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Soil and water in a changing environment

The study Soil and water in a changing environment, carried out on behalf of the Environment Directorate-General of the European Commission, gathers information on the dynamics between soil and water, focusing particularly on soil water retention (SWR).

Soil water retention can be defined as the capacity of the soil to capture, store and/or release water. It is a key soil property and significant component of the water cycle that greatly affects soil functioning and therefore its capability to deliver a range of ecosystem goods and services that are vital both for human activities (e.g. agriculture) and to nature (e.g. providing habitat for different species). It is defined to great extent by soil types, depending on its texture, organic matter content, structure or depth, for example. Moreover, also the type of land use and management practices significantly influence that capacity.

A brief analysis of current major threats to European soils is enough to see that those soil threats will usually have a close link with water retention. Erosion, for example, is much more likely to occur in dry soils. And higher compaction, or sealing, prevents water from infiltrating the soil and therefore decreases its retention capacity. Consequences of changing retention capacities of soils together with the impact of changing weather patterns are already presently felt at European level, with some regions being particularly affected. In particular, the catastrophic flooding that recently occurred in 2002 and 2013 in Central and Eastern Europe, and in 2007 and 2014 in Western Europe, highlight the urgency to better consider the impacts of our economic development on soil water retention capacity and the resilience of natural ecosystems.

The study shows that several opportunities exist in land use planning, urban design and in the agriculture and forestry sectors to preserve or even enhance soil water retention and reduce the costs of associated damages. This is especially important in Mediterranean countries, which are particularly vulnerable, and in areas subject to high soil sealing (e.g. densely populated and industrial areas) or rapid urban sprawl, such as coastal areas. The agricultural sector in particular, through wide variety of agricultural practices that can be implemented within a same land use type, represent a key opportunity and many beneficial practices still show an untapped potential for development across the EU.

Examples of key principles identified are:

  • Limiting the conversion of land uses with high SWR capacity (forests, grasslands, wetlands, etc.) to land uses with lower SWR capacity (agricultural land, urban areas, etc.), in particular urban sprawl;
  • Preventing building development in flood basins and discouraging any construction or works likely to form an obstacle to the natural flow of waterways that cannot be justified by the protection of densely populated areas;
  • Maintaining semi-natural areas and grasslands within agricultural areas as part of a wider landscape mosaic and as green infrastructures, and promoting re-vegetation where relevant to deliver regulating ecosystem services alongside other land uses;
  • Promoting the return of organic matter to the soil, through organic amendment and crop residue management. Yet, the former may be limited by nitrates concentrations and the latter may be difficult in the context of increased biofuels demand;
  • Better integrating the issue of SWR when designing crop rotations, which remains relatively untapped in the EU and represent great opportunities for inserting alternative crops and soil management practices,
  • Promoting integrated and compact cities, where green areas are maintained and managed to increase the temporary water storage during heavy precipitation and provide flood retention rooms. The restoration of brownfields or other derelict land into green areas represents a promising opportunity;
  • Promoting the development of permeable pavements and sustainable drainage systems, which slow down the response to heavy rainfall events.