When assessing regions that experience excessive amounts of rainfall and flooding, we commonly hear the term waterlogging being used, but what is it?
Waterlogging is an environmental condition in which soil receives more water than it can absorb. This results in a lack of oxygen in the ground for most plants to grow. Waterlogging can occur naturally in extremely wet weather or unnaturally by human activity and poor infrastructure.
The effects of waterlogging are not a new concept within nature and have been occurring for millions of years - long before humans started impacting the environment. There are a number of factors that make waterlogging occur and, some of them, we can control. The reason we want to be able to alleviate the effects of waterlogging in some situations is that it can interfere with our ability to grow food by damaging or destroying our soil and its nutrients. To understand this better, let’s examine what causes it, what its effects are, and what some solutions there may be.
The effects of waterlogging and the various guidelines on preventing it are cited by the United States Department of Agriculture. The United States Government and the agricultural industry work together to develop infrastructure that mitigates or eliminates the damaging effects of waterlogging.
Waterlogging is something that occurs naturally in the environment and it is primarily caused by an excess amount of water entering soil. For this reason, the effects of waterlogging are not always a huge threat, as nature has a way of facilitating water and restoring itself back into full health.
Where waterlogging can have troubling effects for humans is when it interferes with soil that is utilized for crop growing, which can have catastrophic effects on agriculture. For this reason, it’s best to understand as much about waterlogging as possible so that its effects can be prevented. Let’s explore some of the factors that cause waterlogging to occur.
Man-made infrastructure that was not designed to properly drain water can result in an excessive amount of water building in certain areas, which can cause floods, as well as waterlogging.
Most states that have experienced severe flooding tend to design their infrastructure in a way that can cope with these conditions better to avoid waterlogging from occurring. However, there are many situations where the government has underfunded some necessary infrastructure or has simply overlooked certain regions.
This has become especially challenging in recent years, as climate change continues to gain momentum, natural disasters become more intense, and new areas around the United States experience cataclysmic storms, which previously never did. Climate change has been a major test on our infrastructure and a lack of it has resulted in waterlogging taking place.
Furthermore, waterlogging commonly occurs on farms that have a poor infrastructure - which can be challenged regardless of extreme weather conditions. This generally happens when a farm has not been set up with adequate irrigation and water disposal methods within their crops.
Topography & Surrounding Environment
There are a lot of natural conditions that result in waterlogging taking place, which is why the idea of preventing waterlogging completely is next to impossible. This is especially the case when waterlogging occurs due to environmental conditions that are outside the reach of human influence.
One of the biggest causes of waterlogging is the topography of certain regions. Landscapes that have mountains and hills, which flow into valleys will have a considerable amount of waterlogging after intense rains. As the water runs downs high elevated areas, it builds up in valleys and floods the ground level. This build-up will cause the soil of the ground level to waterlog.
In addition, there are plenty of other natural areas that are prone to waterlogging due to overflows caused by excess rain. A common type of terrain this occurs in is in wetlands.
Healthy wetlands naturally have a certain level of water within their soil, which is generally waterlogged to a certain degree. However, if a wetland area receives a substantial amount of rain, then the water level of the wetland can significantly increase and spill over to other places.
This sometimes happens when wetlands are near low elevation fields, prairies, and even farms, which can become very problematic for growing food if the excess is dramatic and spills over.
Most people commonly think of soil as dirt that is capable of producing food - with more or less the same type of contents. However, soil is quite different across the board and can vary in its contents depending on a number of different environmental factors and conditions.
Healthy soil will typically have a very balanced amount of contents, which is known as loam soil. This soil absorbs the optimum amount of water, is plentiful with nutrients, and is generally less likely to get waterlogged - unless conditions are extreme.
With that being said, some soils have an imbalance of contents and can be much more prone to waterlogging. This is especially likely to happen in soil that has more clay content than it should. Given that clay is comprised of microscopic minerals and sediments, it can make it significantly harder for water to properly drain through.
If a farm, garden, or natural area has soil with an imbalance of clay content, the likelihood of the soil becoming waterlogged increases dramatically. This can be problematic for regions that experience even light rainfall which are growing crops.
While some crops like rice are perfectly capable of growing in waterlogged conditions, most crops grown in western countries will not be able to flourish in this amount of water.
There are a lot of ways that waterlogging affects the environment, as well as our livelihoods.
Given that waterlogging can cause severe damage to soil, this natural phenomenon has the ability to burden all life that is dependant on the soil for survival.
While most scenarios where waterlogging occurs end up having minor effects on the environment and human health - some situations can be catastrophic. Here are the effects of waterlogging.
It’s easy to forget that soil is in many ways an ecosystem filled with millions of microscopic organisms that facilitate health and nutrients. And like most ecosystems, soil is fragile and can be jeopardized by even slight alterations in its conditions, which can be greatly affected by waterlogging.
When waterlogging takes place, soil is put into an adverse environment where the amount of water that passes through it is beyond what the soil is capable of absorbing. While soil does need water - and plenty of it, an excess amount essentially drowns the soil, which puts the entire ecosystem at risk.
As soil gets waterlogged its vital nutrients and minerals are not capable of coping with this condition for a prolonged period of time. This also affects the overall acidity of the soil. If the contents of soil become too acidic, then it will not be suitable for growing food or plants.
The health of the soil is also put at risk from waterlogging when there is an excess amount of salt and adverse contents that seep into it. Depending on the level of harmful contents, the nutrient value of the soil could diminish to the point of permanent damage.
The natural occurrence of waterlogging is felt most by humans when it affects the soil that we use for growing food. This can be especially problematic for established farms that have made huge investments into their agricultural business and rely on their farm for their livelihood.
When the severely damaging effects of waterlogging occur on farmlands, the entire harvest is put at risk. This can result in a huge financial loss for farmers, as well as food shortages in extreme situations. While the United States has a better system for food distribution than most countries, under-developed nations can particularly struggle with waterlogging, as it can jeopardize the only source of income for millions of people.
In addition, waterlogging often not only affects a seasonal harvest for farmers but can sometimes create prolonged issues for the farm that lasts years. This generally occurs when extreme waterlogging happens and there is a lack of preparation and poor infrastructure in place.
Wildlife & Habitat
It’s often the case that when waterlogging occurs in the wild that it can have a negative effect on the livelihoods of plant and animal species.
Much like us, many plants and animals also depend on the health of the soil in order to survive in nature. If an area has experienced severe waterlogging and the health of the soil has been sabotaged, it may result in plants not being able to grow.
This can greatly affect not only the health of the plants themselves but also all species that depend on the plants for their survival. In this case, waterlogging can destroy the food sources of wildlife and even their habitat.
If a primary food source is destroyed by waterlogging, this may result in wildlife needing to flee the area and search for a new place to live.
When it comes to the natural occurrences of waterlogging in our environment, there is little that we can do to prevent it and, in actuality, there is not much we should do if it is something that happens naturally.
We should focus on the solutions to waterlogging when it has a negative effect on our way of life. Let’s explore how we can prevent the damaging effects of waterlogging.
Drainage & Irrigation
The most important and effective solution to waterlogging is to develop infrastructure that prevents it from occurring - or heavily mitigates its negative effects.
This is particularly important for farmers, as the effects of waterlogging are most likely to cause damage to the soil which food production is dependant on.
By creating canals, efficient irrigation, and infrastructure that enables the flow of water, we are able to effectively combat waterlogging from taking place. We need to implement systems that encourage the flow of water and prevent it from settling in one place without movement. This includes preventing the following from reaching excess:
There is a lot that the government can do to encourage this process but the primary individual or organization responsible for developing more efficient systems that prevent waterlogging will come down to the farmer.
A farmer’s ability to grow food is entirely dependant on the health of their soil. If soil is unfit for food production or is likely to be sabotaged by waterlogging, then the farmer must make adjustments and alternations to how they grow their food and how they manage their soil.
A big part of this comes from having awareness of what the contents of your soil are. Before every planting season, a farmer should do a thorough analysis of their soil to confirm that it is suitable for growing food and will not be severely affected by waterlogging - should it occur.
As mentioned above, the clay content of soil can greatly encourage waterlogging, as this material is extremely finite and does not allow for the easy passage of water. A farmer should always keep a moderate level of clay content within their soil to ensure that fluids can pass through without the risk of waterlogging.
In addition, the use of mulch during the food growing process is highly effective at preventing waterlogging from taking place. Mulch is essentially a material that is placed on the surface of the soil and sometimes within it to encourage healthy crop cycles. This material can either be organic or inorganic. Most inorganic mulch is not absorbent and may not be suitable for preventing waterlogging from occurring.
However, a lot of organic mulch is absorbent and can be incredibly useful at preventing or mitigating the effects of waterlogging. Here are some examples of mulch:
- Dried Shredded Leaves
This material is highly effective at absorbing excess moisture, which prevents water from building up and waterlogging the soil. While most inorganic mulch is not ideal for this to properly work, if you can find material that is absorbent, it should get the job done.
About THE AUTHOR
James Parker has a Masters degree in Sustainability with a focus on land management, permaculture and regenerative agriculture. He also has experience managing sustainability projects, and is passionate about conservation and sustainability.Read More About James Parker