Note: The author, Howard Miller, is the Outreach Coordinator for the Cheney Lake Watershed.
Does regenerative agriculture have a positive impact on our drinking water in Wichita? To understand the answer to that question we need to understand the difference between runoff and infiltration. Runoff of rainwater from soil occurs when we have poor soil structure on the surface and or in the substructure. Many of us are accustomed to seeing tilled soil that is being prepared for planting. Traditional thought is that tillage allows the water to infiltrate into the soil, in reality it does not. While this is written about soils in agricultural fields, the same principles apply on our lawns or gardens. Tillage destroys the surface soil structure and when rain falls on it the soil particles consolidate, and the water mostly runs off carrying with it soil particles. Soil that is not tilled and has pore spaces in it created by roots, earthworms and other soil organisms will allow the water to infiltrate and store it in the root zone to grow plants. In the Cheney Lake Watershed area above Cheney Lake many farmers are adopting the regenerative agriculture soil practices that allow the water to infiltrate which is a huge benefit to our water supply in Wichita. You may wonder how water gets into the stream and then to the lake if it infiltrates. Here’s how that works the water infiltrates and then finds it way out of the soils through the shallow aquifer attached to the stream system. That water becomes what we call baseflow or low flow which is a much cleaner supply of water and it is delivered over time which gives us less floods but more water. That may seem contradictory until we realize that runoff creates flash floods loaded with soil particles that overwhelm Cheney Lake and the water is released downstream to protect the integrity of the dam. That flood water released downstream never makes it into the Wichita water supply.
Farmers aren’t doing it alone, they are supported with programs through USDA, KDHE, the City of Wichita and companies like General Mills that help them understand the best way to bring regenerative agriculture to their farms. Groups like the Cheney Lake Watershed help to coordinate those efforts for the farmers.
With less tillage and more infiltration farmers in the Cheney Lake Watershed are doing their part to provide the citizens of Wichita a cleaner, safer water supply. Next time you take a sip of water from the faucet in Wichita stop and realize that sip of water likely started as rainwater on a farm field in the Cheney Lake Watershed and thank the farmers for their efforts to improve it.