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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access May 4, 2022

Effect of brackish water irrigation on the movement of water and salt in salinized soil

Panpan Zhang and Jianglong Shen
From the journal Open Geosciences

Abstract

In China, fresh water resources are scarce, while brackish water resources are abundant. Reasonable utilization of brackish water is one of the important measures to alleviate the contradiction of water shortage. In order to study the effect of brackish water irrigation on water and salt transport in saline-alkali soils, one-dimensional brackish water infiltration experiments of soil columns were conducted. The influence of brackish water with different salinities on water and salt transport in salinized soil was compared and analyzed. The results showed that under brackish water irrigation, the Kostiakov model could better simulate the change in soil infiltration rate with time, the soil infiltration capacity had a positive response to the salinity of irrigation water. There was a good linear relationship between cumulative infiltration and the wetting front distance. Under different salinity conditions, the depth of soil desalination, Na+, and Cl removal is different, which are inversely proportional to the degree of salinity; with the increase in the salinity of irrigation water, the water salt content and the concentration of Na+ and Cl increased gradually, but the difference in the desalination zone was not obvious. Therefore, brackish water irrigation has a certain effect on the distribution of water and salt in saline soil.

1 Introduction

China is a country with a severe shortage of water resources, and the distribution of time and space is uneven. Demand for agricultural water use is difficult to be generally satisfied, especially in the arid and semi-arid areas of northwest China, where precipitation is scarce and the average annual precipitation is only 300 mm [1], which seriously restricts the sustainable development of agriculture. China is rich in brackish water resources and can exploit 13 billion m3 annually [2]. As an alternative resource, it can be rationally developed and utilized to increase irrigation water source, alleviate the pressure of insufficient freshwater resources, improve irrigation guarantee rate, and ensure crop yield, which has important practical significance.

The requirements for safe and sustainable development of brackish water irrigation are high. Appropriate salt tolerant crops, fine irrigation levels, and good soil characteristics are needed. Reasonable brackish water irrigation can ensure crop yield and improve product quality [3,4,5,6,7,8]. There was no significant difference in the yield of fresh water and brackish water (3–5 g/L) irrigated during the jointing stage of winter wheat in North China for four consecutive years, and compared with dry farming, the yield increased by an average of 31.6 %, and the water use efficiency could be improved [3]. On using brackish water to plant tomatoes in coastal saline-alkali land, it was found that brackish water irrigation with ECi ≤ 4.7 dS/m could produce tomatoes with good quality under the condition of ensuring the balance of yield and soil salinity [4]. However, long-term brackish water irrigation may still aggravate soil salinization, thereby affecting crop growth. The technologies of saline–fresh water rotation irrigation [3,4,9], plastic film mulching, and soil improvement are important means to improve the efficiency of brackish water irrigation. The harm of salt to crops and its effect on yield are less than that caused by water. It is suggested that the soil salt content and soil relative solution concentration under saline water irrigation should not exceed the salt tolerance limit of crops. Appropriate use of saline water irrigation can ensure agricultural production [10]. The mulching technology can reduce water evaporation, inhibit salt accumulation, and effectively regulate soil water and salt distribution [11,12]. Using biochar, gypsum, straw, earthworm casts, and other improved materials [13,14,15,16,17,18] combined with brackish water irrigation based on reference literature, the soil saline-alkali obstacle reduction, crop yield, and quality improvement were studied, and the improvement effect in the salinized soil was remarkable.

There are many models for rational use of brackish water at home and abroad. However, due to regional climate differences, different physicochemical properties of brackish water, different salt tolerance of crops, and uneven planting structure and economic development, the research results have their own characteristics. Although some mechanisms of brackish water utilization are revealed according to a certain water-salt migration model, there are many models for rational use of brackish water at home and abroad [19,20,21,22,23,24,25]. However, due to regional climate differences, different physicochemical properties of brackish water, different salt tolerances of crops, and uneven planting structure and economic development, the research results have their own characteristics. For example, in the eastern coastal areas of China, the vertical distribution of soil water content and salt content was significantly affected by different flow rates and opening rates of brackish water film furrow irrigation, which generally increased the water content of crop root layer and reduced the soil salinity in 0–40 cm soil layer [12]. Under the condition of brackish water irrigation in Ningxia, the effects of sand gradation and sand thickness on soil water and salt migration and dynamic distribution were studied. It was found that the effect of sand gradation on soil water and salt distribution was not as large as that of sand thickness, and the water holding capacity of sand layer increased with the increase in sand thickness [19]. Some scholars also studied the soil water and salt migration characteristics of water-repellent soil under different salinities of brackish water, and found that the cumulative infiltration amount after brackish water infiltration had a good linear relationship with the advancing distance of wetting front. The content of water and salt in the same section of water-repellent soil was lower than that of non-water-repellent soil, and a certain amount of water repellency was generated after brackish water infiltration [25]. However, the characteristics of the study area are obvious, and it is difficult to replicate and promote in a large area. The utilization mechanism has not been fully revealed, and the corresponding water and salt migration model has not been fully established. Especially in areas with serious shortage of fresh water resources, how to control the process of soil water and salt migration, prevent secondary soil salinization, and ensure the safe and sustainable development of brackish water irrigation needs further study. Therefore, this study analyzes the characteristics of soil water and salt migration under different salinities of brackish water irrigation conditions by indoor soil column one-dimensional infiltration test, and further reveals the law of water and salt migration in the study area, which provides a theoretical reference for the rational use of brackish water in saline areas where freshwater resources are lacking.

2 Methods

The test soil samples belonged to salinized soil and were taken from Manas County, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in 2020. The debris from the soil was removed, dried naturally, ground, and sieved for later use. The physical properties of the soil samples are shown in Table 1. According to the international classification standard, the soil texture is silty loam.

Table 1

Partial physical properties of soil in the study area

Physical properties Texture (%) Electrical conductivity of extract EC1:5 (µS/cm) Volume weight (g/cm3)
Clay particles Powder particles Sand particles
Value 12.01 66.98 21.01 1113.50 1.45

The one-dimensional soil column infiltration test is carried out indoors. The experimental device is shown in Figure 1. The infiltration test device is mainly composed of a Markov bottle water supply device, an infiltration soil column, and a fixed bracket group. The infiltration soil column is made of plexiglass (Ф 8 cm, height 60 cm), with holes perforated at the bottom. A Markov bottle is used to control the constant infiltration head (2 cm) and automatically supply water. In order to reduce the influence of evaporation during the infiltration process, the soil column is covered with a film, and small holes are evenly made in the film.

Figure 1 
               Experimental installation: (a) schematic diagram and (b) object.

Figure 1

Experimental installation: (a) schematic diagram and (b) object.

The salinized soil is packed into soil columns in layers according to the designed soil bulk density (1.45 g/cm3), each layer is 5 cm, and the soil height is 40 cm. In order to compare the influence of brackish water with different salinities on soil infiltration, the experiment set 3 different salinities (1.7, 3.4, and 5.1 g/L), and distilled water infiltration as a control. A total of four treatments, each with three soil columns, were installed. At the end of the test, a soil column with the same infiltration time was selected for sampling and analysis for each treatment. The brackish water is made up of NaCl particles and distilled water. When the infiltration depth reaches 30 cm, the test is stopped and samples are taken for analysis.

During the test, a stopwatch was used to record the time, the water level change in the Markov bottle, and observe the change process of the soil column wetting front. After the test, soil samples were taken at every 3 cm depth in the vertical direction, the drying method was used to determine the soil mass moisture content, the conductivity meter method was used to determine the conductivity of the soil extract EC1:5, and the atomic absorption spectrophotometer was used to determine the Na+ content. Titrimetric determination was used for the Cl content.

3 Results

3.1 The influence of irrigation water salinity on soil infiltration performance

3.1.1 The impact of brackish water irrigation with different salinities on soil cumulative infiltration

The cumulative infiltration of soil is one of the important indicators of soil infiltration performance. The difference of irrigation salinity has a certain influence on the accumulated infiltration of soil. In order to analyze and compare the influence of different irrigation salinity on the cumulative infiltration of soil, the soil cumulative infiltration duration curve during irrigation with 0, 1.7, 3.4, and 5.1 g/L salinity irrigation water is plotted on the same graph, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2 
                     Variations in cumulative infiltration vs time.

Figure 2

Variations in cumulative infiltration vs time.

It can be seen from Figure 2 that when the infiltration depth is constant (30 cm), the infiltration duration of 5.1 g/L salinity irrigation water is the shortest, followed by 3.4 g/L salinity, and 0 g/L salinity is the longest. It shows that the higher the degree of mineralization of irrigation water, the more conducive it is to the infiltration of water. At the same time, with the increase in the salinity of irrigation water, the cumulative infiltration of the soil becomes larger. This is because when the salt concentration is high, the ion concentration is relatively high, and the soil colloidal gel capacity is also strong, which promotes the improvement of soil water conductivity and strong infiltration capacity.

3.1.2 Index system

There are many soil water infiltration models, and the commonly used ones are Philip model, Green-Ampt model, Kostiakov two-parameter model, and Kostiakov three-parameter model. Yue and Fan [26] and Liu et al. [27] showed that the three prediction models (Philip model, Kostiakov two-parameter model, and Kostiakov three-parameter model) are all feasible, and the Kostiakov two-parameter model has higher prediction accuracy. Therefore, this study selects the Kostiakov two-parameter model to simulate the change in soil infiltration rate. The Kostiakov model is:

(1) i t = α t k ,

where i t is the time infiltration rate (mm/min). t is the infiltration duration (min). α and k are the infiltration parameters.

The change curve of soil infiltration rate under different irrigation water salinity is shown in Figure 3, and the related parameters of soil infiltration rate fitted by Kostiakov model are shown in Table 2.

Figure 3 
                     Variation curve of soil infiltration rate: (a) mineralization 0 g/L, (b) mineralization 1.7 g/L, (c) mineralization 3.4 g/L, and (d) mineralization 5.1 g/L.

Figure 3

Variation curve of soil infiltration rate: (a) mineralization 0 g/L, (b) mineralization 1.7 g/L, (c) mineralization 3.4 g/L, and (d) mineralization 5.1 g/L.

Table 2

Parameters fitted by Kostiakov equation

Salinity/(g/L) α k R 2
0 15.409 0.786 0.9014
1.7 15.255 0.781 0.8953
3.4 3.8966 0.527 0.8004
5.1 17.081 0.666 0.9004

It can be seen from Figure 3 that in the early stage of infiltration, the soil infiltration rate of each treatment was relatively large. With the extension of the infiltration duration, the soil infiltration rate gradually decreased and stabilized. With the increase in the salinity of irrigation water, the infiltration duration will gradually decrease, and at the same infiltration depth will also decrease. For example, the infiltration duration of 0 g/L salinity treatment is 655 h, and when the salinity increases to 5.1 g/L, the infiltration duration is reduced to 52.5 h. The greater the salinity of the irrigation water, the higher the infiltration rate that will eventually stabilize. It can be seen that brackish water is conducive to the infiltration of soil moisture.

It is easy to see from Table 2 that the simulation effect of Kostiakov model is better, and R 2 is above 0.8. Under the test conditions, the model infiltration parameter α value decreases with the increase in the salinity, but when the salinity exceeds 3.4 g/L, the α value will increase, and the model infiltration parameter k value and the infiltration parameter α have the same trend of change.

3.2 Relationship between wet front advance distance and cumulative infiltration under brackish water irrigation

For the same duration, there is a certain quantitative linear relationship between the wet front advancement distance (Z f) and the cumulative infiltration amount (I). The expression can be written as I = n * Z f, where n is the fitting parameter. This relationship was used to fit the cumulative infiltration and the advancing distance of the wet front under the condition of brackish water with different salinities. The results are shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4 
                  Fitting of cumulative infiltration amount and advancing distance of wetting front.

Figure 4

Fitting of cumulative infiltration amount and advancing distance of wetting front.

It can be seen from Figure 4 that the fitting R 2 of the cumulative infiltration volume and the advancing distance of the wet front is above 0.77, indicating that the two have a good linear relationship. The value of n decreases with the increase in the salinity of irrigation water. This may be because: the wetting depth of the control plan is 33 cm. The higher the salinity of irrigation water, the faster the infiltration rate and the shorter the infiltration duration. At the infiltration depth, the cumulative infiltration volume tends to decrease (Figure 4), indicating that brackish water is beneficial to the infiltration of soil moisture, but is not conducive to the storage of soil moisture.

3.3 The impact of brackish water irrigation on soil water and salt transport

3.3.1 Distribution of soil water and salt in profile

Under the condition of fresh water irrigation, the soil salinity moves to the lower layer with the water, which has the effect of leaching the salinity downward. When using brackish water with different salinities for irrigation, because the irrigation water itself has a certain amount of salt, the salt separators in the irrigation water and the salt in the soil may undergo a certain reorganization, and a certain physical and chemical reaction occurs, the salt leaching effect may be different for freshwater irrigation. After irrigating with brackish water of different salinities, the distribution of soil moisture and salt in different soil layers is shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5 
                     Distributions of soil water content and soil salt content in profiles: (a) soil moisture and (b) soil salt content.

Figure 5

Distributions of soil water content and soil salt content in profiles: (a) soil moisture and (b) soil salt content.

It can be seen from Figure 5a that after the infiltration of irrigation water with different salinities, the soil moisture content of each soil layer has little difference on the soil surface, and the values are relatively close. In the depth range of 0–3 cm, the soil moisture content decreases sharply. In the depth range greater than 3–21 cm, the soil moisture content changes little. In the depth range of 21–30 cm, the soil moisture content decreases again. In the same soil layer, the soil moisture content increases with the increase in the salinity of irrigation water, especially in the depth range of 3–27 cm, which is consistent with the change trend of the cumulative infiltration of the soil in the same duration.

It can be seen from Figure 5b that in the same soil layer, the 0–21 cm soil layer generally shows that the salt content of the soil layer increases with the increase in the salinity of the irrigation water. In the 21–30 cm soil layer, the soil salinity is still the highest after 5 g/L brackish water irrigation, while the regularity of other salinity levels is not obvious. In addition, after 3.4 and 5.1 g/L brackish water irrigation, the desalination depth is very close, about 15–16 cm, and after 0 and 1.7 g/L irrigation water (fresh water), the desalination depth is about 17–18 cm. In the desalination zone, the salt content between different treatments is much lower than the initial salt content, and the difference between treatments is small, and below the desalination depth, with the increase in salinity in general, the salt content of soil and irrigation water changes with water infiltration and migration, resulting in a gradual increase in soil salt content.

3.3.2 Distribution of Na+ and Cl in soil profile

The harm of salt damage to plants is mainly manifested in: (1) Osmotic stress, that is, too much soluble salt in the soil reduces the soil water potential, which makes it difficult for plants to absorb water. In severe cases, it even causes water infiltration in plant tissues, resulting in physiological drought. (2) The photosynthesis decreases, and the activities of PEP carboxylase and RuBP carboxylase decreases due to excessive salt. (3) Ion imbalance, that is, too much of a certain ion in the soil often eliminates the absorption of other ions by plants. For example, when wheat grows in an environment with excessive Na+, its body lacks K+, which hinders soil colloidal ion exchange, reduces soil water vapor permeability, and endangers crop growth. In addition, plants have low demand for Cl, and the content of Cl in the soil generally exceeds the amount required for plant growth. Therefore, it is of great significance to analyze the migration of Na+ and Cl. After irrigation of different salinities irrigation water, the distribution of Na+ and Cl in the soil profile is shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6 
                     Distributions of soil Na+ and Cl− content in the profiles: (a) Na+ and (b) Cl−.

Figure 6

Distributions of soil Na+ and Cl content in the profiles: (a) Na+ and (b) Cl.

Figure 6a shows that the Na+ content of the surface soil is very low due to the effect of leaching. As the depth of the soil layer increases, the Na+ content of the soil layer increases slightly, and there was basically no difference in the content of Na+ in the profile soil after irrigated with brackish water of different salinities, but when the depth of the soil layer reached 15 cm, with the increase in soil depth, the content of Na+ increases rapidly, and the content of Na+ in the soil profile is significantly different after irrigation with brackish water of different salinities. In the same soil layer, in general, the Na+ content increases as the salinity of irrigation water increases. After irrigating with brackish water of different salinities, there is a depth of “de-Na+” (15–16 cm), and the higher the salinity, the lower the depth, but the difference is not obvious. When the salinity is 0 g/L, the areas of desalination and salt accumulation are basically the same, and with the increase in salinity, the area of salt accumulation is larger than the area of de-salination area. This is because there is a certain amount of Na+ in brackish water of different salinities, and the initial value of irrigation water salinity and soil Na+ content affects the Na+ content of the soil profile after irrigation.

Figure 6b shows that the Cl content of the surface soil is very low due to the effect of leaching. As the depth of the soil layer increases, the Cl content of the soil layer increases slightly, with a smaller amplitude and different salinities. The Cl content of soil has a small difference, but compared with Na+, the difference is slightly larger. However, when the depth of the soil layer exceeds 24 cm, the Cl content increases rapidly as the depth of the soil layer increases, and the Cl content of the soil profile is significantly different after irrigation with brackish water of different salinities. In the same soil layer, in general, the Cl content increases with the increase in the salinity of irrigation water. After irrigating with brackish water with different salinities, there is a depth of “Cl removal” (22–23 cm), and the difference is not obvious. When the degree of salinity is 0 g/L, the areas of desalination and salt accumulation are basically the same. With the increase in salinity, the area of salt accumulation is larger than that of desalination, this is because there is a certain amount of Cl in brackish water with different salinities, and the initial value of irrigation water salinity and soil Cl content together affect the Cl content of the soil profile after irrigation.

Salt in soil moves with soil moisture. Different initial values of soil ion content and unique water distribution characteristics under experimental conditions will inevitably affect the distribution of different salt ions. The distribution characteristics of different salt ions in soil are mainly related to the concentration and charge number of ions: Na+ is easily adsorbed by soil colloids, while Cl is difficult to be adsorbed by negatively charged soil colloids [28], resulting in the difference of Na+ and Cl content in each layer of soil.

4 Discussion

Due to brackish water containing a large number of chemical elements, the influence of these elements on soil infiltration characteristics is relatively clear, but some mechanisms of action have not yet been revealed, such as what kind of trace elements are contained in brackish water and how these trace elements interact with the soil. The mechanism of action and other aspects have not yet been fully understood. At the same time, the chemical composition of brackish water varies from region to region. In order to facilitate research and the popularization and application of research results, salinity is usually used to comprehensively reflect the salt segregant content of brackish water. A large number of studies have shown that as the salinity of brackish water increases, the infiltration capacity gradually increases. When the salinity reaches 3–5 g/L, the infiltration capacity reaches the maximum, and then as the salinity increases, the infiltration capacity gradually weakens, so the soil infiltration capacity and brackish water salinity show a parabolic change process. The test results of Ma Donghao et al. showed that although the salinity of brackish water affects the infiltration capacity of soil, the overall performance is similar to that of freshwater infiltration, that is, the cumulative infiltration volume, wetting front, and infiltration time all have a power function relationship. The infiltration volume has a linear relationship with the wetting front, but the cumulative infiltration volume and the wetting front under the condition of brackish water infiltration are larger than those of fresh water [23]. Shi Xiaonan et al. calculated the soil hydraulic parameter values under different infiltration conditions with different salinities using the infiltration model, and the results showed that the increase in salinity effectively improved the diffusion rate and saturated hydraulic conductivity of the soil [24]. The increase in salinity is conducive to enhancing the flocculation of the soil, increasing the effective pores of the soil, thereby improving the water conductivity of the soil. Generally, it is believed that the Na ion concentration in the soil solution is too high, causing the soil aggregate structure to disperse and expand, resulting in connectivity, the pores become smaller and blocked, reducing the water conductivity of the soil. This research is consistent with the above research results. There are not many studies on Na+ and Cl content in desalting area, so this study has some innovative and instructive significance for fresh water shortage area.

Under the condition that the accuracy requirements are met, the linear model is simple and easy to implement compared with other prediction models such as nonlinear models. The use of linear models can greatly simplify the workload and is more conducive to carrying out or guiding agricultural production activities. Kostiakov two-parameter and three-parameter infiltration models have the advantage of simple form, simple calculation, and less constraint conditions, which have become a recognized and widely used empirical model at home and abroad. The physical relationship between Philip infiltration model and soil physical and chemical properties is clear and widely used. Therefore, it is simple and convenient to establish Kostiakov two-parameter infiltration model, three-parameter infiltration model, and Philip infiltration model parameter prediction model by using the basic physical and chemical parameters of soil easily obtained and multiple linear regression method [26,27]. The average error and relative error of the three models were compared. The accuracy of each parameter prediction model of the two-parameter infiltration model was higher than that of the three-parameter infiltration model and the Philip infiltration model, and the relative error of the cumulative infiltration amount at a given time was also smaller than that of the two infiltration models. Therefore, Kostiakov two-parameter infiltration model was recommended to predict the soil moisture infiltration process. Although the Kostiakov two-parameter infiltration model can be established by linear regression method to study soil water infiltration, the accuracy of the established linear model is low due to the nonlinear relationship between the parameters and the physical and chemical properties, which needs further study to improve the prediction accuracy. In addition, these infiltration models do not reflect the impact of land use and topography changes on infiltration, ignoring the impact of spatial variability. Future research should be strengthened. At the same time, we should further study how to extend the single point infiltration model to a larger area, and apply high-tech and means (such as RS, RIS, and data assimilation technology) to soil infiltration research.

This experiment mainly considered the water and salt migration law of saline-alkaline soil under the condition of brackish water irrigation with four different salinities. On the one hand, due to lack of experience, repeated soil pillars were not all sampled, which made it impossible to analyze the significance of differences. Moreover, the soil type is single, and other soil types need to be further compared and analyzed in the later stage. On the other hand, this experiment is a short-term continuous infiltration experiment. The transport of soil water and salt under long-term brackish water irrigation needs further study. In the later period, we will simulate 3–5 years of long-term brackish water irrigation and treat the soil water and study the law of salt migration. Finally, this experiment focuses on the mechanism. Based on the experimental results, in the actual planting process, according to the root distribution of the crop and the salt tolerance threshold, in order to increase the leaching depth, the salinity of the irrigation water can be controlled or the irrigation amount can be increased to ensure the normal growth and development of the crop.

5 Conclusion

  1. (1)

    Under the condition of brackish water irrigation, the Kostiakov model could better simulate the change in soil infiltration rate with time. When the infiltration depth was fixed (30 cm), the infiltration duration of 5.1 g/L salinity irrigation water was the shortest, 3.4 g/L salinity was the second, and 0 g/L salinity was the longest. The soil infiltration capacity had a positive response to the salinity of irrigation water, there was a good linear relationship between soil cumulative infiltration and wetting front advancing distance, but the fitting parameter “n” decreased with the increase in irrigation water salinity, which was not conducive to the storage of soil moisture.

  2. (2)

    Under the condition of brackish water irrigation, the depth of soil desalination was about 15–18 cm, the depth of removing Na+ was 15–16 cm, and the depth of removing Cl was 22–23 cm, all of which was inversely proportional to the level of salinity. As the salinity of irrigation water increased, the contents of soil moisture, salt, Na+, and Cl in each soil layer gradually increased in the salt accumulation area, but the difference was not obvious in the desalination area.


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  1. Funding information: This research was funded by Technology Innovation Center for Land Engineering and Human Settlements, Shaanxi Land Engineering Construction Group Co., Ltd, and Xi’an Jiaotong University (2021WHZ00891).

  2. Author contributions: Methodology and software: P.Z. and J.S.; formal analysis, resources and data curation, investigation, and writing – original draft preparation: P.Z.; writing – review and editing: J.S.; supervision and project administration: P.Z. and J.S. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

  3. Conflict of interest: Authors state no conflict of interest.

  4. Data availability statement: The data are obtained through experiments, if necessary, please contact the corresponding author for the data.

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Received: 2021-11-29
Revised: 2022-02-04
Accepted: 2022-03-07
Published Online: 2022-05-04

© 2022 Panpan Zhang and Jianglong Shen, published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.