R.I.’s Building Boom Socked It to Soil

Is the Ocean State in danger of running out of soil?

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

It goes by many names — soil, dirt, earth, topsoil and land, to name a few. But no matter what it may be called, this thin covering of material, a perfect blend of eroded rock, minerals, rotting organic matter, water, air and microorganisms, sustains life.

Despite its grand importance, it’s often treated no better than an alcoholic’s liver. Soil controls the distribution of rain water and helps prevent flooding, but it’s paved over and built upon incessantly.

Jose Amador, a professor in the University of Rhode Island’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences, refers to this reality as “growing houses instead of corn.”

“Soil provides a lot of ecosystem services,” Amador said. “You hear a lot about saving wetlands, but not so much about saving the uplands. There are good reasons to save both.”

Healthy soil nurtures food, sustains landscapes, keeps drinking water clean and helps maintain the balance of gases in the air we breathe. Yet, even armed with this knowledge, we continue to routinely poison the land with pesticides and herbicides, drench it with fertilizers and generally take it for granted.

Soil is a living thing — there are more microorganisms in a handful of soil than the number of people who have ever lived on Earth — but advocating for its protection isn’t sexy, so we continue to take from it without giving nearly enough back — i.e. the food scrap we continue to bury in the Central Landfill.

“It’s a very finite resource, but soil health and protection are not really addressed until it impacts our backyard,” said Jesse Rodrigues Jr., general manager of Rhode Island Nurseries in Middletown. “It has been associated with wealth for so long. Good land is worth a lot of money.”

Long in the making
Much of Rhode Island’s soil was created about 15,000 years ago by glacial outwash, according to Amador, whose research speciality is soil science and microbial ecology. “The soil we have here is really good,” he said.  “It’s good farmland.”

Since 1945, however, Rhode Island has lost 80 percent of its good farmland to development. Potato farms have been turned into subdivisions. Asphalt spreads across land that once grew vegetables or sustained wildlife. Pollution from industrial manufacturing has turned acres of land into brownfields and Superfund sites.

Less than 7 percent of the state’s land remains in agricultural production, according to the Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Agriculture. DEM’s Office of Waste Management oversees the investigation and remediation of some 1,800 contaminated sites.

This longstanding neglect of Rhode Island’s earth begs the question: Is the Ocean State in danger of running out of soil?

Unlikely, in terms of having nothing besides asphalt and concrete underfoot, but there is only so much land in Rhode Island suitable for agriculture. Also, contamination and decades of poor land management have vandalized many other acres.

“There is only so much land, and in Rhode Island there is only so much land that can be used for agriculture,” wrote URI professor Mark Stolt in an e-mail response to the aforementioned question. “There are a lot of rocks which make many soils difficult to farm. People gave up on farming much of our land because it was not easy. The ideal places that remained in agriculture (at least those in areas like South County), much of that land reverted to turfgrass production, which is not sustainable under current practices.”

Stolt has studied the industry. He, Amador and David Millar, of The Scripps Research Institute, authored a 2010 paper titled “Quantification and Implications of Soil Losses from Commercial Sod Production.” Commercial sod production is an emerging agricultural industry worldwide — a result of rising affluence in developed and developing countries, according to the six-page paper.

In the United States, sod is produced in all 50 states, with about 400,000 acres dedicated to sod production. Rhode Island sod is world famous. The soccer field at the 2004 summer Olympics in Athens was made from Ocean State turf, and it's used on golf courses around the world.

Turfgrass provides environmental services that include amelioration of erosion, glare, noise and air pollution, according to the paper. Although these benefits may be experienced at both sod farms and in areas where sod is planted, the mining of soil comes with a cost, the authors concluded.

In commercial sod production, conventional harvesting — by sod cutting — involves
removing a layer of soil just below the thatch layer of the turfgrass, which can result in the permanent depletion of soil resources, according to the paper’s authors. Also, since soil associated with sod harvest is often transported to nonagricultural areas, there is a net loss of agriculturally productive soil from the local landscape.

“The problem is that by harvesting sod a layer of soil is removed,” Amador said. “Businesses try to minimize that loss — it helps keep shipping costs down — but it does have an impact on soil depletion. And turfgrass isn’t the only business that is unintentionally removing soil. Nursery trees are sold in a ball of soil.”

This fact isn’t lost on Rodrigues and most others who manage Rhode Island sod farms and nurseries. “We ship a lot of dirt with our soil,” he said. “We do take soil away and need to replace it.”

To combat that recognized problem, Rhode Island Nurseries for years added cow manure to its soil. Now that the cows are gone, the nursery does a lot of composting of yard waste to help mitigate the loss of local soil.

“Soil is just like water. It’s in shorter supply every year,” Rodrigues said. “This important resource has been squandered. There’s less of it available.”

Poor decisions
There are numerous reasons why, as Rodrigues noted, there is less soil available in Rhode Island. For one, soil lost isn’t easily replaced. “When it’s gone, it isn’t coming back,” Amador said.

Why? The 4 to 5 feet of soil Rhode Island has took about 18,000 years to be created. “It takes hundreds to thousands of years for soil to develop,” he said. “We need to protect what we have.”

Amador doesn’t have to venture far from his URI office in Kingston to see that Rhode Island needs to make better land-use decisions. The land-grant institution where he has worked for 20 years decided last year to tear up a significant portion of prime agricultural land, at Flagg and Plains roads, to make way for more campus parking and a less-curvy road.

It’s taxing for Rhode Island’s land — and therefore its environment — to recover from these kinds of decisions. Michael Sullivan, a professor of agronomy at the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences, has blamed the university for relying heavily on short-term fiscal analysis rather than on sound environmental management.

URI, however, is hardly the only institution to sacrifice land for convenience and/or profit.

Because of various poor farming practices, such as tillage, removing stubble and over-grazing, that strip soil of carbon and make it less robust and nutrient weaker, worldwide earth is being lost at between 10 and 40 times the rate at which it can be naturally replenished, according to University of Sydney professor John Crawford in a story published last year in Time magazine.

Nationwide, 14 million acres — about the size of West Virginia — of prime U.S. farmland were developed between 1982 and 2007. Locally, from 1961 to 1995, Rhode Island went building crazy, developing more land for residential, commercial and industrial purposes than in the previous 200-plus years combined.

This 34-year building explosion covered, polluted or impaired nearly 65,000 acres, including some important environmental lands. This additional expanse of impervious surface inhibited the recharge of groundwater, prevented the natural processing of pollutants, provided a surface for the accumulation of pollutants and created an express route for pollutants to access waterways.

Some 12 percent of Rhode Island is now covered by impervious surfaces such as asphalt, cement and roofing. A thousand square feet of impervious cover generates 28,000 gallons of runoff annually.

“Building houses and parking lots on prime agricultural land is not taking care of it,” Stolt, a professor of pedology and soil environmental science, wrote in his March 1 e-mail.

Rhode Island’s building boom has slowed considerably since this peak period of growth ended nearly two decades ago. The slowing had to do more with economic downturns than an emerging discussion of soil’s importance, but at least earth is now part of Rhode Island’s land-use conversation.

“We need to start thinking about what are the impacts of our land-use options,” Amador said. “We need to consider those decisions more seriously.”

Smart growth
Since the mid-1970s, Rhode Island has been working to lessen the impact of shortsighted land-use decisions. Land-use plans created in 1975 and in 1989 both tried to get a better handle on development, but neither slowed the sprawl. In fact, since the ’89 study was published, about 30 percent of the land then identified as undeveloped has been covered by impervious surfaces, according to the state’s most recent land-use study, 2006‘s Land Use 2025.

Rhode Island’s careless three-decade march toward strip malls and parking lots came at a price, and the loss of farmland was only one of the consequences. Health, safety and pollution problems were created by the failure to consider the capabilities and limitations of soils during the planning and design stages of development, according to a 1988 study (pdf) researched by William Wright and Edward Sautter titled “Soils of Rhode Island Landscapes.”

Problems caused by failing to properly manage land use include malfunctioning septic systems, surface and groundwater pollution, increased flooding, decreased woodland protection, foundation failures, erosion, and stream and lake sedimentation.

All these environmental impacts could be lessened if we had more respect for soil quality, Sullivan said.

The harms associated with poorly planned land use don’t just impact the environment. They also effect Rhode Island's economy and public health. “You need good soil no matter what,” Rodrigues said. “Once you lose it, it takes a long time to build the soil profile back up.”

To help keep Rhode Island from squandering this valuable recourse, smart-growth practices outlined in the Land Use 2025 study include mixing land uses, creating pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, and preserving open space and farmland in critical environmental areas.

It also means investing in small-scale farming that caters to the growing local food movement. “Buying local is one of the best ways to keep good farm soil from going away,” said Sullivan, who was head of DEM from 2005-2010. “Soil condition is the greatest assist for a farmer. To protect our land, we need an economically viable agricultural sector.”

Buy right
During the past decade government and local land trusts have taken significant steps to conserve Rhode Island lands. The DEM acquired development rights to 30-acre Pezza Farm in Johnston, bringing the total number of farmland acres protected in the “farm loop” of western Cranston, Johnston and Scituate to 570. DEM, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, permanently protected 245 acres of forestland in Richmond.

The Agricultural Land Preservation Commission acquired the development rights to the 18-acre Clifford Farm in North Smithfield.  A 1,100-acre stretch of forestland — known as the Shepard property — in Coventry and West Greenwich was protected as a $3 million Forest Legacy Project. A hundred acres at Bald Hill Nursery in North Kingstown are now permanently preserved as a working farm.

In 2011, the DEM split a $4.3 million grant between 16 organizations to protect 900 acres of sensitive wildlife areas, recreational trails and farmland, from Block Island to Westerly.

Buying development rights — a process that takes time, resources, money and patience — to preserve family farms and other important tracts of land is one way of better protecting Rhode Island’s soil. This practice, however, isn’t the sole remedy to what ails the state's land.

For one, it’s an expensive approach. At $12,000 an acre, the value of agricultural land in Rhode Island is the second highest in the country, according to Grow Smart Rhode Island, making it nearly impossible for new farmers to acquire land or for current farm operations to expand. That’s when the lure of selling farmland to developers starts to creep into the minds of families who are worried about retirement and/or their children’s financial future.

“Is there enough money to buy all the development rights in Rhode Island? Not even close,” Sullivan said.

And while soil can be a deciding factor in the purchasing of development rights, often times location and size are more important, according to Stolt. Protecting views and open space, and not the use of the soil, frequently are the trump cards.

“It’s a complicated issue. What is the best use of land?” Rodrigues said. “When development rights are bought is the long-term plan to protect the soil? If you take land out of production for too long it becomes more difficult to farm. We need to protect the health of the soil because the land might be needed again to grow food.”

The importance of keeping local farms in operation isn’t lost on Rhode Island’s 40-plus land trusts. Since the mid-1990s, for example, the Aquidneck Land Trust has bought development rights to 22 farms to help make sure they stay in active production.

“Soil plays a huge part in making sure we have enough to support ourselves and our future generations,” Rodrigues said. “Healthy soil and clean water support all aspects of life.”