Assessing water quality for Southern California agriculture typically revolves around the total salinity of the water, its total dissolved solids (TDS), and the toxic ions boron, sodium and chloride. Salts are necessary to plants, because it is in the form of diluted salts that all nutrients are taken up by plants- the macro and micronutrients plants extract from the soil. High salinity leads to water imbalance problems much as if the plant were not getting adequate water. A toxicity problem is different from a salinity problem, in that toxicity is a result of damage within the plant rather than a water shortage. Toxicity results when the plant takes up the toxic ions and accumulates the ions in the leaf. The leaf damage that occurs from both toxicity and salinity are similar in that it causes tissue death known commonly as "tip burn." The damage that occurs depends on the concentration of the ions in the soil water around the roots, the crop sensitivity and crop water use, and the length of time the crop experiences the ions. In many cases, yield reduction occurs. Because crops can not excrete salts the way humans do, salts gradually accumulate in a plant. As a result plants need a higher water quality than humans do.
Much study in many countries has gone into evaluating water for crop use. Some of these studies have been on the effects of salts on soil characteristics. Generally, as sodium concentration increases, a soil will lose its aggregation, eventually leading to poor water infiltration. Many more salinity and toxicity studies have been done on plants themselves. Not all crops are equally tolerant of salinity and toxicities, and in general most plants respond to salinity and toxicities in a similar fashion. If a plant is intolerant of salinity, it will be intolerant of chloride, sodium and boron. Most annual crops are less sensitive to salts than tree crops and woody perennials, although symptoms can appear on any crop if concentrations are high enough. The reason for greater sensitivity for perennial crops is that the tree is sitting in the ground absorbing salts for a longer period than the lettuce plant that is harvested 3 months after planting. Furthermore, deciduous trees like walnut shed their leaves each winter, so they can handle salinity better than evergreens like citrus and avocado.
To manage salinity and toxicities, water management is the key. Depending on water quality, an excess of water will be applied to the soil to leach the previously applied salts away from the root zone. The poorer the water quality, the more excess water is applied.
Selecting a less sensitive crop is also an alternative when dealing with poor water quality. Some barley varieties can handle salinity similar to ocean water. Barley nets a grower $400 an acre, avocados $9,000 and $25,000 if the market is right for strawberries. Avocados are salt sensitive, so are strawberries and lemons and cherimoyas and star fruit and blueberries and raspberries and mandarins and nursery crops. We grow these because with our climate, very few other places can grow them and they return enough money for a grower to stay in business in an area where land, water and labor are expensive. We really don't have much in "alternative crops" to grow here.
OK! Let's Strategize. There are four steps for everybody to consider, it doesn't matter if you have a backyard lawn and landscape or if you have 700 acres of avocados.
1. Maintenance: Irrigation System and Cultural Practices
2. Improve Irrigation Scheduling
3. Deficit Irrigation
4. Reduce Irrigated Area
a. Irrigation System.
- Fix leaks. Unfortunately, there are almost always leaks for all kinds of reasons. Pickers step on sprinklers, squirrels eat through polytube, branches drop on valves, coyote puppies like to chew….the system should be checked during every irrigation
- Drain the lines. At the beginning of each year every lateral line should be opened in order to drain the fine silt that builds up.
- Maintain or increase the uniformity of irrigation so that each tree or each area gets about the same amount of water. Common problems include different sized sprinklers on the same line or pressure differences in the lines. Where there are elevation changes, every line should have a pressure regulator, they come pre-set to 30 psi. Having all of your lines set up with pressure regulators is the only way you can get an even distribution of water to all of the trees, and it solves the problem of too much pressure at the bottom of the grove and not enough at the top.
- Clean the filters often. You don't have a filter because you think that the district water has already been filtered? Hah! What happens if there is a break in the line in the street and the line fills with dirt during the repairs? All of your sprinklers will soon be filled with dirt.
- Is water flow being reduced at the end of the lateral line? It could be because scaffold roots are growing old enough to pinch off the buried line. The only cure is to replace the line.
b. Cultural Management.
- Control the weeds because weeds can use a lot of water.
- Mulch? Mulching is good for increasing biological activity in the soil and reducing stress on the trees, but the mulch will not save a lot of water if you are irrigating often….the large evaporative surface in mulches causes a lot of water to evaporate if the mulch surface is kept wet through frequent irrigation. Mulches are more helpful in reducing water use if the trees are young and a lot of soil is exposed to direct sunlight.
2. Improve the Irrigation Scheduling.
- CIMIS will calculate the amount of water to apply in your grove based on last week's water evapotranspiration (ET). You can get to CIMIS by using several methods; for avocado growers the best method is to use the irrigation calculator on the www.avocado.org website. If you need further instruction on this, you can call our office and ask for the Avocado Irrigation Calculator Step by Step paper. You need to know the application rater of your mini-sprinklers and the distribution uniformity of your grove's irrigation system.
- CIMIS tells you how much water to apply, but you need tensiometers, soil probes or shovels to tell you when to water.
- “Smart Controllers” have been used successfully in landscape and we have used one very successfully in an avocado irrigation trial The one we used allowed us to enter the crop coefficient for avocado into the device, and daily ET information would come in via a cell phone connection. When the required ET (multiplied automatically by the crop coefficient) reached the critical level, the irrigation system would come on, and then shut down when the required amount had been applied. Increased precision can be obtained by fine tuning these devices with the irrigation system precipitation (application) rate.
3. Deficit Irrigation.
- Deficit irrigation is the practice of applying less water than the ET of the crop or plant materials. Deficit irrigation is useful for conserving water in woody landscape ornamentals and drought tolerant plants where crop yield is not an issue. Water conserved in these areas may be re-allocated to other areas on the farm or landscape.
- There hasn't been enough research on deficit irrigation of avocado for us to comment. We suspect, however, that deficit irrigation will simply lead to dropped fruit and reduced yield.
- Stumping the avocado tree could be considered a form of deficit irrigation. In this case, the tree should be stumped in the spring, painted with white water-based paint to reflect heat, and the sprinkler can be capped for at least 2 months. As the tree starts to re-grow, some water should be added back, probably about 10-20% of the normal water use of a mature tree.
- Regulated Deficit Irrigation for Citrus is an important method for saving water, and in some cases will reduce puff and crease of the peel. In one orange trial done by Dr. David Goldhammer in the San Joaquin Valley, an application of 25% of ETc from mid-May to Mid July saved about 25% of applied water for the year and reduced crease by 67%, without appreciably reducing yield.
- 3. Reduce Irrigated Area.
- Taking trees out of production. Trees that are chronically diseased and do not produce fruit (or the fruit is poor quality) should be taken out of production during this period. Also consider: trees in frosty areas, trees in wind-blown areas, trees near eucalyptus and other large trees that steal the water from the fruit trees.
- Changing crops. You may want to take out those Valencias during this period and replant to something that brings in more money, like seedless, easy-peeling mandarins. The young trees will be using a lot less water.
- Fallow Opportunities. You may decide to do some soil preparation, tillage or cultivation, or even soil solarization of non-irrigated areas.
We have found that this four step process is a logical way to achieve water cutbacks with least impact. It is possible to achieve a ten percent reduction in water by only improving irrigation system uniformity and scheduling procedures. Often, these two measures also result in better crop performance and reduced runoff. Reducing irrigated area or taking areas out of production should be a last resort and a well thought out decision. Plan for the future, hopefully water will be more available in future years.
The talk of drought and water restrictions in the State has created a time for serious decisions. What can be done with avocado citrus trees that have been invested with time and money when there are allocations of water? Although this article is addressed to subtropicals specifically, the guidelines are generally applicable to all fruit trees.
Irrigation systems and scheduling
One of the surest, although not necessarily the cheapest, ways of managing with a decreased amount of water is to improve its application and scheduling. Insure that equipment is working properly, that nozzles are not plugged or worn, that pressures in the irrigation blocks are uniform, that leaks are repaired, and that no runoff or deep percolation are occurring. Many Resource Conservation Districts have Mobile Labs that can help make a system evaluation.
In the Ventura area, oranges use about 30 inches of water per year, however , the monthly amount varies with weather. Applying water in the amounts and at times for optimum production can be improved by using tensiometers. A gauge reading near 40 centibars has been recommended for the one foot tensiometer. The three foot tensiometer can be used to determine the amount of moisture stored in the lower horizon and to determine whether the irrigation was effective, whether the irrigation water infiltrated down to that depth.
Whatever reading is used there is no substitute for observation of the trees themselves and the soil.. Use a soil sampler or shovel to verify the depth of water applied. If time clocks are being used, turn them off or at least adjust them frequently enough to accommodate changing weather patterns. Use of CIMIS weather data can aid in correcting schedules to changing weather.
If water applications need to be curtailed, there will be a decline in yield and fruit size. Applying something less than about 75% of tree requirement will give reduced yields not only for this year, but will lead to dieback and low yields for 3 -4 years after. Abandoning the trees altogether will also yield little or no crop and dieback, but the trees will often return to normal yields in 3 - 5 years. If little water is available, it may be best for commercial operators to reduce the number of trees irrigated to those that can receive 85% of their water requirement and abandon the rest, hoping for more water in future years.
Since it is the leaves that are the site of water loss , the best way to reduce water loss is to reduce the amount of leaves present. This is the ideal time to thin an orchard, get rid of those trees that are shading each other and reducing the per tree yield of fruit. This is a good time to topwork trees to better varieties, since the smaller trees will use less water. A good weed management program will reduce competition for water, and mulching the wetted area of the sprinkler will reduce evaporative loss from the soil surface. Once the leaf area is reduced, it is necessary to adjust the irrigations to reflect the decreased need for water.
This is an opportunity to identify the least productive trees in an orchard and cut of water to them. Trees with root rot or frost damage; trees growing on limy/iron chlorosis sites. Trees growing on ridges that receive the full force of the wind and have a lower yield per gallon of water should be considered first. Trees growing on the perimeter of an orchard also will transpire more water for a given amount of fruit. If all trees in the orchard look good, then these perimeter trees should be targets for saving water. If production records have been kept for different blocks of trees, it might be possible to identify low yielding areas that could be sacrificed.
This is an opportunity , as well. Many growers have kept poor producing parts of groves going because it is an emotional issue to cut up a tree. Seize the day and take advantage of the situation.
For more, check out the powerpoint
In a mandarin orchard today, I saw what appeared to be sun burn damage. The bark was missing on the top, south facing branches. It was old damage and was healing over along the edges. I mentioned it to the grower who told me it was roof rat damage. Several years prior when we had had a long dry winter, the rats had come out of the hills and were eating his fruit, as well as feeding on the cambium. I've seen this damage in trees near the edges of wild country, as well as along stream and river beds. At one orchard in Santa Paula, the feeding had actually spread Phytophthora in the canopy of lemon trees. For control measures go to:
- Author: Jodi Azulai, UC Statewide IPM Program
Imagine a pesticide sprayer smart enough to hit trees and turn off between them. What would that mean for your wallet? What would it mean for the rivers and streams near your orchard? View On Target, a video that shows how smart sprayer technology is helping farmers manage orchard pests with clever results:
- Substantially reduced pesticide use and cost
- Less pesticide movement to rivers and streams
- Full tree coverage
- Same efficacy as conventional sprayers
- Ease of use
- Valuable application data
Walt Bentley, retired UC IPM Advisor, narrates this video showing a smart sprayer in action.
Smart sprayer technology is based on the use of high frequency sound waves. An onboard computer directs sound waves toward trees. When sound waves are returned, a target is detected and the computer triggers nozzles to spray. When sound waves are not returned, a gap is identified, prompting the program to turn off nozzles.
Find the video on the UC IPM Mitigation Pesticide Hazards page at http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/mitigation/index.html. Scroll down to the second bullet under “Before application.” Remember this page the next time you plan a pesticide application. It will help you consider practices that minimize environmental and efficacy problems.