by conventional agriculture” (FST 40-Year Report).

Graph comparing water infiltration rate for conventional, legume, and manure crops
Figure 16 Average water infiltration rates in each of the systems in the Farming Systems Trial from 2019-2021.

Understanding the science behind how our cropping systems impact our watersheds allows us to chart a path forward that is mindful of how our day-to-day decisions at the grocery store impact the health of our watersheds.
Supporting local farmers who use regenerative organic farming methods is one of the best ways to invest in watershed health and keep synthetic chemicals out of our watersheds. By taking the pledge to Grow Clean Water, you can join forces with Rodale Institute to support organic farmers who work to regenerate the health of people, soil, and watersheds.

College Ambassadors

Rodale Institute is working alongside college students to share more about the link between clean water and regenerative organic farming methods in communities across the Delaware River Watershed. If you are interested in helping us spread the word, become a Watershed College Ambassador! Contact nadine.clopton@rodaleinstitute.org to sign up today.