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Soil water sensing for water balance, ET and WUE


  • Evett, Steven R.
  • Schwartz, Robert C.
  • Casanova, Joaquin J.
  • Heng, Lee K.


The soil water balance can be solved for evapotranspiration (ET) using soil water change in storage data from either weighing lysimetry or soil water sensing and measurement, along with data on the other components of the water balance. Weighing lysimeters are expensive and, although accurate, are difficult to manage and afford little replication. Direct soil water measurement by coring is accurate enough, but plagued by spatial variability that induces unwanted variability in the change in soil water storage between dates, and is destructive and time/labor consuming. Here we focus on soil water sensing using the neutron probe and various electromagnetic (EM) sensors (capacitance, time domain reflectometry (TDR) and quasi-TDR) with respect to the relative levels of uncertainty in profile water content, change in soil water storage, and estimates of deep flux; and their impact on estimated ET and water use efficiency (WUE). Studies consistently showed errors up to and >0.05m3m−3 for capacitance sensors used in access tubes, which implied errors in soil water flux estimation of up to 50mmday−1, and calibrations that were so sensitive to soil bulk electrical conductivity (σdc) and temperature that water content and change in storage estimates were rendered unreliable. Also, larger spatial variability of water contents reported by capacitance sensors was tied to the EM field penetration in structured soils around access tubes being non-uniform and influenced by the random arrangement of soil micro-scale water content, σdc and bulk density distribution. Thus, we recommend that profiling sensor systems based on capacitance technology not be used for studies of water balance, ET and WUE, nor for irrigation scheduling. Recommended methods include the neutron probe, direct volumetric soil sampling and, in some cases, conventional time domain reflectometry with waveform capture and analysis. New sensor development efforts should focus on waveguide approaches using TDR technology.

Suggested Citation

  • Evett, Steven R. & Schwartz, Robert C. & Casanova, Joaquin J. & Heng, Lee K., 2012. "Soil water sensing for water balance, ET and WUE," Agricultural Water Management, Elsevier, vol. 104(C), pages 1-9.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:agiwat:v:104:y:2012:i:c:p:1-9 DOI: 10.1016/j.agwat.2011.12.002

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    4. Martyniak, Ludwika, 2008. "Response of spring cereals to a deficit of atmospheric precipitation in the particular stages of plant growth and development," Agricultural Water Management, Elsevier, vol. 95(3), pages 171-178, March.
    5. Sun, Hongyong & Shen, Yanjun & Yu, Qiang & Flerchinger, Gerald N. & Zhang, Yongqiang & Liu, Changming & Zhang, Xiying, 2010. "Effect of precipitation change on water balance and WUE of the winter wheat-summer maize rotation in the North China Plain," Agricultural Water Management, Elsevier, vol. 97(8), pages 1139-1145, August.
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    1. repec:eee:agiwat:v:191:y:2017:i:c:p:85-97 is not listed on IDEAS
    2. Phogat, V. & Skewes, M.A. & McCarthy, M.G. & Cox, J.W. & Šimůnek, J. & Petrie, P.R., 2017. "Evaluation of crop coefficients, water productivity, and water balance components for wine grapes irrigated at different deficit levels by a sub-surface drip," Agricultural Water Management, Elsevier, vol. 180(PA), pages 22-34.
    3. Alcaras, L. Martín Agüero & Rousseaux, M. Cecilia & Searles, Peter S., 2016. "Responses of several soil and plant indicators to post-harvest regulated deficit irrigation in olive trees and their potential for irrigation scheduling," Agricultural Water Management, Elsevier, vol. 171(C), pages 10-20.
    4. Hunsaker, D.J. & French, A.N. & Waller, P.M. & Bautista, E. & Thorp, K.R. & Bronson, K.F. & Andrade-Sanchez, P., 2015. "Comparison of traditional and ET-based irrigation scheduling of surface-irrigated cotton in the arid southwestern USA," Agricultural Water Management, Elsevier, vol. 159(C), pages 209-224.


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