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Posts tagged ‘hydraulic conductivity’

Hydrology 301: What a Hydraulic Conductivity Curve Tells You & More

Hydraulic conductivity is the ability of a porous medium (soil for instance) to transmit water in saturated or nearly saturated conditions. It’s dependent on several factors: size distribution, roughness, tortuosity, shape, and degree of interconnection of water-conducting pores. A hydraulic conductivity curve tells you, at a given water potential, the ability of the soil to conduct water.

One factor that affects hydraulic conductivity is how strong the structure is in the soil you’re measuring.

For example, as the soil dries, what is the ability of water to go from the top of a sample [or soil layer in the field] to the bottom. These curves are used in modeling to illustrate or predict what will happen to water moving in a soil system during fluctuating moisture conditions. Researchers can combine hydraulic conductivity data from two laboratory instruments, the KSAT and the HYPROP, to produce a full hydraulic conductivity curve (Figure 1).

Hydraulic conductivity curve

Figure 1. Example of hydraulic conductivity curves for three different soil types. The curves go from field saturation on the right to unsaturated hydraulic conductivity on the left.  They illustrate the difference between a well-structured clayey soil to a poorly structured clayey soil and the importance of structure to hydraulic conductivity especially at, or near, saturation.

In Hydrology 301, Leo Rivera, Research Scientist at METER, discusses hydraulic conductivity and the advantages and disadvantages of methods used to measure it.

Watch the webinar below.

 

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New Infiltrometer Helps City of Pittsburgh Limit Traditional Stormwater Infrastructure

Though difficult and expensive to restore, the brick-paved streets that still exist in some Pennsylvania neighborhoods are a treasure worth preserving, according to the City of Pittsburgh. Dellrose Street, an aging, 900 ft. long, brick road, was in need of repair, but the city of Pittsburgh wanted to limit traditional stormwater infrastructure, such as pipes and catch basins.

Infiltrometer

Dellrose Street permeable paver system

To save the aesthetics of the neighborhood, they hired ms consultants, inc. to design a permeable paver solution for controlling stormwater runoff volumes and peak runoff rates that would traditionally be routed off-site via storm sewers.  Jason Borne, a stormwater engineer for ms consultants who worked on the project says, “What we try to do is understand the in situ infiltration potential of the subsoils to determine the most efficient natural processes for attenuating flows; either through infiltrating excess water volume back into the soil or through slow-release off-site.”  He used the SATURO Infiltrometer to get an idea of how urban fill material would infiltrate water.

Green Infrastructure Aids Natural Infiltration

As Borne and his team investigated what they could do to slow down the runoff, they decided permeable pavers would be a viable solution.  He says, “There’s not much you can do once you put in a hardened surface like a pavement.  Traditional pavement surfaces accelerate the runoff which requires catch basins and large diameter pipes to carry the runoff off-site. We were interested in investigating what some of the urban subsoils or urban fill would allow us to do from an infiltration perspective.  As we started looking at some of these subsoils, we decided a permeable paver system would be ideal for this particular street.”

Infiltrometer

Subsurface flow barrier installation

Infiltrometers Determine Natural Infiltration Potential

Once the water flowed into the aggregate, the team began to figure out ways to slow it down and promote infiltration.  Borne says, “Basically we came up with a tiered subsurface flow barrier system.  We had about 60 concrete flow barriers across the subgrade within the aggregate base of the road. We needed so many because the longitudinal slope of the road was fairly significant. Behind each of these barriers we stored a portion of the stormwater that would typically run off the site.  The ideal was to remove the stored water through infiltration—to get it down to the subgrade and away, so we used infiltrometers to help us establish where we could maximize infiltration and where we might need to rely on other management methods.”

A Need for Faster Test Times Inspires a Comparison

Borne says that USDA soil surveys are too generalized for green infrastructure applications in urban areas and only give crude approximations of the soil hydraulic conductivity. Understanding the best way to promote natural infiltration requires a very specific infiltration rate or hydraulic conductivity for the location of interest.  He says, “The goal is to excavate down to the desired elevation before construction and find out, through some kind of device what the infiltration potential of the subsoil is.  Typically we use a double ring infiltrometer, but it’s a very manual device. We’re constantly refilling water, and it requires us to be on-site and attentive to what’s happening.  We can’t really multitask, especially in areas of decently infiltrating soils where the device might run out of water in 30 minutes or less. So, in the interest of saving water and time, we used the automated SATURO infiltrometer and the manual double ring infiltrometer concurrently for comparison purposes.”

Next week:  Find out how the two infiltrometers compared.

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German Researchers Directly Measure Climate Change Effects Using Lysimeter Network (part 2)

In Germany, scientists are measuring the effects of tomorrow’s climate change with a vast network of 144 large lysimeters (see part 1).  This week, read about the intense precision required to move the soil-filled lysimeters, how problems are prevented, and how the data is used by scientists worldwide.

climate change

Moving the lysimeters

Moving the Lysimeters is not Easy

As noted previously, one TERENO lysimeter weighs between 2.5 and 3.5 tons depending on the soil and the water saturation, so the problem of transporting it without compacting the soil or causing cracks in the soil column caused Georg many sleepless nights.   He explains, “We found a truck with an air venting system, which could prevent vibrations in a wide range. We made a wooden support structure, bought 100 car springs, and loaded the lysimeter on this frame.  After some careful preparation and design adjustments, I told the truck driver, ‘take care, I’m recording the entire drive with my acceleration sensor and data logger so I can see if you are driving faster than I allow.”  Each lysimeter soil surface level was marked to check if the lysimeter was rendered useless due to transport, and the truck was not allowed to go over a railway or a bump in the road faster than 2 km per hour to avoid the consequences of compaction and cracking.

climate change

Tensiometers and soil moisture sensors monitor the hydraulic conditions inside the lysimeters.

Preventing Problems

Understanding the water potential inside the intact lysimeter core is not trivial. Georg and his team use maintenance-free tensiometers, which overcome the typical problem of cavitation in dry conditions as they don’t need to be refilled. Still, this parameter is so critical they installed 3 of them and took the median, which can be weighed in case one of the sensors is not working. Georg says, “There is a robust algorithm behind measuring the true field situation with tensiometers.”

What Happens With the Data?

Georg hopes that many researchers will take advantage of the TERENO lysimeter network data (about 4,000 parameters stored near-continuously on a web server). He says, “Researchers have free access to the data and can publish it. It’s wonderful because it’s not only the biggest project of its kind, each site is well-maintained, and all measurements are made with the same equipment, so you can compare all the data.”  (Contact Dr. Thomas Puetz for access). Right now, over 400 researchers are working with those data, which has been used in over 200 papers.

climate change

Lysimeter plant with CO2 fumigation facility in Austria.

What’s the Future?

Georg thinks 40,000 data points arriving every minute will give scientists plenty of information to work on for years to come. Each year, more TERENO standard lysimeters are installed to enlarge the database. The ones in TERENO have a 1 m2 surface area, which is fine for smaller plants like wheat or grass, but is not a good dimension for big plants like trees and shrubs. Georg points out that you have to take into account effort versus good data. Larger lysimeters present exponentially larger challenges. He admits that, “With the TERENO project, they had to make a compromise. All the lysimeters are cut at a depth of 1.5 m. If there is a mistake, it is the same with all the lysimeters, so we can compare on climate change effects.”  He adds, “After six years, we now have a standard TERENO lysimeter design installed over 200 times around the world, where data can be compared through a database, enhancing our understanding of water in an era of climate change.”

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Read about 12 large Ecotron weighing lysimeters measuring climate change at the University of Hasselt.

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German Researchers Directly Measure Climate Change Effects Using TERENO Lysimeters

In Germany, scientists are measuring the effects of tomorrow’s climate change with a vast network of 144 large lysimeters.

lysimeters

The goal of these lysimeters is to measure energy balance, water flux and nutrition transport, emission of greenhouse gases, biodiversity, and solute leaching into the groundwater.

In 2008, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology began to develop a climate feedback monitoring strategy at the Ammer catchment in Southern Bavaria. In 2009, the Research Centre Juelich Institute of Agrosphere, in partnership with the Helmholtz-Network TERENO (Terrestrial Environmental Observatories) began conducting experiments in an expanded approach.  

Throughout Germany, they set up a network of 144 large lysimeters with soil columns from various climatic conditions at sites where climate change may have the largest impact.  In order to directly observe the effects of simulated climate change, soil columns were taken from higher altitudes with lower temperatures to sites at a lower altitude with higher temperatures and vice versa. Extreme events such as heavy rain or intense drought were also experimentally simulated.

lysimeters

Lysimeter locations in Germany

Georg von Unold, whose company (formerly UMS, now METER) built and installed the lysimeters comments on why the project is so important. “From a scientific perspective, we accept changes for whatever reason they may happen, but it is our responsibility to carefully monitor and predict how these changes cause floods, droughts, and disease. We need to be prepared to react if and before they affect us.”

How Big Are the Lysimeters?

Georg says that each lysimeter holds approximately 3,000 kilograms of soil and has to be moved under compaction control with specialized truck techniques.  He adds,The goal of these lysimeters is to measure energy balance, water flux and nutrition transport, emission of greenhouse gases, biodiversity, and solute leaching into the groundwater. Researchers measure the conditions of water balance in the natural soil surrounding the lysimeters, and then apply those same conditions inside the lysimeters with suction ceramic cups that lay across the bottom of the lysimeter.  These cups both inject and take out water to mimic natural or artificial conditions.”

lysimeters

Researchers use water content sensors and tensiometers to monitor hydraulic conditions inside the lysimeters.

Researchers monitor the new climate situation with microenvironment monitors and count the various grass species to see which types become dominant and which might disappear. They use water content sensors and tensiometers to monitor hydraulic conditions inside the lysimeters. The systems also use a newly-designed system to inject CO2 into the atmosphere around the plants and soil to study increased carbon effects.  Georg says, “We developed, in cooperation with the HBLFA Raumberg Gumpenstein, a new, fast-responding CO2 enrichment system to study CO2 from plants and soil respiration. We analyze gases like CO2, oxygen, and methane. The chambers are rotated from one lysimeter to another, working 24 hours, 7 days a week.  Each lysimeter is exposed only for a few minutes so as not to change the natural environment.”

Next week:  Read about the intense precision required to move the soil-filled lysimeters, how problems are prevented, and how the data is used by scientists worldwide.

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Green Roofs—Do They Work? (Part II)

Innovative soil scientist, John Buck, and his team have discovered that green roofs have more capacity than people imagined (see part I).  Below are some of the challenges he sees for the future, and the type of measurements he suggests researchers take, as they continue to validate the effectiveness of these urban ecosystems.

Green roofs are essentially gardens on rooftops, which store water and help prevent sewage overflow.

A green roof is essentially a garden on a roof, but rather than growing plants in soil, installers use a synthetic substrate made of expanded shale, expanded clay, crushed brick, or other highly porous, lightweight material.

New Challenges for Green Roofs

Green roof results are promising, but they present a new challenge:  making sure the plants have enough water. The crux of the challenge is that the lightweight, expanded shale/clay substrate material, the standard in green roof design, does a good job of soaking up the water, but has some peculiar properties that are unlike typical soils.  Specifically, the expanded shale and expanded clay media tend to be dominated by sand and fine gravel-sized particles that provide a high proportion of macropores, but the interior porosity of the large particles is dominated with micropores.  That pore size distribution leads researchers to two important questions— How much water will be readily available for plant growth? And, will the unsaturated hydraulic conductivity be adequate to avoid starving the roots under high-evaporative demand by allowing water to flow to roots from the bulk soil? These are critical questions as green roof technologies continue to evolve.

Green Roofs

Researchers wonder, will the unsaturated hydraulic conductivity be adequate to avoid starving the roots under high-evaporative demand.

Measurements Required for Green Roof Validation

Still, Buck has learned a great deal from his work.  Considering the wild spatial distribution of summer storms, quantitative green roof performance studies require that rainfall be measured locally. Monitoring of soil volumetric moisture content measurements in concert with rainfall and soil lysimeter measurements of drainage, reveal the degree of total and capillary saturation, drainage rate, and porosity available for storage. Soil water potential sensors, placed within the capillary fringe of water ponded over subsurface drainage layers, can provide useful insights regarding the dryness of the drainage layer and overlying soil, as well as the available storage of stormwater within the drainage layer.

Direct measurement of soil drainage using lysimeters is a key supplemental measurement on green roof performance quantification projects because there is an unmeasured component of water storage where drought-resistant alpine succulents (typically Sedum species) are used on green roofs.  The Sedum plants can absorb up to 10 mm of rainfall equivalent in their plant tissues.

Green Roofs

Measurement of soil drainage using lysimeters is a key supplemental measurement on green roof performance quantification projects.

Other Projects and Future Plans

At ground level, Buck is quantifying the performance of intensive stormwater infiltration areas known as rain gardens, bioretention areas, or more generically, infiltration-based stormwater best management practices (Infiltration-based BMPs).  When monitoring infiltration-based stormwater BMPs, Buck has used similar tools to those used on green roofs, but has added water-level sensors and piezometers.  Buck has found that ancillary measurements of electrical conductivity, often available on water content sensors, along with surface and pore water sampling, can be used to document transformations taking place in infiltration systems.  These measurements now combine to show that green roofs and infiltration-based BMPs are indeed making a difference to urban environments and contributions to CSOs.  The challenge now is how to implement this technology more widely.  But, with the validation now in hand, that job should be quite a bit easier.

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Green Roofs—Do They Work?

Green roofs are being built in large cities to provide stormwater management, reduce the urban heat island effect, and improve air quality—but are they effective?   John Buck, an innovative soil scientist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has been trying to quantitatively answer this question in many different cities using soil monitoring equipment in order to determine the efficacy and best types of green infrastructure for managing stormwater.  

Green Roofs

A green roof installation site at the Allegheny County Office Building in Pennsylvania.

Why Green Roofs?

In older cities, stormwater runoff is typically combined with sewage flows, and these combined waters are treated at a sewage treatment plant during dry weather and light rain events. Unfortunately, during more substantial storms (sometimes just a few mm of rain) the combined flows exceed the ability of the sewage treatment plant, and are discharged without treatment to surface waters as “combined sewage overflows” (CSOs). One of the ways to mitigate CSOs is to capture and store stormwater to keep it out of the combined sewer.  

A green roof is essentially a garden on a roof, but rather than growing plants in soil, installers use a synthetic substrate made of expanded shale, expanded clay, crushed brick, or other highly porous, lightweight material with high infiltration rates.  During a storm event, water will soak into the air-filled pore space in the substrate, which acts like a sponge to soak up the rain. Excess water will flow into a subsurface drainage layer and will leave the roof garden via existing roof drains. Because a substantial fraction of the stormwater is stored in the substrate, it can later dissipate through evapotranspiration instead of contributing to stormwater volume and CSOs.

Green Roofs

Researchers are using soil moisture sensors for measuring temperature, bulk electrical conductivity and volumetric water content in green roofs and green infrastructure.

Finding Answers

Designers and regulators want to know how well green roofs work and if they are being over-engineered. They want answers to questions such as: “What sort of substrate should I be using? What type of plants can survive green roof conditions? Will I need to irrigate the green roof when there are no storms to water the plants?” and, “Will the green roof work as well during a one-inch storm that occurs over a half hour versus a five-inch storm that occurs over five days?”  

Buck is using soil lysimeters and modified tipping bucket rain gauges to measure the quantity, intensity, and quality of water coming into and going out of the green roofs.  He also tracks weather parameters and calculates daily evapotranspiration of landscapes.  Using soil sensors, he measures electrical conductivity (dissolved salts), volumetric water content, and temperature.  He has installed data loggers that send data to the web via GSM cellular connection, allowing stakeholders access to the data in real-time.  This data telemetry provides additional data security, immediately updated results, instant feedback of system problems, and an easy way to share data with others.

Green Roofs

Visualized data of the 87% annualized runoff reduction at Phipps Conservatory green roof site in Pittsburgh, PA.

What Has Been Learned?

Buck discovered that green roofs have much more capacity than people ever imagined.  At The Penfield Apartments in St. Paul, Minnesota, the green roof retained enough water to reduce runoff to about half of a conventional roof, and the peak intensity of the runoff was about one-quarter of what it would have been without the green roof.  At Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, there was an 87% annualized runoff reduction and almost no runoff from typical summer rain events.  Buck comments, “Interestingly, on the Penfield project, we expected better hydrologic performance where soils were thicker, but there was no difference, or results were slightly the reverse of expectations. That reversal was likely due to the confounding influence of irrigation, which was probably non-uniform and not metered or measured by the rain gauge.”

Next week:  Read about some of the challenges John Buck sees for the future, and what kind of measurements he suggests researchers make, as they continue to validate the effectiveness of these urban ecosystems.

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Can Wastewater Save The United Arab Emirates’ Groundwater? (Part II)

With very little recharge and irrigation comprising 75% of groundwater use, natural water resources in the United Arab Emirates region are disappearing fast (see part I).  Wafa Al Yamani and her PhD advisor, Dr. Brent Clothier, are investigating using treated sewage effluent and groundwater for irrigating the desert forests along UAE motorways.

groundwater

Abu Dhabi

Infiltrometers Predict Dripper Behavior:

Wafa and her team used what they call, “the Ankeny twin head method” for site evaluation with infiltrometers, and they’ve been able to use it to predict dripper behavior.  They begin with the head at -60 mm, do a series of measurements to measure steady infiltration, and repeat the process at -5 mm.  They use those measurements to solve Woodings equation which has two unknowns: saturated hydraulic conductivity and capillarity.  Dr. Clothier says, “We’ve done it at two heads, and we can use Woodings equation to solve for the slope of the exponential conductivity curve.  Hence, I can predict with time, the movement of the wetting front away from the dripper.   That’s been very useful to work out what volume of soil we’re wetting.  It tells us if we should have one or two drippers.  In this forest, we think we can get away with two drippers because if they irrigate for two hours, the radius of the wet front will be 20 cm, and the depth will be about 40 cm, which is a sufficient volume of water for the tree roots.”  Dr. Clothier says they also constructed a small dyke around the drippers so they could contain the water inside the drip zone in case of hydrophobicity or uneven sand.  

Groundwater

Wafa on site, using the twin head method.

Treated Effluent Resolves Salinity Issues

Historically, the UAE pumped their sewage effluent into the Arabian Gulf, but recently, there has been a shift toward seeing it as a valuable water resource, not only for the desert forest, but for irrigation of fruit crops and date palms.  Dr. Clothier says, “Once we started getting our results we realized we were irrigating with groundwater that had high salinity, about 10 dS/m, and that treated sewage effluent had only 0.5 dS/m.  This was an important discovery because with the high salinity groundwater, you have to over-irrigate to maintain a salt leaching fraction.  However, when we apply the treated sewage effluent, we immediately see a response in the trees because it has 1/20th of the salt load.”

Dr. Clothier says that there is one problem with the trees responding so well to the sewage effluent.  The treated sewage effluent makes the trees grow taller and faster, so if the ecosystem service you want from the desert forest is that they’re 4-6 meters high, it becomes an issue.  He adds,”This is actually a positive problem, because we can now induce deficit irrigation, thereby creating a larger resource of treated sewage effluent in order to irrigate far more forests.”

Groundwater

Researchers irrigated with water from these tanks which stored groundwater and treated sewage effluent.

What’s The Future?

Dr. Clothier says they started with a pilot study in the UAE in 2014, and it was so successful that they ended up with two fully-funded four-year projects, one on treated sewage effluent, and one investigating the irrigation of date palms. He says they have another 3 ½ years of work in the UAE on these projects, and in the end, their goal is to develop a model for forestry irrigation and soil salinity management, along with developing capability for the measurement and modeling of irrigation impacts on sustainable forestry.  They have recently developed a prototype of a computerized decision support tool for irrigation which will provide sustainable irrigation advice to optimize water use.  The support tool takes into account the need to maintain salt leaching, and actual irrigation records can be entered to enable real-time use.

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Can Wastewater Save The United Arab Emirates’ Groundwater?

The hyper-arid United Arab Emirates (UAE) has a rapidly dwindling supply of groundwater, and that water is becoming increasingly saline.

groundwater

Dubai is situated on the coast of the UAE.

With very little recharge and irrigation comprising 75% of groundwater use, natural water resources in this region are disappearing fast.  PhD candidate Wafa Al Yamani works for the Environmental Agency of Abu Dhabi, which has contracted with Plant and Food Research in New Zealand to investigate using treated sewage effluent and groundwater for irrigating the desert forests along their motorways.  

groundwater

Sidr trees in the UAE forest.

The Desert Forests

The UAE desalinates all the water for their cities, so the tertiary treated sewage effluent from these cities could be a viable resource, replacing some groundwater for irrigation of the desert forests. These forests perform a wide range of ecosystem services from sand stabilization along all UAE motorways to harboring a great deal of biodiversity.  There is also a cultural association with the forests.  The original ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, embarked on a program in the 1970s of “greening the desert,” so the people see the desert forests as a legacy of their founder.

groundwater

Infiltrometers were used to examine how the drip irrigation system worked.

Measuring Water Use:

Wafa and her PhD advisor, Dr. Brent Clothier, had a goal to minimize groundwater use and maximize value by quantifying the irrigation needs of the UAE’s five most important desert-forestry species.  They also wanted to determine the impact of treated sewage effluent on forest growth and health.  They used infiltrometers to examine how the drip irrigation system worked.  Dr. Clothier says, “These soils have hydraulic conductivities of between 2 and 5 meters an hour.  They are highly permeable desert sands.  We can find out how wide the bulb (the wetted area underneath an irrigation dripper) is and how deep the water will travel by using an infiltrometer to look at the hydraulic properties of the soil.”  Dr. Clothier has also developed software to predict water movement radially, with depth and with the time that the drippers are on.  He comments, “We’ve now got a setup of two drippers per tree, and we will use that in the future for modeling how the trees are taking up water from the root zone.”

groundwater

Researchers built dykes of 20 cm to stop surface redistribution of dripper water.

The scientists used a heat pulse method to measure tree water-use by comparing sap flow with evaporative demand (ETo).  They used Time Domain Reflectometry (TDR) to measure soil water content, and they have developed a “light stick” using light sensors to detect the shadow area of the trees to measure trees’ leaf area in order to predict the crop factor that will enable prediction of tree water-use from ETo.

Next week:  Find out how Wafa and her team use infiltrometers to predict dripper behavior and how the treated effluent resolves salinity issues.

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Accurate Field Saturated Hydraulic Conductivity—Why is it so difficult?

Inaccurate saturated hydraulic conductivity (Kfs) measurements are common due to errors in soil specific alpha estimation and inadequate 3D-flow buffering.  Leo Rivera, METER research scientist, explains why getting an accurate saturated hydraulic conductivity (Kfs) measurement is so difficult.

ASA

Water infiltrates the soil in three dimensions; it spreads laterally, as well as downward.

“Sorptivity, or the ability of soil to absorb water, has traditionally been a complex measurement for scientists to make.  This is because water infiltrates the soil in three dimensions; it spreads laterally, as well as downward.  The problem is, the value which represents sorptivity, Kfs, is a one-dimensional value.  Scientists use Kfs in modeling as the basis of their decision-making, but they have to remove the effects of the three-dimensional flow to get that value.  

“The traditional method for removing those effects is to look at a table of alphas or the soil macroscopic capillary length.  But since alpha is an estimate of the sorptivity effect, or how much the soil is going to pull the water laterally, if you use the wrong value, your estimate is going to be significantly off.

“The other problem with making this measurement is that most researchers have found the double ring infiltrometer does not buffer three-dimensional flow perfectly. Thus, if you are operating on the assumption that you’re getting one-dimensional flow in the center ring, you will overestimate your field saturated conductivity (Kfs) values.  This can be disastrous, particularly if you’re working with a soil that has been engineered to have a very low permeability.  If you overestimate Kfs, you could incorrectly assume your cover is ineffective (Ks is over 10-5 cm s-1).  But really, you’ve overestimated Kfs, and the cover may actually be compliant.”

Leo discusses solutions to these and other infiltrometer difficulties the webinar “Advances in Lysimeter Technology“. 

Watch the webinar

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Examining Plant Stress using Water Potential and Hydraulic Conductivity

Many scientists rely on water potential alone to measure plant water stress.  Leo Rivera, a METER soil scientist, shows how a two-pronged approach, using hydraulic conductivity as well as water potential, can make those measurements more powerful.  

Measuring hydraulic conductivity in nursery plants shows why plants are stressed.

Measuring hydraulic conductivity in nursery plants shows why plants are stressed.

Soil moisture release curves can give you incredible detail about water movement, allowing you to understand not only that plants are stressed, but WHY they are not getting the water they need.

Recently, we ran into a mystery where this method was useful.  Growers at a Georgia nursery noticed that plants growing in a particular soilless substrate were beginning to show signs of stress at about -10 kPa water potential, which is still really wet. They wanted to know why.

We decided to create the unsaturated hydraulic conductivity and soil moisture release curves  for the substrate (using the Wind Schindler technique [HYPROP lab instrument]) and found that it had a dual porosity curve: essentially, a curve with a “stair step” in it. The source of the “stair step” can be explained by considering the substrate, which was made up of bark mixed with some other fine organic materials. In the bark material there were a lot of large and small pores, but no medium-sized pores (this is called a “gap-graded” pore size distribution).  This gap in the pore size distribution reduced the unsaturated hydraulic conductivity and caused the stress. Even though there was available water in the soil, it couldn’t flow to the plant roots.

hydraulic conductivity

Nursery seedlings

That would have been pretty hard to understand without detailed hydraulic conductivity and soil moisture release curves—curves with more detail than most traditional techniques can provide.  Our measurements showed that unsaturated hydraulic conductivity can have a major effect on how available water is to plants.  Our theory about the soilless substrate was that as the roots were taking up water, they dried the soil around them pretty quickly. In a typical mineral soil, the continuous pore size distribution would allow water to flow along a water potential gradient from the surrounding area to the soil adjacent to the roots. In the bark, the roots dried the area around them in the same way, but the gap in pore size distribution created low hydraulic conductivity and prevented water from moving into the soil adjacent to the roots. This caused plants to start stressing even though the substrate was still quite wet. 

We were pretty excited about this discovery. It shows that water potential, though critical, may not always tell the whole story. Using technology to measure the full soil moisture release curve and the hydraulic conductivity in one continuous test, we discovered the real reason plants were wilting even when surrounded by water. In the past, it took three or four different instruments and several months to take these measurements.  We can now do it in a week. For more information about creating these kinds of curves, check out the app guide:  “Tools and Tips for Measuring the Full Soil Moisture Release Curve.”

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