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

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.  She and her team have uncovered some surprising results.

Fisher women leans in for a kiss with a class 1 trout she caught

A class 1 trout stream has sufficient natural reproduction to sustain populations of wild trout at or near carry capacity.

Water Use Debate

There are class 1 trout streams in the Central Sands region, and some people worry that the increasing number of high capacity wells used for agriculture will reduce the water levels in those streams.  “Lake Huron has lost about 11 feet of water since 2000,” says one resident of the Central Sands area, “and water levels are continuing to drop.” In 2008, the small well he used to pump drinking water went dry, and he blames the high capacity wells.” (Aljazeera America)  On the other side of the debate, agriculture irrigated by these wells is extremely valuable to the state, and growers have taken quite a bit of time to understand the water cycle and their role in it. You can read about their water management goals and accomplishments here.

Updating Former Research

Irrigated agriculture wasn’t prevalent or profitable in the Wisconsin Central Sands until groundwater irrigation with high capacity wells became feasible in the 1950s.  Since then, this relatively small ecological region has gone from 60 high capacity wells in 1960 to over 2,500 today.

Mallika Nocco is studying potential groundwater recharge from irrigated cropping systems that use the wells, hoping to understand if the irrigation water is lost or returned to the groundwater.  She says, “Until now, we’ve been relying on models validated by two lysimeters in the 1970s. Champ Tanner (one of the fathers of environmental biophysics) designed the weighing lysimeters, and they were very accurate, but we wanted to do a larger scale study with multiple crops to get a handle on interannual variability and to improve our understanding of recharge in the region so we can do a better job of managing irrigation and groundwater.”

Lysimeter installation into a dirt and a field

Lysimeter installation into actively managed fields presented challenges that the research team had to overcome.

Measuring Recharge

Nocco used twenty-five drain gauge lysimeters to capture vadose zone flux under potato and maize cropping systems.  She monitored soil water (and temperature) flux by stratifying water content sensors from the soil surface to a depth of 1.4 meters.  She also estimated evapotranspiration (ET) using a porometer to measure stomatal conductance, in addition to obtaining micrometeorology, leaf area index, and gas exchange measurements.

Nocco and her team had to put their sensors in to avoid cultivation, so they extended the drain gauge PVC that comes up to the soil surface and removed it any time there was major fieldwork, whether it was tillage or planting, so that the area over the lysimeter got the same treatment as the rest of the agricultural fields.

Below the Root Zone

Nocco says getting the lysimeters below the root zone was a challenge.  Next week, read about how she solved that challenge, how she used a GPS system to find the lysimeters within a half-inch of accuracy, and about her surprising conclusions.

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

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to leaf area index (LAI)”—>

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