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Water is an important resource for growing plants. Plants, by weight, are comprised of 90 to 95 percent water. Chemicals in irrigation water can impact the growth of plants, especially container-grown plants, due to their restricted root growth and the high potential for change of soilless media with relatively low buffering capacities. contain so much salt that it is unsuitable for irrigation because of potential danger to the soil or crops. Irrigation water quality can best be determined by chemical laboratory analysis.





Water quality is a concern to everyone who uses water. How to manage water in a

specific situation can be both a practical and financial challenge. This publication focuses on analyses used for typical agricultural irrigation water sources. Water originating from an industrial, livestock, or municipal source may require additional analyses and care. In determining water availability for irrigation, information is required on both the quantity and quality; however, the quality need has often been neglected. Quality should infer holy well a water supply fulfils the needs of the intended user and must be evaluated on the basis of its suitability for the intended use. Some irrigation waters can damage plants directly, while others damage soil structure. The impact of irrigation water on soil and plants depends on the water, soil, crop, and environ- mental conditions. Nearly all waters contain dissolved salts and trace elements, many of which result from the natural weathering of the earths surface. In addition, drainage waters from irrigated lands and effluent from city sewage and industrial waste water can impact water quality. In most irrigation situations, the primary water quality concern is salinity levels, since salts can affect both the soil structure and crop yield. However, a number of trace elements are found in water which can limit its use for irrigation.



Water quality can vary from source to source. Three sources of water are commonly

used by growers: well water, municipal water, and pond water. Well water frequently contains high levels of dissolved elements, especially calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg), which can lead to high alkalinity. It is common in areas with limestone bedrock. The chemical composition of well water also varies with well depth, due to the water being pumped from different aquifers. Municipal water obtained from rivers or lakes commonly has a lower level of dissolved chemicals than well water. Due to chemical purification to meet drinking water quality standards, however, excessively high levels of chloride (Cl) or fluoride (F) may be present and cause a leaf margin necrosis. By law, water treatment plants must monitor the chemical quality of their water. Contact the local water treatment plant to obtain test results. Pond water is used by some greenhouse and nursery operations. Its advantage is that it usually contains lower levels of dissolved chemicals. Growers should be aware of the
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chemical composition of their pond water to ensure that they are providing adequate levels of Ca and Mg.

3. WATER QUALITY EFFECTS. Water used for irrigation always contains measurable quantities of dissolved substances which as a general collective term are called salts. These include relatively small but important amounts of dissolved solids originating from dissolution or weathering of the rocks and soil and dissolving of lime, gypsum and other salt sources as water passes over or percolates through them. Poor quality water can be responsible for slow growth, poor aesthetic quality of the crop and, in some cases, can result in the gradual death of the plants. High soluble salts can directly injure roots, interfering with water and nutrient uptake.

Salts can accumulate in plant leaf margins, causing burning of the edges.

Water with high alkalinity can adversely affect the pH of the growing medium, interfering with nutrient uptake.

4. ASSESSMENT OF IRRIGATION WATER QUALITY. In assessing the suitability of waters for irrigation use, water quality characteristics that affect agricultural production, catchment condition, and downstream water quality need to be evaluated. The parameters that determine irrigation water quality are divided into three categories: Chemical; Physical; Biological. Numerous parameters are used to define irrigation water quality, to assess salinity hazards, and to determine appropriate management strategies. A complete water quality analysis will include the determination of: 1) The total concentration of soluble salts, 2) The relative proportion of sodium to the other cations, 3) The bicarbonate concentration as related to the concentration of calcium and magnesium;
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4) The concentrations of specific elements and compounds.




Water Temperature Electrical Conductance Total suspended solids (TSS) Total dissolved solids (TDS) Turbidity.

Alkalinity & pH Hardness Sodium & chloride Ammonium & nitrate Heavy metals Micronutrients & trace metals

Algae Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) Human and animal pathogens

Electrical Conductivity
Soluble salts in water are measured by electrical conductivity expressed as millimhos per centimetre (mmhos/cm), which is equivalent to milliSiemens per centimeter (mS/cm). Electrical conductivity is also referred to as specific conductance. EC (electrical conductivity) measures the levels of natural salinity and salinity caused by fertilizer residues in water and soils. High EC may occur in water from containment ponds rich in fertilizer residues, certain wastewaters used for irrigation, water contaminated by road salt, and saltwater intrusion in coastal wells. Irrigation water to which water-soluble fertilizer has been added has an EC of about 1.5-2.5 mS/cm. The untreated water should have an EC not higher than the acceptable range of 0-1.5 mS/cm.

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Electrical conductivity meter

Alkalinity & pH
Alkalinity and pH are two important factors in determining the suitability of water for irrigating plants. pH is a measure of the concentration of hydrogen ions (H+) in water or other liquids. Alkalinity is a measure of the water's ability to neutralize acidity. In general, water for irrigation should have a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. An alkalinity test measures the level of bicarbonates, carbonates, and hydroxides in water from the geologic materials of the aquifer from which the water is drawn, such as limestone and dolomite. Alkalinity is generally expressed as "ppm of calcium carbonate (CaCO3)". The desirable range for irrigation water is 0 to 100 ppm calcium carbonate. Levels between 30 and 60 ppm are considered optimum for most plants.

Hardness Calcium and Magnesium

Hardness is an indication of the amount of calcium and magnesium in the water. Calcium and Magnesium are essential elements for plant growth that are reported in parts of element per million parts water (ppm) on a weight basis. Calcium in the range of 40 - 100 ppm, and magnesium in the range of 30 - 50 ppm are considered desirable for irrigation water. Soft water (water high in Na) makes hard ground.

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Sodium Hazard
Irrigation water from rivers, streams, private wells, and private ponds may contain excess sodium (Na). Na can be directly toxic to plants, may contribute to raising the soluble salts (EC) level of the growing medium, or may inhibit water uptake by plants. Plant problems include injury from excess soluble salts, growth reduction, and increased susceptibility to disease. Sodium levels of about 50 ppm or less are considered acceptable for overhead irrigation. Reductions in water infiltration can occur when irrigation water contains high sodium relative to the calcium and magnesium contents. This condition is termed as sodicity, Sodicity causes swelling and dispersion of soil clays, surface crusting and pore plugging. Sodium Adsorption Ratio (SAR) - most common measure to assess sodicity in water and soil. The higher the SAR, the greater the sodium hazard.

The SAR is mathematically written below

Sodicity causes a decrease in the downward movement of water into and through the soil, and actively growing plant roots may not get adequate water.

Chloride is a common ion in irrigation waters. Although chloride is essential to plants in very low amounts, it can cause toxicity to sensitive crops at high concentrations. High chloride
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concentrations cause more problems when applied with sprinkler irrigation. Leaf burn under sprinkler from both sodium and chloride can be reduced by night time irrigation or application on cool, cloudy days.

Ammonium and Nitrate

Nitrogen in irrigation water (N) is largely a fertility issue. These nutrients are tested to give an indication of possible contamination of the water source. If present in significant amounts (e.g., >5 ppm nitrate), they should be taken into account in the fertility program. The nitrate ion often occurs at higher concentrations than ammonium in irrigation water. Waters high in N can cause quality problems in crops such as barley and sugar beets and excessive vegetative growth in some vegetables.

Micronutrients and Trace Minerals.

The most important micronutrients are copper, zinc, manganese, iron and boron. They can occur in excessive or deficient quantities. Excess iron and manganese compounds may result in unsightly residues on foliage under overhead irrigation. Boron is another element that is essential in low amounts, but toxic at higher concentrations. Concentrations in irrigation water should be less than 0.75 ppm.

Biological parameters.
Algae: The main problem associated with excessive algal growth in irrigation waters is the blockage of distribution and irrigation equipment. Excessive algal growth in water storages and irrigation ditches commonly occurs as a result of nutrient pollution. Cyanobacteria: Problems associated with cyanobacteria arise when toxins are produced in excessive amounts during these blooms.


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Irrigation water quality is determined by salt concentration and type. As salt concentration increases, plant-available moisture decreases, which restricts crop growth. We can manage the poor irrigation water by increasing salt tolerance of plants and improving irrigation management technologies. Investigate any change in water quality at the earliest possible time for effective irrigation.

Ayres, R.S. and Westcott, D.W. (1976). Water quality for agriculture. F.A.O. Irrigation and Drainage Paper No. 29 F.A.O. Rome. Ayers, R.S. 1977. Quality of irrigation water.Journal of the Irrigation and Drainage Division. ASCE. Vol. 103, No. IR2, June 1977, p.140. Hartley, D. E. 1992. Water Quality. Poinsettia J. 1:25. Reed, D. W. (ed.). 1996. Water, media, and nutrition for greenhouse crops. Ball Publ., Batavia, IL. Univ. of California. 1988. Water qualityIts effects on ornamental plants. Coop. Ext. Serv. Bull. 2995.

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