International Programs News & Views Volume 21
SOILS INFORMATION HELPS NICARAGUANS
Much of the soils information our conservationists take for granted during the conservation planning and engineering process in the U. S. are not often available in developing countries. We sometimes have to be creative to accomplish conservation objectives.
I was asked to provide soil interpretations – a critical foundation for conservation engineering work in Nicaragua. Prior to being a public affairs specialist, I worked in the field as a soil scientist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in New Hampshire. I also currently teach soils classes at the University in New Hampshire.
In August, I joined a team of NRCS conservationists and engineers working on restoring agricultural land affected by Hurricane Mitch damage in Nicaragua. The project is managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide technical assistance to the Hurricane Mitch Restoration efforts now ongoing in Nicaragua.
An important part of our assessment, at not only our two project sites but in future sites as well, was to predict dam adequacy using hydrologic modeling. The runoff potential of soils in the watersheds above these dams is a critical part of accurate mathematical predictions.
My first task was to determine what soils information the Nicaraguan government had available. I was excited but overwhelmed by the idea of being the entire soil survey party, party leader, and quality control specialist for producing soil maps for the watersheds we were working on! When I visited the Ministerio de Agricultura y Ganaderia and Forestry in Managua, the soil scientists there were more than willing to help in any way they could. They proudly produced a few somewhat ragged soil maps, very similar to the tattered soil surveys for some counties I have seen that are long out of date but much in demand.
I worked closely with the Nicaraguan soil scientists to understand their soils legend, the soil properties they were mapping, and any other features that might affect soil runoff potential. My excitement about the soil maps was somewhat deflated when I started to realize the limited nature of the soil properties they had defined.
As I sorted through the soil maps back at the USDA offices in Managua, a special delivery that would become my most treasured souvenir from Nicaragua came to me through one of the drivers from USAID -- a USDA Textural Triangle in Spanish! Many soil interpretations are based on soil texture, which was thankfully one of the properties the Nicaraguan soil scientists had mapped in almost all areas.
Through the next two weeks, I was able to do field verification of the soil mapping and generate base maps for use in the hydrologic model predicting maximum flow and dam adequacy. My hope is that my conversions and application of NRCS soil interpretation criteria to Nicaraguan soil types is something that can help engineers in many areas to more accurately assess dam restoration projects. The Nicaraguan farmers are in desperate need of their irrigation sources and farmlands to provide food for their families.
My soils observations are documented in the report, " Application of USDA-NRCS Hydrologic Soil Groups," that was presented to the USAID Mission in Nicaragua.
Beyond any of these technical accomplishments, however, the highpoint of my detail was in working with the Nicaraguan people. Although Nicaragua is not an easy place to live for the Nicaraguans, they seem full of life and ready to lend a hand to anyone. In all honesty, Nicaraguans are some of the most openhearted, friendly, helpful, and genuine people I have ever met. Being able to help them, learn from them, teach them, and remember them has been the best experience in my career with NRCS. I look forward to returning to help and learn from the Nicaraguan people in any way I can.
Author: Laura S. Morton, Public Affairs Specialist, Durham, New Hampshire
Editor: Gail C. Roane (retired), International Programs Division