Written by Scott Koepke
When I was a 10-year-old boy, both the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act had been passed by Congress (remember, during the Nixon Administration of all shockers!). I asked my Science teacher at the time, Mr. Ross, why there was not a Clean Soil Act. He said, “Maybe you should write one.”
Well, it took me over 50 years, but I did.
This past January, I submitted a very concise, one-page proposal to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors entitled “The Clean Soil Act of Johnson County.” Almost 11 months to the day, on November 9th, 2023, it, now renamed “The Healthy Soil Resolution of Johnson County,” passed unanimously, 5-0. I soiled myself.
It contains a few modest asks, all of which I drafted deliberately in a tone that seeks to unify, not divide, with an ultimate goal and hope that competing interests may develop some consensus on the definition of soil health. As with any formal resolution, there are two primary components: the “Whereas” section that lays out facts, and the “Be it therefore resolved” section that presents actions.
Allow me to cherry pick, verbatim, what is arguably the most critical ‘Whereas’ language concerning soil science principles:
“Whereas soil is a living biological ecosystem, a finite resource, that contains robust, biodiverse microbial and fungal communities that are responsible for nutrient cycling through the decomposition of organic matter, supplying the moisture and nutrient needs of plants from which food for human consumption is derived, and which are diminished by over application of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers; and whereas soil erosion due to post-harvest tillage in the absence of cover crops results in loss of soil function, as well as sediment and soil chemical compounds being delivered to ditches and waterways …”
The Resolutions involve the following three provisions: Promoting and incentivizing (primarily through the auspices of Soil and Water Conservation) a.) Reductions in rates of application of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, b.) Reductions in tillage passes, and c.) Annual, randomized soil testing in public rights-of-way.
I acknowledge that words like “promote,” “encourage,” and “support,” lack meaningful enforcement teeth. The asks of reductions in spray rates and tillage passes are not mandates. To phrase them as such would have been political non-starters. But they are a reasonable start. The soil testing component is, similarly, a start at finally beginning to build a Long Term Data Set to track the metrics of soil health in Johnson County over time. Those metrics will begin in 2024 with standard analysis of macro and micro nutrients, pH, Organic Matter and Cation Exchange Capacity, and extend eventually to measurements of
salts, heavy metals and microbial activity. We, as a citizenry, need to be able to create an audit mechanism to determine progress. Only then can we implement further mitigation efforts.
I must finally express profound gratitude to the Board of Supervisors for walking the talk of Democracy. Their goodfaith responsiveness to a citizen’s concern is the way it’s supposed to work, from the bottom up. Public officials too often need to be reminded that they work for us, not the other way around. I believe firmly that the Johnson County Healthy Soil Resolution can, and will, be a model for other public entities to embrace.
-Scott Koepke, Garden Bridge Outreach; CGRER Advisory Member