Untangling the effects of shallow groundwater and soil texture as drivers of subfield-scale yield variability


Water table depth (WTD), soil texture, and growing season weather conditions all play critical roles in determining agricultural yield; however, the interactions among these three variables have never been explored in a systematic way. Using a combination of field observations and biophysical modeling, we answer two questions: (1) under what conditions can a shallow water table provide a groundwater yield subsidy and/or penalty to corn production?; and (2) how do soil texture and growing season weather conditions influence the relationship between WTD and corn yield?. Subfield-scale yield patterns during a dry (2012) and wet (2013) growing season are used to identify sensitivity to weather. Areas of the field that are negatively impacted by wet growing seasons have the shallowest observed WTD (textless1 m), while areas with consistently strong yield have intermediate WTD (1–3 m). Parts of the field that perform consistently poorly are characterized by deep WTD (textgreater3 m) and coarse soil textures. Modeling results find that beneficial impacts of shallow groundwater are more common than negative impacts under the conditions studied, and that the optimum WTD is shallower in coarser soils. While groundwater yield subsidies have a higher frequency and magnitude in coarse-grained soils, the optimum WTD responds to growing season weather at a relatively constant rate across soil types. We conclude that soil texture defines a baseline upon which WTD and weather interact to determine overall yield. Our work has implications for water resource management, climate/land use change impacts on agricultural production, and precision agriculture.

Water Resources Research
Sam Zipper
HEAL PI; Assistant Scientist/Professor

I specialize in ecohydrology and hydrogeology of agricultural and urban landscapes.