It is important that the water be analyzed frequently for salt content during the irrigation season

By Dr. S.M. Alam
Dec 13 - 19, 2004

Brackish water may be contaminated with acids, bases, salts or organic matter whereas saline water contains only dissolved salts. Wells that are brackish either all or part of the time also supply irrigation water. In other areas, farmers use water from lays, streams and rivers that flow into bodies of salt water and are subject to tidal fluctuations. The amount of foreign matter in these waters may vary considerably, so it is important that the water be analyzed frequently for salt content during the irrigation season. Storage reservoirs are often constructed to accumulate irrigation water.

How are salts accumulated and removed from the soils?

Salts may accumulate in soils of humid regions if brackish water is used for irrigation. In humid areas most irrigation water is applied by sprinkling. Owing to the limited quantity of water available for irrigation in many areas and the small amount of sprinkling equipment in use, the average single application consists of 1 to 11/2 inches. As the moisture content of the soil at the time of irrigation is low, this depth of irrigation water will not penetrate the soil beyond 6 to 9 inches. Hence, if such light applications are used, salts in the irrigation water are likely to be confined to the surface foot of soil. If no rain falls between irrigation, a second irrigation will double the salt content of the surface foot.

Rainfall must more than saturate the soil to cause any appreciable leaching of salt. The amount and intensity of rainfall will determine the movement of salt in the soil profile. Light showers have little effect. In areas of relatively high rainfall, winter rains will usually leach salts out of the root zone if drainage is good. Good drainage is essential for removal of salts. Without it, the danger of salt accumulation in the surface soil is increased.


The degree to which salt will adversely affect humid area soils is still subject to further research. If large quantities of salt should accumulate in the soil, however, they may be harmful to plant growth. As the salt is leached out of the soil by rainfall, small quantities of sodium (one of the major constituents of salt present in seawater) may remain behind in an adsorbed, or tightly held, form. Should the quantity of sodium in this form accumulate in the soil in any appreciable amount, a poor physical structure will result. Soils containing relatively large quantities of adsorbed sodium are much less permeable to air and water and tend to form a hard crust when dry. Under average conditions for irrigation in humid areas, it is doubtful that adsorbed sodium will be a problem.


High levels of salt accumulation in soils affect plant growth in two ways. First, as the salt concentration of the soil increases, water becomes less and less available to plants. Loss of water from the soil by evaporation and plant use following brackish water irrigation causes the salt concentration of the remaining water in the soil to become greater, and thus moisture is less available. For this reason, plants grown on salt-affected soils require irrigation more frequently than those grown on a soil low in salt content. Plants growing under conditions of relatively high salinity are usually stunted and tend to have a bluish-green colour. A reduction in growth may also occur at moderate levels of salinity in the soil, depending on the salt tolerance of the crop grown.

Second, plants may be affected by a direct toxicity of one or more of the constituents of the salt added by irrigation water. Toxic constituents frequently affect fruit trees, but their effect on most field and truck crops is negligible.


Crop growth generally decreases with increasing salinity in the soil. Some plants are more tolerant to salinity than others. Crop plants may be divided into three groups: good salt tolerance, moderate salt tolerant and poor salt tolerance. In the list that follows, the plants are ranked in order of decreasing salt tolerance in each crop group.


Field crops: Barley, beets, cotton.

Forage crops: Salt grass, bermuda grass, barley, hay.

Vegetable crops: Garden beets, kale, asparagus, spinach.


Field crops: Rye, wheat, oats, sorghum, corn.

Forage crops: Sweet clover, alfalfa, orchard grass, vetch.

Vegetable crops: Tomato, cabbage, potato, lettuce, sweet corn, pepper, squash, carrot, onion, peas, cucumber.

Fruit crops: Fig, grape, cantaloup.


Field crops: Field beans

Forage crops: White clover, ladino clover.

Vegetable crops: Radish, celery, green beans.

Fruit crops: Pear, apple, orange, grapefruit, plum, apricot, peach, lemon.


The amount of brackish water that can be used depends on the salt concentration of the water, the number of irrigation between leaching rains, the salt tolerance of the crop, and the salt content of the soil before irrigation. This guide is based on two assumptions: i) That there is no intervening rainfall of sufficient intensity to cause leaching and ii) that there is no salt accumulation.