Irrigation management to optimize controlled drainage in a semi-arid area

R.W.O. Soppe, J.E. Ayars, E.W. Christen, P.J. Shouse

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference paperAcademic


On the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, California, groundwater tables have risen after several decades of irrigation. A regional semi-permeable layer at 100 m depth (Corcoran Clay) combined with over-irrigation and leaching is the major cause of the groundwater rise. Subsurface drain systems were installed from the 60¿s to the 80¿s to remove excess water and maintain an aerated root zone. However, drainage water resulting from these subsurface systems contained trace elements like selenium, which were determined at toxic levels to fish and waterfowl. To maintain healthy levels of salt and selenium in the San Joaquin River, the natural drain out of the San Joaquin Valley, outflow of drainage water from farms was severely restricted or completely eliminated. Several on-farm management methods are being investigated to maintain agricultural production without off-farm drainage. One method is drainage water reuse through blending with irrigation water. Another method is to reuse drainage water consecutively, where drainage water from one field is used as irrigation water for another field. Progressively more salt tolerant crops need to be grown in such a system along the reuse path, and salts can eventually be harvested using solar evaporators. A method described in this paper aims to reduce the volume of drainage water during the growing season by increasing shallow groundwater use by crops before it is drained from the field. Five years of crops were grown on two weighing lysimeters using drip irrigation. Two years of cotton were grown under high frequency drip irrigation (applications up to 10 times a day), followed by two years of safflower (early season crop) and one year of alfalfa (perennial) under low frequency drip irrigation (twice a week). One lysimeter maintained a shallow groundwater table at 1.0-m below soil surface, while the other lysimeter was freely drained at the bottom (3.0-m below soil surface). High frequency irrigation requires more irrigation water over a season than low frequency irrigation in the presence of shallow groundwater, since low frequency irrigation induces more shallow groundwater use by crops. Groundwater use for cotton was measured as 8% of total seasonal crop water use, while measurements under safflower showed that 25% of seasonal crop water use came from groundwater. Measurements under alfalfa, in its first year of establishment, showed 15% of seasonal crop water use coming from the groundwater. To maintain a sustainable system, leaching of salts need to occur. Leaching under the proposed irrigation/drainage management system would occur in the early growing season with winter precipitation, pre-plant irrigation and the first irrigation of the growing season, when the water table can be maintained at shallower depths through restriction of the outflow of the subsurface drainage system (groundwater control).
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2003


Dive into the research topics of 'Irrigation management to optimize controlled drainage in a semi-arid area'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this