Biological Systems Engineering, Department of


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Lo, T., D. M. Heeren, D. L. Martin, L. Mateos, J. D. Luck, and D. E. Eisenhauer. 2016. Pumpage reduction by using variable rate irrigation to mine undepleted soil water. Transactions of the ASABE 59(5): 1285-1298, doi: 10.13031/trans.59.11773.


© 2016 American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. Used by permission.


Conventional irrigation schedules are typically based on portions of the field where root zones hold the least available soil water. This leaves undepleted available water in areas with larger water holding capacities. The undepleted water could be used through variable-rate irrigation (VRI) management; however, the benefits of VRI without in-field mapping are unexamined. In this research, the field-averaged amount of undepleted available soil water in the root zone was calculated from the NRCS Soil Survey Geographic database for 49,224 center-pivot irrigated fields in Nebraska. Potential reductions in pumpage from mining undepleted available water were then estimated. Results of the analysis show that widespread adoption of zone control VRI technology based only on the pumping savings from mining undepleted available water may be unwarranted for current VRI costs and average pumping energy expenses in the Central Plains ($0.0026 m-3 to $0.0947 m-3). Pumpage reductions exceeded 51 mm year-1 for only 2% of the fields and exceeded 25 mm year-1 for 13% of the fields; thus, reductions may be small compared to annual pumpage requirements. If VRI were im-plemented on all fields with a potential pumpage reduction greater than 51 or 25 mm year-1, the volume of pumpage reduction would be approximately 0.35% or 1.3%, respectively, of the total irrigation pumpage in Nebraska. These data may be a conservative estimate of pumpage reduction in fields where the measured variability in soil properties exceeds that described by the NRCS Soil Survey, or if undepleted water is mined early in the season and the soil water profile is refilled by precipitation, allowing undepleted water to be mined again. Adoption of zone control VRI is most feasible for fields where the pumpage reduction from VRI is large and pumping costs are above normal. Pivot fields with high un-depleted water were sparsely distributed across Nebraska and were often located along streams and or in associated alluvial areas. The prevalence of fields with large quantities of undepleted water differed among and within soil associations. We were unable to assign feasibility of VRI based on the soil association, as the occurrence of undepleted water varied significantly within a soil association. These findings should assist producers and other entities interested in VRI technology; however, pumpage reduction through use of undepleted soil water is only one benefit of VRI technology and management. Producers are encouraged to consider all potential benefits when analyzing VRI investments.