Articles | Volume 16, issue 4
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 16, 1203–1219, 2012
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 16, 1203–1219, 2012

Research article 11 Apr 2012

Research article | 11 Apr 2012

Implications of deep drainage through saline clay for groundwater recharge and sustainable cropping in a semi-arid catchment, Australia

W. A. Timms1, R. R. Young2, and N. Huth3 W. A. Timms et al.
  • 1National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training, School of Mining Engineering, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW, Australia
  • 2Tamworth Agricultural Institute, NSW Department of Primary Industry, NSW, Australia
  • 3Ecosystem Sciences, Agricultural Production Systems Research Unit, CSIRO, Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia

Abstract. The magnitude and timing of deep drainage and salt leaching through clay soils is a critical issue for dryland agriculture in semi-arid regions (<500 mm yr−1 rainfall, potential evapotranspiration >2000 mm yr−1) such as parts of Australia's Murray-Darling Basin (MDB). In this rare study, hydrogeological measurements and estimations of the historic water balance of crops grown on overlying Grey Vertosols were combined to estimate the contribution of deep drainage below crop roots to recharge and salinization of shallow groundwater. Soil sampling at two sites on the alluvial flood plain of the Lower Namoi catchment revealed significant peaks in chloride concentrations at 0.8–1.2 m depth under perennial vegetation and at 2.0–2.5 m depth under continuous cropping indicating deep drainage and salt leaching since conversion to cropping. Total salt loads of 91–229 t ha−1 NaCl equivalent were measured for perennial vegetation and cropping, with salinity to ≥ 10 m depth that was not detected by shallow soil surveys. Groundwater salinity varied spatially from 910 to 2430 mS m−1 at 21 to 37 m depth (N = 5), whereas deeper groundwater was less saline (290 mS m−1) with use restricted to livestock and rural domestic supplies in this area. The Agricultural Production Systems Simulator (APSIM) software package predicted deep drainage of 3.3–9.5 mm yr−1 (0.7–2.1% rainfall) based on site records of grain yields, rainfall, salt leaching and soil properties. Predicted deep drainage was highly episodic, dependent on rainfall and antecedent soil water content, and over a 39 yr period was restricted mainly to the record wet winter of 1998. During the study period, groundwater levels were unresponsive to major rainfall events (70 and 190 mm total), and most piezometers at about 18 m depth remained dry. In this area, at this time, recharge appears to be negligible due to low rainfall and large potential evapotranspiration, transient hydrological conditions after changes in land use and a thick clay dominated vadose zone.

This is in contrast to regional groundwater modelling that assumes annual recharge of 0.5% of rainfall. Importantly, it was found that leaching from episodic deep drainage could not cause discharge of saline groundwater in the area, since the water table was several meters below the incised river bed.