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Soil Erosion - About the Data

Estimates presented here are based upon the latest information from the National Resources Inventory (NRI). The NRI is a longitudinal sample survey based upon scientific statistical principles and procedures. It is conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), in cooperation with Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology.

These results are based upon the 2007 NRI, which provides nationally consistent data for the 25-year period 1982–2007. Current estimates cover the contiguous 48 States. Separate estimates also cover Hawaii, Alaska, and the Caribbean Area.

Release of NRI results is guided by NRCS policy and is in accordance with OMB and USDA Quality of Information Guidelines developed in 2001. NRCS is releasing NRI estimates only when they meet statistical standards and are scientifically credible in accordance with these policies; also, measures of statistical uncertainty are provided for all 2007 NRI estimates released to the public.

The findings presented here cover two types of erosion:

  1. Water (sheet & rill) erosion - the removal of layers of soil from the land surface by the action of rainfall and runoff; it is the first stage in water erosion.
  2. Wind erosion - the process of detachment, transport, and deposition of soil by wind.

Erosion rates computed from NRI data are estimates of average annual (or expected) rates based upon long-term climate data, inherent soil and site characteristics, and cropping and management practices. These estimates come from factors that are determined for the portion of a field associated with an NRI sample site. The factors are used in two erosion models: 1) the Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE) and 2) the Wind Erosion Equation (WEQ). The factors for these erosion prediction equations are determined for each NRI sample site that is cropland, pastureland, or land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.

The erosion equation factors are also used to determine an Erodibility Index (EI) for these NRI sample sites. This index is a numerical expression of the potential of a soil to erode, considering climatic factors and the physical and chemical properties of the soil – the higher the index, the greater is the investment needed to maintain the sustainability of the soil resource base if intensively cropped. Highly Erodible Land (HEL) is defined to have an EI of at least 8.

The soil loss tolerance rate (T) is the maximum rate of annual soil loss that will permit crop productivity to be sustained economically and indefinitely on a given soil. Erosion is considered to be greater than T if either the water (sheet & rill) erosion or the wind erosion rate exceeds the soil loss tolerance rate.

The NRI approach to conducting inventories facilitates examination of trends in erosion over time because –

  • the same sample sites have been studied since 1982
  • the same data have been collected since 1982 [definitions and protocols have remained the same]
  • quality assurance and statistical procedures ensure that trend data are scientifically legitimate and unambiguous.

Irrespective of the scale of analysis, margins of error must be considered. Margins of error (at the 95 percent confidence level) are presented for all NRI estimates. Note that estimates of change between two points in time will be less precise (relatively) than estimates for a single inventory year because the changes will be occurring on a smaller fraction of the landscape.


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