Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Department of


Date of this Version



Scanlon, B. R., R. C. Reedy, and J. B. Gates (2010), Effects of irrigated agroecosystems: 1. Quantity of soil water and groundwater in the southern High Plains, Texas, Water Resour. Res., 46, W09537, doi:10.1029/2009WR008427.


Copyright 2010 by the American Geophysical Union. Used by permission.


Although irrigated agriculture is the primary consumer of global groundwater resources, information on recharge rates and sustainable irrigation is limited. The study objective was to fingerprint irrigation return flow to quantify percolation/recharge and to estimate sustainable irrigation levels. This paper focuses on water quantity; a companion paper addresses water quality. Soil samples from 13 boreholes drilled beneath irrigated agroecosystems in the southern High Plains were analyzed for matric potential and waterextractable Cl and NO3. Unsaturated zone pore water beneath irrigated agroecosystems can be fingerprinted by higher matric potentials (wetter soils, median mp: −40 m) and higher NO3‐N (median 71 mg/L) than beneath natural ecosystems (mp −200 m; NO3‐N 8.1 mg/L) and by higher Cl (720 mg/L) than beneath rain‐fed agroecosystems (8.4 mg/L). The range in percolation/recharge rates beneath irrigated agroecosystems is 18–97 mm/a (median 41 mm/a; 5% of irrigation + precipitation) and occurs primarily in response to extreme precipitation events. Similarity in percolation/recharge rates beneath irrigated and rain‐fed (4.8–92 mm/a) agroecosystems was unexpected and is attributed to low irrigation applications (median 300 mm/a) and increased crop yield and evapotranspiration in irrigated areas. Regional water table declines are unsustainably large (≥ 30 m over 10,000 km2) in the north and are much lower in the south. Sustainable irrigation in the south would require reduction of the irrigated area from 23% to 9%. Methods developed for quantifying recharge and sustainable irrigation application rates can be applied to groundwater‐fed irrigated areas in semiarid regions globally.