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Hydrologic modeling of reach scale fluxes from flood irrigated fields

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  • N. Claes
  • G. B. Paige, University of Wyoming
  • ,
  • B. L. Gordon, University of Wyoming, University of Nevada, Reno
  • ,
  • A. D. Parsekian, University of Wyoming
  • ,
  • S. N. Miller, University of Wyoming

Agricultural water is of considerable interest to water managers and policymakers as irrigation—particularly flood irrigation—accounts for the largest portion of freshwater use. However, characterization of how and when flood applied water contributes to storage and adjacent surface water bodies via return flow remains limited, particularly relative to the volume of studies addressing surface processes. This study focuses on improving our understanding of return flow paths and explicitly quantifying subsurface return flow contributions using hydro-geophysical observations coupled with a vadose zone transport flow model. Our approach, which simulates return flow in agricultural fields in a small, heavily instrumented field site in northern Wyoming, leverages daily measured values of evapotranspiration obtained from a large aperture scintillometer and atmospheric conditions, and uses seismic data to characterize heterogeneous structure of the soil profiles at field scale. We use these high-resolution, site specific datasets to parameterize a process-based vadose zone flow model that quantifies hydrologic response to flood irrigation along the stream reach, allowing us to identify return flow fluxes out of the fields. Using our approach, we found that the majority of applied irrigation water (60%) left the fields through subsurface flow paths, while only 13% was consumed by vegetation. Subsurface runoff over less-permeable soil layers, governed by the subsurface structural characteristics, was identified as the dominant subsurface flow process contributing to fluxes out of the fields. Importantly, our findings about the importance of subsurface return flow paths nuance previous research which has emphasized surface flow paths. By improving our understanding of return flow processes through a high- resolution vadose zone model that leverages climatological, geophysical, and hydrological observations, this study advances our understanding of return flow processes. Understanding how subsurface characteristics influence return flow generation in semi-arid agriculturally productive regions will help managers and policy makers balance desires for improved irrigation efficiency against concerns about irrigation-dependent ecosystem services.

Original languageEnglish
Article number126254
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021

    Research areas

  • Flood irrigation, Hydrogeophysics, Near-surface geophysics, Return flow, Subsurface flow model, Vadose zone processes

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