Soil quality changes due to flood irrigation in agricultural fields along the Rio Grande in western Texas

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Cox C, Jin L, Ganjegunte G, Borrok D, Lougheed V, Ma L. Soil quality changes due to flood irrigation in agricultural fields along the rio grande in western texas. Applied Geochemistry 2018 March 2018;90:87-100.


Growing populations demand more food, putting more pressure on soil productivity and sustainability around the world. In western Texas along the Rio Grande Valley, the low natural rainfall requires frequent irrigations for sustaining agriculture. To investigate the impacts of irrigation on soil quality, we collected and modelled geochemical data (major elements and nutrients) on irrigation water, soil pore water, drainage water, and soil samples, and monitored soil moisture, temperature, and electrical conductivity with sensors from two pecan, one cotton, and one alfalfa fields in western Texas.

This study showed that flood irrigation with both surface (Rio Grande river) and ground waters significantly increased the root-zone salinity, soil sodicity, and nutrient leaching from soils to the underlying aquifers and Rio Grande river from agricultural fields of the arid southwest. The water used for irrigation was high in total dissolved solids (> 500 ppm generally), dominated by Na+, Cl−, Ca2+ and SO42−. After flood irrigation, infiltrating water dissolved salts such as gypsum that have accumulated in the soils due to previous irrigations, or/and mixed existing concentrated soil waters, and approached saturation with respect to these evaporite minerals. Soil water was supersaturated with respect to carbonates as pedogenic calcite precipitated out and reached concentrations of ∼10 wt% of total soil mass. This suggested that pedogenic carbonate is an important carbon reservoir and precipitation kinetics and controls of such secondary calcite need further investigation for the irrigated agricultural fields in arid regions of the world.

Chemistry of agricultural return flow samples collected from drainage ditches was similar to that of irrigation water, suggesting that most of the irrigation water had taken a shallow and short flowpath through the fields to drains. Between irrigation events, soil water became more concentrated as water was lost through evapotranspiration that led to precipitation of evaporite salts. As a result, sodicity and salinity of soils, especially clayey soils, frequently exceeded the tolerance levels of major crops grown in the region. Here in these fine-textured soils, combination of high evapotranspiration rates, intensive irrigation with water of elevated salinity, and limited infiltration stunted crop growth, decreased soil porosity and permeability, led to poor aeration, and accelerated salt buildup via a positive feedback mechanism.

During initial irrigation where soils were saturated, soil water also percolated and recharged to underlying aquifers, and thus salts, nutrients, and trace metals from agricultural practices (i.e., application of fertilizers, irrigation, soil amendments, and pesticide) could be mobilized to shallow groundwaters. This implied that chemistry of Rio Grande river, groundwater, and soil was closely linked. Thus the sustainability of agriculture depended on appropriate water, soil and crop management practices.