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Double Ring Infiltrometers Versus DualHead Infiltrometers

Several years ago I had the chance to work at the USDA ARS Research Watershed in Riesel, Texas. The goal of my research was to look at the effects of land use and landscape position on water infiltration.  Within the research watershed there is preserved and maintained native prairie, improved pasture, and conventional tilled areas, which have been in existence for 75 years. Thus we were able to use infiltrometers to study the long-term effects of those different land uses, along with the effect of landscape position within the same soil type.

Double Ring Lysimeters

Texas Infiltrometer setup

My research focused on the Houston Black Soil Series, which is a clay-rich soil with a high shrink-swell capacity. This soil type has key economic importance, as it is present in much of Texas’ USDA prime farmland.  To achieve our objectives, we began by mapping soil bulk electrical conductivity using an EM38 device (electromagnetic geo-surveying instrument).  The maps we created allowed us to look for areas of variability in water content, depth to parent material, clay content, and salinity.  Then we randomly selected three zones within the catinas (full hill slope including summit, back slope, and front slope) and flagged them with GPS points.  Our goal was to make infiltration measurements at all of the landscape positions on the slope and compare them to the same landscape positions within each land use type.

We found that the native prairie had the highest infiltration rates because the soil maintained its strong structure and macropores which allowed water to conduct well through the soil.  We also found some differences by landscape position that were consistent within the different catinas.  As water would run down the catina, erosion would transport soil and organic matter off the shoulder and back slope and deposit it on the foot slopes.  Even though they were mapped as the same soil type, the differences in erosion and reduction of organic matter affected the ability of these different positions to transport water.

Double ring infiltrometer chart

We chose to customize existing double ring infiltrometers to make these measurements because there wasn’t anything automated on the market.  If I was going to conduct my research in a reasonable amount of time, I had to come up with a system where I could run a lot of measurements relatively easily.  As a result, we bought three double-ring infiltrometers and modified them with pressure sensors and some larger controlled ports.  The resulting setup was huge; the outer ring on each infiltrometer was 60 cm in diameter and the entire instrument was very heavy.  We were constantly refilling the instrument water reservoirs. In fact, this setup required so much water that we had to pull a 1,900-liter water tank on a trailer wherever we were taking measurements.

Our goal was to save time by running all three infiltrometers concurrently, but it still took a LONG time.  Even though we had automated the instruments, they required a lot of monitoring; sometimes I had to fill our 1,900-liter water tank twice in a day. One measurement at one site took anywhere from 1.5 hours to 3 hours depending on when we reached steady state. We spent so much time out in the field that we were actually caught on film in one of the Google Maps picture flyovers!   Even after all this field time, the data analysis was overwhelming, despite a relatively seamless approach to handle it all.

One huge infiltrometer setup

Our huge setup caught on google maps

I often dreamed of making a tool that would be a lot easier for me and others to use. When I joined Decagon (now METER), it gave me an opportunity to do just that.  Our design goals were to make an infiltrometer that required less water and simplified the data analysis.  We rejected the double ring design in favor of a single ring approach because research has shown that the outer ring doesn’t buffer three-dimensional flow like it’s supposed to. (Swartzendruber D. and T.C. Olson.  “Sand-model study of buffer effects in the double-ring infiltrometer” Soil Sci. Soc. Am. Proc. 25 (1961), 5-8)

We also wanted to simplify the analysis of three-dimensional flow.  With a constant head control in a single ring, there are equations that you use to correct for it.  But you have to guess at things like soil type and structure which leads to inaccuracies.  Multi-head analysis has been around for decades. It involves establishing constant water heights (heads) at multiple levels and looking at the difference in the infiltration rates to calculate the sorptivity. Thus, parameters that are normally estimated from a table can actually be measured, and infiltration results will be independent of users.

Still, there can be problems with the multiple head approach. Increasing the water height when infiltrating into a really low conductivity soil may take 1 to 2 hours to drain back to the original height. We didn’t want to make this measurement take longer than necessary, so instead of using additional water, we used air pressure to simulate higher water levels which can be added or removed very quickly.

So, thanks to the instrument hardships I endured in my past efforts to obtain infiltration measurements, we now have an easy-to-use dual-head infiltrometer (now called the SATURO), that can do the analysis of infiltration rates and saturated hydraulic conductivity on the instrument itself (it gives sorptivity and alpha, based on the soil type and structure, and makes the correction onboard).  Thus, if a scientist needs a value right away, it’s there. But, if like me, they wanted to dig deeper through the data, all the measured values can still be downloaded for more careful analysis.  Together, it’s a simple tool for both scientists and consultants who need to make these measurements.  And they won’t get caught on Google Maps like me, because they’ve had to spend their whole life in the field taking measurements.

Below is a video of the dual-head infiltrometer in action.

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