Fertilization and blending alternatives for irrigation with desalinated water

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Received for publication April 29, 2008. In arid-zone agriculture where available irrigation water is saline, desalination is becoming an attractive method for increasing yields and reducing negative environmental consequences. However, irrigation with desalinated water can be problematic if essential nutrients, including Ca, Mg, and S, removed during reverse osmosis, are not reintroduced. We evaluated two strategies for supplying these nutrients — direct fertilization and blending of desalinated with saline groundwater —experimentally in a greenhouse and in a model for a case study regarding pepper (Capsicum annuum L.) production. Reducing salinity from electrical conductivity (EC) 3.20 to EC 0.40 dS m–1 by reverse-osmosis desalination increased maximum yields by almost 50% while allowing a reduction of applied irrigation water to half of that with the saline water, but the associated cost of fertilizing with Ca, Mg, and S minerals was high (around $0.50 m–3). Blending 30% saline water with 70% desalinated water brought Ca, Mg, and S minerals to satisfactory levels while producing water with salinity of EC = 1.35 dS m–1. Comparison of relative pepper yields and analysis of simulated results showed that irrigation with blended water maintained yields greater than 90% compared to irrigation with fully desalinated water, but only as irrigation rates were increased by more than 50%. The environmental cost of the increase in irrigation-water salinity from EC 0.40 to EC 1.35 dS m–1 in the blended water was shown to be substantial as it involved five times greater loading (into the soil) and leaching (beyond the root zone) of salts and other contaminants.

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