Effects of Agricultural Land Management on Watersheds

Drive through rural United States and watch miles and miles of managed land roll by. Idaho, specifically, leads the country in beef and potato production, as well as barley and sugarbeets. Farmers in Idaho also use the land to grow several other crops, the combined effects of which can be devastating to Idaho’s watersheds. 


The agricultural industry needs huge amounts of land in order to grow crops and allow livestock to feed. Clearing land for agricultural purposes comes at a cost. Some watersheds are forested, which means losing those plants and trees increases erosion and can affect water quality. These lands are not only deforested, but the soil is also overworked. The soil is ploughed and then smoothed in order to prepare for planting. Tilling and threshing compresses the already smooth soil. These processes put the deforested land at even higher risk of causing major watershed runoff.  


The use of fertilizers and pesticides disrupts the healthy balance of ecosystems. Although pesticide use is usually limited to a specific time of year, some chemicals stay in the soil for many months, even years. As naturally-occurring absorption sites, like plants, trees, and soil, are removed or overworked, the likelihood that pesticides end up in a watershed increases.  


Uninterrupted livestock usage of waterways can also have a negative effect on water quality.

Riparian zones are the pieces of land alongside a waterway, like flood plains or waterbanks. Though these strips of land do not cover a large surface area, the vegetation is usually varied, lush, and attractive to livestock. Loss of riparian zones on bodies of water within a watershed poses a threat to the watershed as a whole. 


However, there are strategies for responsible agricultural development. When used properly and enthusiastically, Best Management Practices can alleviate agricultural stress on watersheds. The goal of CORE-4, a collection of four Best Management Practices, is “improving farm profitability while addressing environmental concerns.” The CORE-4 are buffers, conservation tillage, crop nutrient management, and weed and pest management.


All four of these practices could contribute to a watershed’s success, with specific attention paid to buffers and conservation tillage. Buffers refer specifically to strategically planted trees and grasses along waterways, like riparian zones, that filter nutrients and keep the riparian zones strong and stable. Conservation tillage includes less-disruptive tilling practices, which reduces erosion and improves soil and water quality.


With respect to watersheds, the CORE-4 focuses primarily on the ever-important goal of decreasing erosion.These best practices aim to benefit both the farmers and ranchers themselves, as well as the environment that provides their livelihoods. The success of these simple and incredibly effective tools for watershed success suffers from two major challenges: public knowledge of its effectiveness, and resistance to its implementation. If embraced, the CORE-4 could be a saving grace for Idaho’s watersheds.