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Posts from the ‘lysimeter’ Category

Using The Salt Balance Approach to Measure Soil Drainage

Understanding the amount of drainage that comes out of the bottom of the root zone and infiltrates into groundwater recharge is a very difficult measurement to do well. Drain gauges do a good job of it but on a small scale. Large lysimeters do an even better job, but are extremely expensive and complex.  There is an economical alternative, however, called the salt balance approach to measuring drainage.

Soil profile underneath canola

Soil profile underneath canola

The Salt Balance Approach

Since the majority of non-fertilizer salts in the soil solution don’t get taken up by plants, this salt can be used in soil as a conservative tracer.  This means that whatever salt is applied to the soil through rainfall or irrigation water is either stored in the soil or leaches through the profile with the soil water, enabling us to use conservation of mass in our salt balance analysis. The electrical conductivity of water (ECw) is directly proportional to the salt concentration, so ECw can be used in place of salt concentration in this analysis.  If you measure the EC of the water that’s applied to the soil, either through irrigation or precipitation,  as well as the EC of the water that’s coming out of the bottom of your profile, then you can calculate what fraction of the applied water is being transpired by the plants, and what fraction is draining out of the bottom.  This method is useful for measuring water balance at field sites.

To illustrate this concept, let’s work through a simple example.  A particular field received 40 cm of water through precipitation and irrigation.  The average ECw of the precipitation and irrigation water is 0.5 dS/m.  Measurements of ECw draining from the soil profile below the root zone indicate an ECw of 2.0 dS/m.  The drainage or leaching fraction can be easily calculated as :

ECw(applied) / ECw(drained) = 0.5 dS/m / 2.0 dS/m = 0.25

The amount of water drained can also be easily calculated as:

Leaching fraction * applied water = 0.25 * 40 cm = 10 cm

Measuring Pore Water EC (ECw)

One challenge to this approach is the measurement of water electrical conductivity itself.  Bulk EC is a relatively simple measurement, and several types of soil water content sensors measure it as a basic sensor output.  However, the electrical conductivity of water, called pore water EC (ECw), is more complex.  Pore water EC requires that it be either estimated from the bulk EC and soil water content or that a sample of pore water be pulled from the soil matrix and measured.  When estimated, pore water EC can contain considerable error.  In addition, removing a water sample and measuring the pore water EC is not easy. 

To learn more about measuring EC, read our EC app guide.

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Lessons from the Field – Sensor Installation Considerations

In the Midwest, government incentives are sometimes provided to convert marginal lands to switchgrass, a leading choice for bio-energy feedstock production.  Michael Wine, a researcher at New Mexico Tech, wanted to investigate whether switchgrass’s deeper root systems would affect the water cycle both during and after crop establishment.  In the first stages of his investigation, he learned that many factors need to be considered when determining the optimal location for sensor installation.

Aquifer Recharge

Wine used Gee passive capillary lysimeters to determine deep drainage under natural vegetation, wheat, and switchgrass in order to improve our understanding of both the baseline water cycle and the water budget associated with a switchgrass monoculture in Woodward, Oklahoma.  He put the lysimeters and some soil moisture (capacitance) sensors into the Beaver-North Canadian River Alluvial Aquifer to look at recharge, but ran into challenges with sensor installation from the start.

Climate Considerations

One thing Wine learned was that biofuels aren’t very successful in his research location– there wasn’t enough water to support switchgrass.  He says, “Most places here may have no precipitation recharge for a great many years. But there are sites, such as sub-humid environments, where you could get a whole lot of infiltration in a very short time.” In hindsight, Wine says he “would have increased his use of preliminary data to more efficiently determine the frequency of recharge events.”

Using Preliminary Data to help Site Instrumentation

Wine learned that it’s important to think about the time constant of your system when siting instrumentation and that preliminary data are crucial. He says, “Before sensor installation, I did a chloride mass balance which helped me determine where I should install the lysimeters.”  He had been planning to put them at watersheds at the USDA-ARS Southern Plains Range Research Station, but the chloride mass balance showed there hadn’t been a recharge event at that site in the past 200 years. So he chose to install the lysimeters at the USDA-ARS Southern Plains Experimental Range, located in the Beaver-North Canadian River Alluvial Aquifer, a site with coarser soil and higher permeability.

Wine also thinks numerical modeling could have been useful in determining placement. “In siting the instruments, numerical modeling would’ve been a big help because we could have predicted the likelihood and frequency of recharge events.  So I think preliminary data, numerical modeling, and environmental tracers can all help in terms of where to place these research devices.”

a baby calf walking towards the photographer with other cows, who are collectively walking through a field

After long absences, Wine often had to repair damage caused by cattle.

Proximity to Research Site

Another challenge was that the researchers were located in Stillwater, Oklahoma, far from their research site. The experiment was protected by fences, but after long absences,  Wine often had to repair damage caused by cattle.  “I really need to hand it to these instruments that can be trampled numerous times by cows and the battery compartment filled up with water,” Wine says. “They just needed to be dusted off, dried out, new batteries inserted, and they worked great.”  Wine adds that researchers need to consider the distance between their office and their research site because in his case, the cows would have been less of an issue if it had been a fifteen-minute drive instead of three hours each way. He adds, “Selecting a nearby research site would have allowed us additional flexibility in our experimental methods; for example, with a nearby site we could have more easily conducted artificial rainfall simulations if a particular year turned out to be too dry for natural recharge events to occur.”

Proper Siting of Equipment Makes a Difference

Once Wine determined the correct placement of his instruments, he was finally able to get some interesting data.  He says, “There are large pulses of focused recharge that do occur in certain places, and we quantified one of those pulses following a storm with one of the lysimeters.  We’ve got about a year’s worth of data. Since we installed lysimeters at adjacent upland (diffuse recharge) and lowland (concentrated recharge) sites, we succeeded in observing large differences between the recharge fluxes at these nearby sites.”  Wine’s plan is to see if he can replicate the results of the lysimeter experiment using numerical modeling, because he says, “the data look reasonable, but I’d like to confirm the measurements due to the cows playing havoc with our site.”  Wine is excited as these lysimeters are yielding the first direct physical measurements of diffuse and concentrated groundwater recharge in the Beaver-North Canadian River Alluvial Aquifer, and he’s optimistic that his numerical modeling will match this unique time series of direct physical measurements of groundwater recharge.

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

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