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Irrigation and Climate Impacts to the Water-Energy Balance of the WI Central Sands (Part II)

Due to controversy over the growing number of high capacity wells in the Wisconsin Central Sands, University of Wisconsin PhD student, Mallika Nocco, is researching how agricultural land use, irrigation, and climate change impact the region’s water-energy balance (see part I).  This week, read about her challenges installing lysimeters below the root zone, how she used a GPS system that can find the lysimeters within a half-inch of accuracy, and her surprising conclusions.

Irrigation sprinkler line set up in a grassy field

This relatively small ecological region has gone from 60 high capacity wells in 1960 to over 2,500 today.

Below the Root Zone

Nocco says getting the lysimeters below the root zone was a major challenge.  “We tried a couple of things, but we settled on installing all the lysimeters with an 18-inch auger that would drill a hole slightly bigger than the whole lysimeter.  We dug an 80 cm trench to the top of the monolith zone. Then, we pounded the drain gauge divergence control tube to 1.4 m to obtain an intact monolith, wherever it was possible to do so. We also stratified soil moisture sensors at 10, 20, 40, and 80 cm.  We used heavy equipment to slowly lift out the monolith, dig out the soil below, and place it back in, keeping  track of all of the different soil horizons, and backfilled as close to the bulk density as we could.”

Researcher filling a hole with dirt and a tube with dirt

Passive capillary lysimeter installation

Finding the Lysimeters with GPS

Typically, scientists bury lysimeters close to the edge of the field so they are easy to locate, but Nocco was concerned that they would prejudice their data due to the donut effect of center pivot irrigation: more irrigation hits the center of the field with less irrigation toward the edges. She comments, ”When I installed the first ten lysimeters, I had not yet come up with a way to find everything. Those instruments are all about 15 meters from the field edge so that I could triangulate measurements and find them during cultivation.  But then I met an extension scientist at the university who had access to an RTK GPS system, which can locate instrumentation within a half-inch of accuracy.  With his help and training, we were able to install the rest of the lysimeters at more random spots throughout the field.”

Irrigation sprinkler line set up in a pastor or field

Nocco was concerned that they would prejudice their data due to the donut effect of center pivot irrigation.

Surprising Conclusions

Nocco says that ET and differences in crop physiology do not explain or account for all of the variability that she saw in groundwater recharge.  Her team did a particle size analysis on the soils adjacent to the lysimeters, and she comments, “We thought that the greater the relative sand content in the soils, the more recharge we would have seen, but what we are seeing is the opposite.  The particle size analysis reveals a negative linear correlation between potential recharge and sand content. The more silt there is in these lysimeters, the more volume of recharge.  What I’m curious about now is if we’re seeing a greater volume of recharge in the siltier spots from flux convergence.  I’m trying to obtain the time series data from the pressure transducers to see if maybe the sandier areas had less potential recharge, but perhaps drained faster.  I have seen a correlation between antecedent soil moisture content and particle size (with no correlation based on crop type).  So it also looks like the siltier soils are holding more water when the rain comes through.”

What’s Next?

Eventually, Nocco plans to use field-generated estimates of groundwater recharge and ET to parameterize and validate a dynamic, agroecosystem model, Agro-IBIS, simulating hydrological responses to climate and land use changes over the past 60 years. Nocco will then share the water-energy budgets and water quantity/climate simulations with stakeholders in the Wisconsin Central Sands area.

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

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

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