Tag Archive for: drought

By Stephanie Kasper, University of Texas Rio GraSoil for Waternde Valley Program Manager

As a south Texas farmer, there’s not much I love more than a refreshing rainy day. However, my rain appreciation grew deeper this year after my partner John and I installed a 1,650-gallon rain harvest system at our house.

After moving into our home just outside Edinburg city limits in February 2022, we replaced most of our turf grass with a 336-square-foot vegetable garden in the front yard and an 840-square- foot one in the back, surrounded by vibrant native wildflowers.

The transformation from a lawn to food-producing gardens brought us both joy and water savings. Drought-adapted native plants require less water than traditional grass lawns, and we use drip irrigation for the vegetables, which is more efficient than overhead sprinklers. However, we wanted to reduce our reliance on the municipal water supply for outdoor plants even further, and help save the cleanest, highest-quality water for human consumption.

This desire felt ever more pressing as we settled into another hot, dry south Texas summer. Falcon Reservoir, which supplies water to the Rio Grande Valley, reached a historic low of 9% capacity in August 2022, leading to water use restrictions. Frustrated by complex water management issues and worried about our region’s long-term water supplies, I channeled that energy into action at home. I mapped my roof’s runoff potential and natural drip points, gathered supplies from Lowes, found six food-grade, 275-gallon IBC totes on Facebook Marketplace (with free delivery!), and studied YouTube videos on gutter installations.

The first rainfall after installing the gutters and tanks had me running from tank to tank, blissfully soaked, watching the water pour in. Even after nearly a year, I’m still out there for nearly every rainfall, happily watching the tanks fill and clearing any debris blocking the water flow.

A rain harvester rule of thumb is that 1 inch of rain on 1 square foot yields 0.6 gallons of potential water capture. With a roof area of 2,000 square feet and an average of 23 inches of rain in Edinburg per year, over 27,000 gallons of water flow off my roof annually. My 1,650-gallon tank storage can be filled entirely with just 1.5 inches of rain.

I arranged the tanks based on the flow rates of each roof section and with the destinations for water use in mind – two tanks in the front yard for the smaller front garden and four in the back for the larger backyard garden. The two front yard tanks are located at natural drip points, where 438 square feet of roof runoff can be channeled into them without additional gutter installations. These natural drip points are the easiest entry point for rain harvesting.

Once the rainwater is collected, the key is to use it efficiently. We use a 12V plug-in water pump to send water directly into the existing garden drip irrigation systems, eliminating the need for manual water hauling. The front yard drip irrigation uses 1.3 gallons per minute, so the 550 gallons of stored rainwater can provide about seven hours of irrigation time. The backyard system, with a water use rate of 2 gallons per minute and 1,100 gallons of water storage, provides nine hours of irrigation time.

In the past year, the stored water has helped reduce our municipal water use even further. The front yard garden required supplemental city water for only 50 out of 365 days (14%), and the back yard needed it for 153 out of 365 days (42%), with the gardens collectively producing 148 pounds of food in that time. Our city water usage came mostly during a 97-day dry stretch between late December and late March, when we received a total of only 0.5 inches of scattered rainfall. Since the backyard system was not complete until midway through last year, I expect our city water needs to decrease even further next year. The system is modular, and we can add additional tanks to increase water storage capacity based on our needs, providing flexibility for the future.

Installing a rain harvest system takes planning, funds, and maintenance, and I’m not going to suggest that it’s an easy sustainability swap that’s right for everyone. I’ve only saved a few dollars each month on my water bill at most. However, it has given me confidence in the resilience of our food-producing gardens amid heat waves and droughts and made me a more conscious water user.

Rainwater harvesting is already supported in Texas through exemptions from state sales tax on equipment and supplies. Some cities, like San Antonio and Austin, also offer educational programming and rainwater storage rebate programs to encourage rain harvesting. However, more efforts are required to promote rainwater harvesting on a larger scale, especially as Texas stares down the impacts of climate change and prepares for significant potential water shortfalls by 2040. Confronting these challenges in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond must include a reconsideration of our relationship with water, in small ways and large, to secure a sustainable future for all.

Related NCAT Resources:

Topic Area: Drought

Drought and Disaster Resources for Texas Producers

The Texas Irrigator’s Pocket Guide

Managing Soils for Water: How Five Principles of Soil Health Support Water Infiltration and Storage

Soil Moisture Monitoring: Low-Cost Tools and Methods

Other Resources:

Agroecology and Resilient Food Systems, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley


This video is a primer on how to use LandPKS, a phone app that lets you gauge the production and conservation potential of your land through easy monitoring, tracking, and data-analysis tools.

The presentation by Laura Hamrick, Program Coordinator for LandPKS, and Jeff Herrick, a soil scientist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Las Cruces, New Mexico, demonstrates how to use LandPKS to identify the soil, monitor soil health, monitor vegetation, track management, and track wildlife on an operation’s land.

This video is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.

In this webinar series, Dale Strickler covers all aspects of creating drought-free agriculture. Strickler is a rancher, educator, and agronomist who consults internationally on sustainable farming. His 2018 book, “The Drought Resilient Farm,” details myriad ways to restore soil biology, build resilience to droughts and floods, and create enduring health, wealth, and happiness for farmers.

Session 1: Building Drought Resilient Soils

Session 2: Ranching for Rain and Drought Resilience

Session 3: Creating Drought-Free Agriculture

This webinar series is based upon work that is supported by the Natural Resource Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under number NR203A750001C025. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S Department of Agriculture. USDA is an equal opportunity employer and service provider.

This video is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.

By Linda Poole, Regenerative Grazing Specialist

As most of the U.S. staggers through drought – and other areas are deluged by floods – the Soil for Water team scouts for practical solutions to water woes. And we found them in Dale Strickler’s book, “The Drought Resilient Farm.”

Dale Strickler knows drought. A sixth-generation Kansas farmer, he’s felt the despair of watching crops wither long before harvest, and he’s done the grim math to decide whether to sell his cows or buy over-priced feed when his pastures turned to dust. He’s seen more than a few farms fail and families fall apart in dry, hot, desperate times.

“The Dust Bowl isn’t just a sad chapter of America’s history. It’s happening again now, and it’s shaping up to be even worse this time around,” said Dale during a recent call. “The deserts of the Middle East were once grasslands teeming with life, and with poor choices our Great Plains could become desert too. But it absolutely doesn’t have to go that way. Through our farming practices, we can create our own droughts – or we can create abundance. We set the stage for our future by how we treat our soil today.”

Strickler is an educator, author, and professional agronomist (BS and MS from Kansas State University) who consults internationally on sustainable farming. His 2018 book The Drought Resilient Farm details myriad ways to restore soil biology, build resilience to droughts and floods, and create enduring health, wealth, and happiness for farmers.

Far better than a Google list of every trendy tool and technique available today, Strickler’s book delivers the nitty-gritty on dozens of the most promising ways to build resilience into your farm. He’s done the exhaustive research necessary to find all the options and innovations – and then he’s implemented many of the practices himself. For any practices Dale hasn’t tried, he’s interviewed farmers around the world who have. This grounded approach is invaluable because how many ideas sound great until you give them a try in the real world?

And Strickler isn’t shy about saying some things don’t live up to popular hype: Whenever the subject of improving root depth comes up, the first thing that tends to pop into a farmer’s mind is getting out their biggest tractor, hooking it onto a subsoiler, and tearing the soil up just as deep as they possibly can. Surprisingly, subsoiling is largely ineffective at improving rooting depth. (pg. 68)

The book is chockfull of farm-tested, cost-effective approaches that, when taken together, fully deliver on the promise of the book’s front cover to Improve your soil’s ability to hold and supply moisture for plants. Maintain feed and drinking water for livestock when rainfall is limited. Redesign agricultural systems to fit semi-arid climates.

But this blog post isn’t really a book report! As soon as the Soil for Water team read Strickler’s book, we knew we needed to share his expertise and ideas directly with all of you! Dale embodies the Soil for Water commitment to promoting practical, producer-proven methods to catch and hold more water in soils, so we are ecstatic that Dale has agreed to present a webinar and workshop series for us based on his books, which also include Managing Pastures (2019) and The Complete Guide to Restoring Soil (2021).

These participatory learning opportunities will be offered in late summer 2022 at no cost to Soil for Water network members, thanks to funding provided by a NRCS grant to Soil for Water. We’ll share an invitation and details soon at SOILFORWATER.ORG.

To whet your appetite for the savvy that Dale will share in his upcoming events, here are some gems gleaned from my recent chat with him:

My part of Kansas averages 36” of moisture a year, but this is really just a desert where it floods a lot. Our water comes mostly from intense thunderstorms, and there’s no telling when the next rain might fall. By restoring soil, I capture every raindrop that hits my farm, and I store it in place for the plants to use when they need it. This ability to store water – and to keep it from flooding away nutrients and topsoil – is priceless for farmers across the US.

In 15 years, I brought my soil organic matter up from 1.9% to 8.7%, and grass roots now stretch down at least 9 feet deep. By restoring soil health, we not only make the most of the land and water we have – people can double or triple or quadruple their profits this way! – but we also create conditions that can moderate local weather extremes. And that’s good for everyone!

Some people say ag causes climate change, that cow burps are killing the planet. I don’t want to argue about that. I will say that ag can be a big part of the solution to climate problems. Things that get plant roots pumping exudates to the soil microbes as long as possible every year – practices like minimizing tillage, growing cover crops, and rotationally grazing livestock – these things build resilience in our businesses and communities in the most environmentally friendly and biologically efficient way possible.

We should be looking critically at what we can we do better. Don’t make decisions based on advice from someone trying to sell you something. Go out and educate yourself – it’s easier to do that now than ever before. And try things out, experiment to see how a new idea might work in your operation. If you’re farming 1,000 acres, you won’t lose the farm if an experiment flops on 10 acres. And if it does work, just imagine what a difference that could make if done across your property!

In 2000 I bought an irrigated corn and soybean farm in Kansas. I farmed conventionally but made some minor changes to reduce tillage and add some cover crops. This made a lot of money for the seed dealer, the fertilizer dealer, the chemical dealer, and the equipment dealer. Everyone was profiting but me, my family, and my soil. So, I decided I was going to learn to farm differently so my children could inherit something other than debt and dead soil.

Want to learn more about how Dale changed things up to restore resilience, profitability, and joy to his farming operation? Visit his website, buy his books, and check out his many videos (such as Restoring the Skin of the Earth and The Complete Guide to Restoring Your Soil). And be sure to check back here soon to register for Dale’s powerful Soil for Water workshop series on how you can build your own drought resilient farm!

By: Hernan Colmenero, Sustainable Food Consultant 

The UN Convention to Combat Desertification has released its Drought Toolbox, which contains an abundance of useful information for producers living through a drought. The toolbox includes three modules: Monitoring and Early Warning (great if drought effects haven’t really been felt yet); Vulnerability and Risk Assessment (essential to prepare for against the next drought); and Risk Mitigation Measures (crucial for protecting ourselves now and in the future). It even includes an amazing decision tree for producers or policy makers that helps identify specific actions one can take with high/low drought risk, local/national scales, time of expected return on investment (ROI), by climate type, and by economic sector (livestock, forestry, transit, etc.) One can even get help on specific actions to take by soil type. These resources have been made available because the world at large is recognizing that without soil, humanity cannot survive. We must do everything in our power to catch and hold more water in our soil, regenerate our land, and prepare for a water-scarce future.  

You can read or download the Drought Toolbox here. Don’t forget to let the Soil for Water team know how we can best support you in your efforts to try new regenerative practices on your farm. If you’re a Soil for Water Network member, you can get free professional support from a team member by reaching out at the Soil for Water forum. 

The National Center for Appropriate Technology has officially re-launched its Soil for Water project, opening access to the free, voluntary network to all commercial farmers, ranchers, and land managers across the United States. Soil for Water aims to connect farmers, ranchers, and land managers who are interested in land management practices that improve soil health, catch more water in soil, reduce erosion, sustain diverse plant and animal life, and filter out pollutants all while sustaining a profitable business.

In this episode of Voices from the Field, NCAT Communications Director Emilie Ritter Saunders speaks with NCAT Regenerative Grazing Specialist Linda Poole about the expanded Soil for Water effort and the new community-building tools we’ve launched to support this expanding network.

Connect with the Soil for Water community at SOILFORWATER.ORG.

Contact Emilie Ritter Saunders and Linda Poole via email at emilies@ncat.org and lindap@ncat.org.

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You can get in touch with NCAT/ATTRA specialists and find access our trusted, practical sustainable-agriculture publications, webinars, videos, and other resources at ATTRA.NCAT.ORG. Learn about NCAT’s other cutting-edge sustainable agriculture programs.

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By Mike Morris, Director of NCAT’s Southwest Regional Office

In my work on NCAT’s Soil for Water Project, I’ve tried a lot of different ways of monitoring land and soil health. For years, I’ve been hearing about LandPKS (Land Potential Knowledge System), a mobile app that has been under development by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) since 2013. I was excited to hear that a full version was released earlier this year, and a couple weeks ago I finally got around to installing the app on my phone and running it through some tests.

The purpose of LandPKS is to help you “discover the potential of your land and monitor change over time.” Several things about the app appealed to me right off the bat. It’s built to meet the practical needs of farmers, ranchers, and land managers, helping you learn what’s realistically possible on your land. Equally useful on cropland, rangeland, or pastures, the app takes a lot of the pain and drudgery out of soil and vegetation monitoring. Data collected in the field is stored on your phone and uploaded to the cloud as soon as you have cellular or wireless access. No more clipboards or paper blowing away in the wind.

LandPKS is built around standard indicators of land health that have been used by the USDA Natural Resources Service (NRCS) since 2003. The developers want the app to become a standard tool, in the hopes that more standardized data collection will (over time) allow us to see patterns that improve our understanding of soils and land. LandPKS is an open-source product that allows others to develop additional software products to complement what it does. It will surely get better over time.

The app is sophisticated and powerful, with too many features to describe here. A key point is that it takes advantage of staggering amounts of free geospatial data. This includes nearly-nationwide soil information from the NRCS. As soon you install the app, you’ll see that a lot of information about your climate, vegetation, and soils has been entered automatically. Other values, such as infiltration rates and plant-available water-holding capacity, are calculated or predicted without you lifting a finger. You can quickly pull up maps of your location.

LandPKS encourages data sharing. You can easily compare your results and site descriptions with ones that others have recorded. (There’s a privacy option, however, if you don’t want your information to appear on the public website.)

As a new user of the app, I appreciated the abundant instructions and guides, such as a soil color chart, a guide to determining soil texture, and a slope-estimating tool. There are handy calendars for recording field management activities (such as irrigation, plantings, tillage, fertilizer, pests, harvest, residue management, and erosion control), as well as places to record soil test results and observations about soil erosion, compaction, aggregate stability, smell, or biological activity. You can also take photos of the landscape, soil pits, or plants you want to identify later.

Designed to accommodate users in developing countries, LandPKS makes heavy use of dropdown menus and clickable images, reducing the need for typing. Relying on pictures more than words is one of the app’s strengths. For example, you monitor land cover by dropping a stick on the ground (such as a yardstick), and simply clicking icons that match what you see touching various points along the stick: trees, shrubs, perennial forbs, plant bases, perennial grasses, annual plants, herbaceous litter, woody litter, rock fragments, or bare ground. The developers claim that land cover monitoring can be done in as little as 20 minutes per location, and I can easily believe this.

Potential drawbacks? Well, some (although I suspect not many) will want more detailed or precise measurements than what LandPKS offers, or a wider range of soil health indicators. Others may find LandPKS (despite all its user-friendly features) to be more complicated than they like or need. You can’t please everyone.

The key to all land monitoring is persistence. Any soil-monitoring tool or method has to strike a balance: collecting enough information to be meaningful while keeping things simple enough to be done consistently over a period of years.

LandPKS checks a lot of boxes for me, and certainly makes land monitoring less intimidating. It will be interesting to see if the tool catches on and becomes widely used by farmers, ranchers, and land managers.

You can download LandPKS from the App Store or Google Play Store or learn more about it at landpotential.org, where you’ll also find a Knowledge Hub full of user guides, publications, and case studies. If you try the app, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

For more information, contact Mike Morris directly at mikem@ncat.org.