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Soil Surveys

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Soil Survey Update


When did soil survey begin in the United States?

Soil surveys were authorized by Congress in 1896 during an era of agricultural development. Soil survey field operations began in 1899 at four sites: Pecos Valley, New Mexico; Salt Lake Valley, Utah; Cecil County, Maryland; and the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts and Connecticut.

What’s the purpose of a soil survey?

Soil surveys help people make the best decisions about the soil resource. They are used for selecting sites for development, road building, pipeline corridors, and waste disposal; for pollution control; for minimizing risks to human life and property; and for wildlife management, wetlands identification, and soil or water conservation.

How to use a soil survey

What information is in a soil survey?

Soil surveys provide a field-based scientific inventory of soil resources, including soil maps, data about the physical and chemical properties of soils, and information on the potentials and limitations of each soil.

Why are soils important?

Soils have many uses in addition to food, fiber, and fuel production. They play a major role in recycling carbon to the atmosphere and nitrogen in the soil, storing water for plant use, filtering surface waters, and in the disposal of solid and liquid wastes. Soils are also the base beneath most of our homes and roads as well as an important source of building materials, such as an adobe. Soils are the foundation for all life on Earth. Everything comes directly or indirectly from the soil.

How are the soil surveys of today different from those completed 100 years ago?

Today's soil surveys identify many more soil properties, utilize digital imagery for overlaying with other data, and are more detailed than earlier surveys. Early soil surveys identified very few soil properties, such as texture, color, depth, and wetness. Today’s surveys identify over 300 soil properties. Instead of publishing on hand-drawn maps, surveys now use aerial photo background imagery with digitized soil lines that can be used with other data layers in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Map scale has changed from 1 inch to the mile (1:62,000 scale) to about 2.5 to 5 inches per mile (1:24,000 or 1:12,000 scale). Early surveys focused on farming, whereas surveys of today provide information for a variety of land uses in addition to agriculture.

After 100 years, why isn’t the soil survey completed for the United States?

Soil surveys are complete for over 96 percent of the private lands in the United States and more than 92 percent of all lands in the country. However, land use changes and new demands require soil surveys to improve, to refine the detail of the inventory, and to identify soil properties once thought unimportant. Advances in soil science allow us to better understand the soil. All soil survey information is now entered into a National Soil Information System to allow easier access and better interpretation of the information. Knowledge of soils continues to improve, and customer needs continue to change.

Who conducts the soil surveys?

The National Cooperative Soil Survey (NCSS) conducts the soil surveys. The NCSS is a nationwide partnership of Federal, regional, state, and local agencies, institutions, and private organizations. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) leads the Federal part of the partnership. Nearly a thousand soil scientists (pedologists) map, classify, analyze, interpret and deliver soils information.

How do you become a Soil Scientist? Who hires them?

A soil scientist completes a core curriculum in soil science and has a basic education in chemistry, geography, geology, and other natural sciences. Apart from Federal government agencies, Soil Scientists are hired by state agencies, universities and other research organizations, and environmental consulting companies.

How do soil surveys benefit society?

Soils sustain plant and animal life. Protecting and preserving the soil resources ensures a productive agriculture for future generations. Soil surveys provide the scientific information needed to properly manage and conserve soils.

Soils regulate and partition water and solute flow. Water quality and water quantity are dependent on the health of the soil. Soil survey information can promote land use practices to manage this hydrological function of soils. Soils also filter, buffer, degrade, immobilize, and detoxify contaminants. Soil surveys help identify environmental treatment concerns for animal waste and water quality.

Soils provide support to buildings, transportation systems, and underground facilities. Soil surveys provide information to help in site selection and in the design and selection of building materials so these facilities last their intended design life.

Soil surveys provide data on the physical, chemical, and biological properties of soils; they show the relationship of soil to plants and water; they provide maps to display relationships for assessment and use; they provide the basis for predicting and minimizing degradation of soil and water resources; they offer guidance for site selection by flagging areas with constraints or potential for various uses; they enable the assessment of management impacts on ecological and environmental changes; and they enable the land user to manage the land in a sustainable manner.

How can a soil survey help me when buying a house or taking care of my property?

Soil surveys provide information about soil wetness, stability, permeability, flooding, and other properties important to soil use for a dwelling site.

What’s the future of soil surveys?

New demands and technology will drive the future of soil surveys. Land use changes, changes in crops, reclamation of mine lands, human-health interactions, and water conservation issues will create new demands on soil surveys for additional soil data, information on human-altered soils, and data relating to the properties that change during the year. The biology of the soil is significant to the soil's interaction with plants, animals, water, and humans. The biological aspects of soil are just now being investigated. Technology will drive soil surveys to find more efficient ways of collecting and delivering information. Spatial information technology will allow better presentation, analysis, and delivery of soil information at an accelerated pace.

Where can I get further information?

Information on soils and other natural resources is available at all of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) local offices; local conservation districts; the Cooperative Extension Service; and land grant colleges and institutions. In addition, each NRCS state office has a Soil Scientist who has oversight for soil survey delivery in the state. Soil Scientists with other agencies provide assistance on Federal lands. Many parts of the country also have services available from private consulting firms. The NRCS Electronic Field Office Technical Guide (eFOTG) provides additional information.

Soil Quality
Soil Survey Geographic (SSURGO) Database
Web Soil Survey