It’s Soil: Not Dirt
“How on God’s green earth did you figure THAT out from poking in the dirt?” our client, Mr. Robbins, asked after we located the wetland line on his five-acre property. We had spent the morning with a soil probe and shovel on a particularly difficult piece of land in Nassau County, Florida, and when we were done gave him the good news that the extent of the wetlands was less than we originally thought.
Adam Hoyles, the OEC biologist and Professional Wetland Scientist who was out with Mr. Robbins that day replied, “We figured it out by reading the hydric soil. Dirt is what is under your fingernails but soil is part of the ecosystem and it has all kinds of stories to tell.”
When Mr. Robbins called us, he was worried because he had been told by a local county employee that, from their view of the records, his property was 100% wet and he “wouldn’t be able to build a chicken house” without spending a fortune on permits and mitigation. On referral, he called OEC.
When we first got the call, WE were worried and rightly so because that area was notoriously low and the client had already purchased the property. Too often we have to give the client the bad news after the fact. Or worse, the county records erroneously indicated that it was dry land and the client buys the parcel without having us ground truth the current records in advance.
When we conduct wetland delineations the story is almost always in the soil. While there are three indicators we search for to determine the wetland line – soil, vegetative indicators, and presence of hydrology – in the end, it almost always comes down to the soil.
Soil is as unique and different as trees are from one another. Oren Reedy of O.C. Reedy Associates, Inc., one of the leading forensic soil scientists in the State of Florida explains, “Our soil is alive! It’s a living, dynamic body consisting of mineral and organic solids, liquids, and gases occurring on the Earth’s surface. Soil affects everything from the flavor of wine to our water quality.”
Soil is read as ‘horizons’ in colors like 2.5Y, 5R, or 10YR. The Munsell Soil Color Chart is the biologist’s go to for determining soil colors. Texture, structure, and odor are other tools in the soil taxonomy toolbox we use to determine the profile of a soil. Understanding soil is a practiced skill honed by both education and experience: that is why a consultant is so valuable in land acquisition decisions.
Sometimes, we find that the soil is just too disturbed and churned up from activities like silviculture and logging to see any indicators clearly, so we resort to best scientific judgment established by regulatory guidelines to determine the wetland line. When it is really perplexing, we call a soil specialist like Oren. To finalize the call when appropriate, we will recommend that our clients have the line reviewed by the regulatory agencies that oversee the client’s geographic area and development activity.
Luckily for Mr. Robbins, we gave him good news. He was fine with a few wetlands on his property because he loved the plants and wildlife that came with it. But not everyone is so lucky. As we advise everyone we speak to, let us look before you leap before buying or building on land. Prevention in our world is exponentially more economical than the price of the cure.
Remember, the story is in the soil — and whatever you do around a biologist, don’t call it dirt!