Applications of Soil Water

Quantitative Description of Soil Wetness
 As an initially water-saturated soil dries down, both the soil itself and the soil water it contains undergo a series of gradual changes in physical behaviour and in their relationship with plants. o These are due mainly to the fact the water remaining in the soil as it dries is found in the smaller pores and as thinner films on soil particles. o As such, the water potential is lower principally due to the matric forces.

Maximum Retentive Capacity
 When all the soil’s pores are filled with water due to a heavy rainfall or irrigation, the soil is said to be saturated and is at its maximum retentive capacity. o The matric potential is near zero. o The soil will remain saturated for as long as more water continues to infiltrate the soil as the soil water in the largest pores gets drawn downwards – or percolates – by gravity. This water is called gravitational water. o Gravitational water slows in its percolation through the soil’s macropores mainly by frictional forces associated with the viscosity of the water. o Water viscosity declines (it becomes thinner) as temperatures increase so drainage is more rapid in warmer soils than in cooler soils. o Data on the maximum retentive capacity of a soil is used to calculate how much rainfall can be absorbed into the soil and the potential of flooding.

Field Capacity
 Once the rain has stopped or irrigation ceased, water in the largest pores will drain downwards quite rapidly as gravitational water, in response to the hydraulic gradient.

o Eventually this slows and the downward flow will stop as matric forces play a greater role in the movement of the remaining water. o The soil is said to be at its field capacity. o As such, water has moved out of the macropores and air has returned to these spaces. o Water is still found in the micropores or capillary pores. This is the water that plants draw on. o Water still moves in the soil but slowly primarily through capillary forces which are only effective in micropores.  It is a useful term because it refers to an approximate degree of soil wetness at which three soil properties are in transition: o At field capacity, a soil is holding the maximum amount of water useful to plants. Additional water can only be held by the soil for short periods before draining away and while in the soil, it occupies the larger macropores, pushing air out of the soil. o At field capacity, the soil is near its lower plastic limit – the soil behaves as a crumbly semi-solid or plastic-like material that is easily tilled or manipulated. o At field capacity, sufficient pore space is filled with air to allow optimal aeration for most aerobic activity and for the growth of most plants.

Gravitational Water vs. Capillary Water
 Gravitational water therefore refers to the portion of soil water that readily drains away between the states of maximum retentive capacity and field capacity. o Most soil leaching occurs with gravitational water. o It therefore includes much of the water that transports chemicals, such as nutrient ions, pesticides and organic contaminants down into the groundwater and, ultimately into streams and river.

Wilting Point or Wilting Coefficient

On the other side of the water scale, once a soil has drained to its field capacity, further drying is quite slow. o But, if plants are growing in the soil, they will continue to remove water from their rooting zone and the soil will continue to dry. o Initially the roots will take water from the largest water-filled pores where the water potential is relatively high. As these pores empty, roots will draw water from progressively smaller pores and thinner films of water on particles – until the plants can no longer do so to meet their needs. o At this point, the plants may begin to wilt. o Water content of a soil at this stage is called the wilting coefficient or permanent wilting percentage. This water has a water potential of 1500 kPa. o Soil is dusty dry. The remaining water is found in the smallest pores.

Plant Available Water
 Is considered to be water retained in the soil between the states of field capacity and wilting coefficient (between -10 to -30 kPa and 1500 kPa). o The amount of capillary water remaining in the soil below 1500 kPa is unavailable to plants. o This amount of unavailable capillary water can be substantial, especially in fine-textured clay soils and those high in organic matter.

Hydroscopic Water
 When soil moisture is lowered below the wilting point, the remaining water molecules are very tightly held, mostly being absorbed by colloidal surfaces. o Water potential has dropped to -3100 kPa. o Water is thought to be present only as a film of perhaps four or five molecules thick and is held so rigidly that much of it is considered non-liquid and can move only in a vapour phase. o This is what we eliminated in the last lab.

o This moisture content is termed the hydroscopic coefficient. o Soils high in colloidal materials (clay and humus) will hold more water under these conditions that will sandy soils. o The water is unavailable to plants.

Factors Affecting the Amount of Plant-Available Water
Matric Potential
 Affects the amounts of water at the field capacity and at the permanent wilting percentage. o These two characteristics determine the amount of water of a given soil available to plants. They are influenced by the soil’s texture, structure, and organic matter content. o As fineness of texture increases, there is a general increase in available moisture storage – from sands to loams and silt loams. But then, clay soils frequently have less available water since clays tend to have higher wilting coefficients. o Levels of organic matter influence water availability in two ways: the direct water supplying ability of organic matter and second indirectly due to its impact on soil structure and soil pore space. o Water-holding capacity of organic matter is much higher than an equal amount of mineral matter.

Impact of Compaction
 Soil compaction generally reduces the amount of water available to plants for four reasons. 1. Compaction crushes many of the macropores and large micropores (mesopores) into smaller pores. Soil strength increases beyond the 2000 kPa level considered to limit root penetration. 2. The reduction of macropores pores generally means that less water is retained at field capacity. 3. With reduced micropores content, there will be aeration pore space when the soil is at field capacity.

4. The creation of more very fine micropores will increase the permanent wilting coefficient and so decrease the amount of available water content.

Osmotic Potential
 The presence of soluble salts, either from applied fertilizers or as naturally occurring compounds can influence plant uptake of soil water. o This is because soluble salts tend to hold more water in the soil.

Soil Depth & Layering
   The total volume of available water is also dependent upon the total volume of soil explored by plant roots. This can be restricted by the depth of soil above root-restricting layers. Such soil stratification, or layering, with impervious soil horizons will slow down the rate of water movement and restrict the penetration of plant roots.

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