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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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