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Teaching irrigators to pass the salt

Grapegrowers are increasing production and economic returns from commercial plantings by participating in a research project teaching irrigators to actively monitor and manage salinity on their properties.

The project, run by the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) and funded by the National Program for Sustainable Irrigation (NPSI) and Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation, has been raising awareness about good water and salt management, and developing tools and techniques to help irrigators with managing salinity.

Recent droughts across South Australia have seen decreased water allocation and increased salinity of surface and groundwater sources, resulting in quality problems such as high sodium or chloride in the juice of wine grapes, or in more extreme cases actual crop death. Dr Tapas Biswas, a principal researcher in the project, said all irrigation water contains dissolved mineral salts, so managing salinity and having high water-use efficiency is a consideration for all irrigators.

“Salt in irrigation water can have a profound impact on crop production, depending on the sources, concentration and composition. The problem is that saline soils cannot be reclaimed by chemical amendments, conditioners or fertilisers. Sometimes choosing salt-tolerant crops is an option, but sometimes it is not,” he said.

The SARDI research team advocates three methods of managing salinity in soils: moving the salts below the rootzone by applying more water than the plant needs (the leaching requirement method), combining leaching with artificial drainage(depending on soil moisture conditions), and moving salt away from the rootzone to soil locations where they are not harmful (the managed accumulation method).

Two hundred growers in Sunraysia, Riverland, Lower Lakes and south-eastern South Australia were trained to recognise rootzone salinity threats and actively manage irrigation to reduce those threats. The project has impacted well beyond these areas, with snowballing interest from other areas in the state and from national and international conferences and workshops.

The South Australian Murray Darling Basin Natural Resource Management Board has been quick on the uptake, implementing salinity management workshops for irrigators as part of a larger on-going training program for better irrigation management. District-wide economic and environmental benefits from reduced rootzone salinity will follow as more irrigators attend training.

One water salinity measurement tool developed by the SARDI team, the SoluSAMPLER, has been particularly successful as one of the tools available to measure salinity on properties.

The project has also developed an easy to use 'Salinity and Leaching Calculator’, which calculates whether leaching is required and if so, how much leaching water is needed.

Previously irrigators used only soil testing to identify salinity, and had little basis for using this data to adjust irrigation and leaching in properties.

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