Water and soil are essential to life on Earth and thus are key targets of sustainable development. Water is intricately connected to society, human survival and livelihood in many ways, including irrigating our crops, transporting nutrients, and sustaining our anatomy. Soils are dynamic and highly complex natural systems that intimately connect earth, air, water, and life.

Why does this area of excellence matter in sustainability?

Providing critical ecosystem services, the soil is essential to farming and food production and serves as a sink for atmospheric CO2 and filters out pollutants before they reach water bodies.  Clean water and soil are directly linked to human health and well-being. Unstable clean drinking water supplies around the world have been connected to issues from an increased presence of diseases to mass migration and will continue to be a problem unless properly addressed. The majority of our food comes from crops grown in soils across the world; productive, healthy soil is central to feeding the 11 billion people projected for 2100.  Biological, organic, and metal contaminants sourced from human activities and from bedrock are causing chronic diseases in millions of people globally. Climate change and intensifying land use directly impact soil health and clean water supplies.  The deterioration of soil health and water quality is a major issue facing developed and developing nations worldwide. Sustainable use of these non-renewable resources is elusive, yet the key to a healthy environment and providing food for our growing populations.

Key questions:

  • How do we ensure access to clean water for all humans (domestic, agricultural, and industrial uses) and for ecological systems in the face of dwindling supplies and unsustainable usage of fossil groundwater?
  • How can we manage and protect soils (from agricultural soils to forests) sustainably to maximize agricultural production, carbon storage, and other ecosystem services?
  • How can humans ensure soil and water resources are managed sustainably and equitably, particularly with a changing climate and shifting resource demands?


Tracy Allen (SSA), Allen Barker (SSA), Paul Barten (ECo), Mandy Bayer (SSA), Prasanta Bhowmik (SSA), David Boutt (SSA), Katie Campbell-Nelson (SSA), William Clement (GEO), Tim Cook (GEO), Michelle DaCosta (SSA), Kristen DeAngelis (Micro), Jeffrey Ebdon (SSA), Christine Hatch (GEO), Deborah Henson (ECo), Stephen Herbert (SSA), Ashley Kaiser (SSA), Marco Keiluweit (SSA), Isaac Larsen (GEO), Derek Lovley (Micro), Stephen Mabee (GEO), Anita Milman (ECo), Kelly Nevin (Micro), Klaus Nüsslein (Micro), Steven Petsch (GEO), Michael Rawlins (GEO), Justin Richardson (GEO), Allison Roy (ECo), Susan Scheufele (SSA), Sonia Schloemann (SSA), Frank Sleegers (LARP), Lesley Spokas (SSA), Eve Vogel (GEO), Robert Wick (SSA), Matthew Winnick (GEO), Jonathan Woodruff (GEO), Baoshan Xing (SSA), Brian Yellen (GEO), Qian Yu (GEO)

For more details about our faculty, staff, and researchers engaged in this area, please visit the SES Soil and Water Directory page.

*Department of Environmental Conservation (ECo), Environmental Microbiology Group within the Department of Microbiology (Micro), Department of Geosciences (GEO), Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning (LARP), Stockbridge School of Agriculture (SSA)

Featured Projects

Project 1: The lifespan of agricultural soils

Isaac Larsen, Assistant Professor in the Department of Geosciences
Contributors: UMass graduate students: Evan Thaler, Caroline Laut; UMass post-docs: Jeffrey Kwang, Brendon Quirk.
Assistance provided by: many state and local agencies, land preservation nonprofits, and private landowners
Funding: NSF, NASA

The goals of the project are to quantify rates of agricultural soil erosion and the extent of topsoil loss in the economically-important farmland of the Corn Belt in the Midwestern U.S. Cosmic-ray produced isotopes will allow us to determine the natural, background rates of soil formation. With these two pieces of information, we can estimate how long soil of a given thickness will last.

We hope to make predictions of the magnitude and spatial extent of soil degradation, and the associated economic costs to farmers and the impact of topsoil loss on the carbon cycle. By quantifying the rates soils form, we hope to better inform rates of tolerable soil loss that are used in soil conservation planning and agricultural policy decisions.

Project 2: Changes in the Floodplain

Contributors: Care Anderson, PhD candidate in Environmental Conservation and Marco Keiluweit, Assistant Professor, School of Earth & Sustainability and Stockbridge School of Agriculture

Floodplain soils are large and dynamic reservoirs of carbon. Climate change is shifting seasonal flooding dynamics, making floodplains vulnerable to increased floods and droughts. These changing flooding patterns affect whether floodplain carbon remains in the soil or whether it is released to the atmosphere as the greenhouse gas CO2 or lost to the river, affecting both soil fertility and downstream water quality. Because we do not know the mechanisms that stabilize soil carbon in floodplains, we cannot predict how these systems, and the carbon stored therein, will respond to climate change.

As part of a DOE-sponsored effort, the Keiluweit Lab, along with a team of researchers from Stanford University and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, is exploring an ecosystem heavily impacted by climate change: alpine watersheds. The work at the East River floodplain in Colorado investigates how snowmelt and flooding impact carbon in floodplain soils, through interactions with both minerals and microbes. We are especially interested in the role that iron minerals play in the floodplain, because these iron minerals can form strong associations with soil carbon, but they can also release that carbon during flooding events.

Understanding how carbon and iron minerals interact in the changing environment of a floodplain will help us understand the impact of climate change perturbations, such as changes in flooding and drought patterns, on floodplain carbon cycling. In addition to improving climate models, this understanding has vast implications for soil nutrition, agricultural productivity, and water quality.