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Understanding Water Quality

All water used for irrigation contains some dissolved salts. This brochure reviews the kinds and amounts of salts commonly found and their effect on both the soil and growing plants. It is written for managers faced with problems of questionable water quality and soil management practices associated with its use.

For more information on Understanding Water Quality contact us at one of our laboratories below:

AgSource Laboratories - Ellsworth, IA515-836-4444ellsworth@agsource.com
AgSource Laboratories - Marshfield, WI715-898-1402marshfield@agsource.com
AgSource Laboratories - Menomonie, WI715-235-1128menomonie@agsource.com
AgSource Laboratories - Umatilla, OR541-922-4894umatilla@agsource.com

When using irrigation water it is important to know the effect of water quality on salt content (salinity) of the soil.

  • The sodium status in the soil.
  • Rate of water penetration into the soil.
  • Presence of toxic elements.

It is important to remember it is difficult to isolate any one of these factors because they are all interrelated.

Interpreting a Laboratory Report
To aid in understanding a report it is important to define technical terms used in the interpretation:

Dissolved salts
are dissociated into electrically charged particles called ions. Positively charged are called cations and negatively charged ions are called anions. The concentration of each of these must be relatively equal. The common cations reported by laboratories are: Calcium (Ca), Magnesium (Mg), Sodium (Na) and Potassium (K). The anions usually reported are: Bicarbonate (HC03), Carbonate (C03), Chloride (Cl) and Sulfate (S04).

Elements found in smaller amounts are: Boron (B) and Nitrate-Nitrogen (NO3-N).

Two reporting units are used for expressing concentrations: parts per million (ppm) and milliequivalents per liter (meq/l).

Milli-equivalents per liter (me/l) is the most meaningful method of reporting the major constituents of water. This is a measure of the chemical equivalence of an ion. A milli-equivalent is one-thousandth of an equivalent or 0.084 grams per liter. To convert to milliequivalents per liter divide the ppm by the equivalent weight of an ion. For example, a laboratory reports 54 ppm of sulfate. The equivalent weight of sulfate is 48. Divide 54 by 48 and find the water has 1.12 me/l of sulfate.

Salts are made up of a combination of cations (sodium, calcium, magnesium, etc.) and anions (chlorides, sulfates, bicarbonates, etc.). Total salt content is usually reported as the electrical conductivity (EC). Chemically pure water does not conduct electricity but water with salts dissolved in it does. The more salt in the water, the better conductor it becomes. The ability of a water sample to conduct electricity is used to determine its salt content. EC is reported as millimhos per centimeter (mmhos/cm).

The total salt content or Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) is usually as ppm. This value is calculated from the EC value; (EC in mmhos/cm is multiplied by 640), this equals total dissolved solids in ppm. Example: EC of 1.6, (l.6 x 640) = 1024 ppm total dissolved solids. The me/l of total salts can also be estimated by multiplying the EC (mmhos/cm) by 10. Example: EC 2.62 mmhos/cm x 10 = 26.2 me/l of total salts.

The pH value expresses the acidity or alkalinity of water. A pH reading of less than 7.0 is acidic and above 7.0 is alkaline. Most well waters range from pH 7.0 to pH 8.5. Some stream waters may be as acidic as pH 6.5. The pH measurement is not important if the major ions are reported and is often omitted from laboratory reports.


Soil Properties and Water Quality
When irrigating with a water source, over a period of time the quality of irrigation water (along with irrigation management practices) will reach equilibrium in the soil. Eventually the soil will take on the characteristics of the water, the sandier the soil the more quickly this equilibrium is reached.

The Cations
To a great extent, the cations determine the physical as well as the chemical properties of soil. The four major cations include: Calcium (Ca), Magnesium (Mg), Sodium (Na) and Potassium (K).

Calcium (Ca) is found to some extent in all natural waters. A soil predominantly saturated with calcium is friable and easily worked, usually permits water to penetrate easily and does not puddle or run together when wet. For this reason calcium in the form of gypsum is often applied to soils to improve the physical properties. Generally, an irrigation water containing predominantly calcium is desirable.

Magnesium (Mg) is also usually found in measurable amounts. Magnesium behaves much like calcium in the soil.

Hardness is measured by calculation; it is the addition of the measured calcium and magnesium. High hardness is associated with white stains and plugging of sprinkler heads.

Sodium (Na) salts are all very soluble and as a result are found in all natural waters. A soil with a large amount of sodium associated with the clay fraction has poor physical properties for plant growth. When wet it runs together, becomes sticky and is nearly impervious to water. When it dries, hard clods form, making it difficult to till. Continued use of waters with a high proportion of sodium may bring about these severe changes in an otherwise good soil. Eventually these soils may become alkali, usually spots high in exchangeable sodium. High sodium conditions can be reversed by applying soluble calcium (usually gypsum) directly to the soil or injected into the irrigation water. Calcium replaces the sodium on the soil particles so that it may be leached below the root zone.

Potassium (K) is usually found in only small amounts in natural waters. It behaves much like sodium in the soil. Very rarely will potassium be high in natural water sources.


The anions indirectly have an effect on the physical properties of soil by altering the ratio of calcium and sodium attached to the clays. The important anions are bicarbonate, carbonate, chloride, and sulfate.

Bicarbonate (HCO3) is common in natural waters. It is not usually found in nature except in solution. Sodium and potassium bicarbonates can exist as solid salts: for example baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). Calcium and magnesium bicarbonates exist only in solution. As the moisture in the soil is reduced by evaporation, calcium bicarbonate decomposes, carbon dioxide (CO2) goes off as a gas and water (H20) is formed leaving insoluble lime (CaC03) behind:


Ca(HC03)2 -------------------------- CaC03 + C02 + H20
(A similar reaction takes place with magnesium bicarbonate.)

Large amounts of bicarbonate ions in irrigation water will precipitate calcium thereby removing it from the clay. Sodium can then take its place. In this way a calcium-dominant soil can become a sodium-dominant soil by the use of high bicarbonate irrigation water.

Carbonate (C03) is found in water only when the pH is greater than 8.5. Since calcium and magnesium carbonates are relatively insoluble, high carbonate waters mean that the cations associated with them are likely to be sodium with possibly a small amount of potassium. Upon drying in the soil, the carbonate ion will remove calcium and magnesium from the clay similar to bicarbonate and a sodic soil will develop.

Chloride (Cl) is found in all natural waters. In high concentrations it is toxic to some plants. All common chlorides are soluble and contribute to the total salt content (salinity) of soils. The chloride content must be determined to properly evaluate irrigation waters.


Sulfate (SO4) is abundant in most water sources and in most forms readily soluble. Sulfate has no characteristic action on the soil except to contribute to the total salt content and is an excellent source of sulfate fertilizer. As an excepted rule; as the EC value increase so does the sulfate value.

Nitrate (NO3) is not commonly found in large amounts in natural waters. Even small amounts can affect its use as irrigation water by supplying plants with more than the desired amount of this plant nutrient. High nitrates in water may indicate contamination from fertilizers or sewage. Nitrates, however, have no effect on the physical properties of soil except to contribute slightly to its salinity. In addition, high nitrate will stimulate algae growth in irrigation holding ponds.

Boron (B) occurs in water in one or another anion form. The usual range in natural waters is from 0.01 ppm to 10 ppm. Concentrations greater than this are known but are most often from hot springs or brines. Boron has no measurable effect on the physical properties of soil but can be toxic to sensitive plants at quantities of greater than 2.0 ppm. Boron is not as readily removed from the soil as chloride or nitrate but most of it can be removed by successive leaching.

Classifying Irrigation Water
Classification of irrigation water is difficult because of the interaction of the water with the soils drainage properties. A poor quality water source could be acceptable on well drained soils and cause a salt build up on marginal drained soils. Keep in mind that even low salt irrigation water can cause major problems on poor drained soils. The following ratings are an attempt to communicate to the user when a water source can be contributing to a salt problem.

A saline soil is a soil containing soluble salts in such quantities that they interfere with the growth of crops. A saline soil does not have high sodium.


A sodic soil contains enough sodium attached to the clay minerals to interfere with the structure of the soil (a well developed soil structure, usually has well developed drainage). If a sodic soil is relatively free of soluble salts it is called a non-saline sodic soil. If, in addition to being alkali, it has sufficient soluble salts to restrict plants it is called saline-sodic soil.

Salinity Hazard - One of the hazards of irrigation is the possible accumulation of soluble salts in the root zone. Some plants can tolerate more salts than others but all plants have a maximum tolerance. With reasonably good irrigation practices the salt content of the saturation extract of soil is 1.5 to 3 times salt content of the irrigation water. Where ample water is used to remove excess salt from the root zone the salt level in the saturation extract is about 1.5 times that of the irrigation water. Where water is used more sparingly, there may be 3 times as much salt.

An acre-foot of water (the amount of water covering one acre, one foot deep) weighs approximately 2,720,000 pounds; therefore, 1 ppm of a salt in an acre-foot of water weighs 2.72 pounds. This means that one acre-foot of water containing only 735 ppm (EC = 1.15 mmhos/l) carries one ton of salt! Many managers apply several feet of irrigation water per year to produce a crop or they apply more than 2 tons of salt/acre every year! This high lights the need for proper irrigation management.

With ordinary irrigation methods there is some leaching, hence the accumulation of salts in the soil water is reduced but not eliminated. Before a critical assessment of the salinity hazard of any irrigation water is made, it is necessary to know how much salt the crop can tolerate and how much leaching is needed to maintain the desired salt level in the soil water.


It has generally been assumed that the effects of saline water could be offset by increasing the amount of leaching; therefore, the average salt content of the root zone would not be increased.

Sodium or Permeability Hazard - In most cases permeability of water becomes a hazard before sodium affects plant growth. As the proportion of sodium attached to clay minerals increases, the soil tend to disperse or "run together" bringing about reduced rates of water penetration. The sodium adsorption ratio (SAR) indicates the relative activity of sodium ions as they react with clay. From the SAR the proportion of sodium on the clay fraction of the soil can be estimated when irrigation water has been used for along period of time with reasonable irrigation practice.

Most laboratories will report the SAR of irrigation waters. If not, it can be simply determined by using the following equation:


The sodium (Na), Calcium (Ca) and Magnesium (Mg) are expressed in milli-equivalents per liter (me/l).

A refinement of the SAR called the "Adjusted SAR" (SARa) has recently been developed. SARa includes the added effects of precipitation of calcium in soils as related to CO3 + HC03 concentrations.

If the SARa is less than 6.0 there should be no problems with either sodium or permeability. In the range of 6.0 to 9.0 there are increasing problems. If the SARa is greater than 9.0, severe problems can be expected.


The SARa can be reduced by:

Increasing the calcium content of the water by adding gypsum or some other soluble calcium salt.

Reducing the HCO3 in water by adding sulfuric acid, sulfur dioxide (SO2) or some other acidifying amendment.

Bicarbonate in irrigation water is particularly troublesome. The SARa is a good index of the sodium and permeability hazard if the water passes through the soil and reaches equilibrium with it. Unfortunately, in the field this is not always the case. Water with relatively high bicarbonate and low calcium and magnesium content would have a high SARa and hence an exceedingly slow permeability.

In many cases, plant growth will not permit water to remain on the crop long enough to allow for deep leaching. As evaporation and plant removal occurs, the soil water becomes more concentrated and excess bicarbonate will remove calcium and magnesium from the soil forming insoluble carbonates. Sodium thereby replaces the calcium and magnesium on the soil and further aggravates the permeability problem. Without adequate leaching the soil will not only become saline but will also become sodic.

On the opposite side, irrigation water with a very low salt content may also present a water penetration problem. This very low soluble salt water will pick up the calcium from the clay minerals and leach it away. The addition of some salt, such as gypsum, would be helpful. There is evidence that all irrigation waters should contain a minimum of 20 ppm of calcium (1.0 me/l) to prevent dispersion of the soil. The EC of the water should be over 0.5 mmhos/cm.


Toxic Constituents
There are several elements found in water, which can be toxic to plants; boron, chlorides, and sodium are the most common. Waters high in bicarbonates have been shown to induce iron deficiencies in some plants but this is minor when compared to its role in creating permeability problems.

Boron Hazard:
A small amount of boron is necessary for plant growth. It has been said that 0.02 ppm B or more in the irrigation water may be required to sustain an adequate supply of this plant nutrient. Except for waters diverted from some rivers, the major problem is an excess of boron. The following ranges provide a satisfactory guide to the boron hazard in the irrigation water.

Boron ConcentrationSusceptible crop injury
< 0.5 ppmSatisfactory for all crops
0.5 - 1.0 ppmSatisfactory for most crops; sensitive crops may show injury
1.0 - 2.0 ppmSatisfactory for semi-tolerant crops.
Sensitive crops are usually reduced in plant vigor.
> 2.0 ppmSuitable only for tolerant plants.
(Plants grown in soils high in lime may tolerate more boron than those grown in non-calcareous soils.)

Chloride Hazard:

Chlorides are found in all natural waters. The common chlorides are soluble and not fixed in the soil so that they can move through the soil and into the drainage water. Chlorides are necessary for plant growth, in relatively small amounts. At high concentrations, chlorides will inhibit plant growth and they are specifically toxic to some plants.


Table 1.
Most annual crops and short-lived perennials are moderately to highly tolerant to chlorides and managers can rely on the salinity hazard index for evaluating water use problems. Trees, vines, and woody ornamentals are sensitive to chlorides. For those plants the following index may serve as a guide:
Chlorides (me/l)Chlorides (ppm)General Notes
< 2.0< 70Generally safe for all plants.
2.1 - 4.071 - 140Sensitive plants usually show slight to moderate injury.
4.1 - 10.0140 - 350Moderately tolerant plants usually show slight to substantial injury.
> 10.0> 350Severe problems.

Sodium Toxicity:

As in the case of chlorides, turf grass growth is usually not affected by sodium, except as a contribution to total salt content. Water with SARa below 3 there is no problem: from SARa 3 to 9 problems increase and above 3 they are severe. With waters this high, severe permeability problems would also exist.

Water for Sprinkler Irrigation:
Most water suitable for surface irrigation may be safely used for overhead sprinkler irrigation. There are, however, some exceptions. Leaf burn caused by sodium and chloride absorption may occur when the rate of evaporation is high. Conditions of low humidity, high temperature and winds can increase the concentration of these ions in the water on the leaves between rotations of the sprinklers. Sometimes this can be corrected by increasing the rate of rotation. If this is impractical it may be necessary to irrigate only at night during periods of hot, dry weather. Usually no problem is found when the irrigation water contains 3 me/l or less of either sodium or chloride.


Bicarbonate ions in water can also be a problem with overhead sprinkler irrigation. A white deposit of calcium carbonate forms on the leaves and fruit. This can render some fruits and ornamentals unmarketable because they are unattractive. This coat of "whitewash" is not known to have any other adverse effect on plant growth. Levels below 1.5 me/l of HC03 should cause no problem. Increasing problems occur between 1.5 and 8.5 me/l and severe problems are found above 8.5 me/l. At this high level of HC03 most waters are unfit for irrigation for other reasons.

Summary - The following table summarizes the limits which were discussed in the text.

 ------- Degree of Problem -------
       EC (mmhos/cm)< 0.750.75 - 3.00> 3.00
 TDS (ppm)< 480480 - 1920> 1920
Caused by Sodium   
           SARa< 6.06.00 - 9.00> 9.00
Toxicity From root absorption   
 Sodium(SARa)< 3.003.00 - 9.00> 9.00
 Chloride(me/l)< 4.003.00 - 10.0> 10.0
  (PPM)< 140140 - 350> 350
  Boron (ppm)< 0.500.50 - 2.00> 2.00
 excess nutrient:   
 Nitrate-N (ppm)< 5.005.00 - 30.0> 30.0
 Bicarbonate (me/l)< 1.501.50 - 8.50> 8.50

L.K. Stromberg, Farm Advisor, Fresno County Cooperative Extension, University of California.

For more information on Understanding Water Quality contact us at one of our laboratories below:  

Laboratory Locations:

AgSource Laboratories - Ellsworth, IA515-836-4444ellsworth@agsource.com
AgSource Laboratories - Marshfield, WI715-898-1402marshfield@agsource.com
AgSource Laboratories - Menomonie, WI715-235-1128menomonie@agsource.com
AgSource Laboratories - Umatilla, OR541-922-4894umatilla@agsource.com