Surface irrigation water and groundwater naturally contain a wide variety of salts, including sodium, potassium, magnesium, carbonates, chlorides, nitrates, and more. These salts originate from the weathering of nearby rocks carried away by water, fertilizers, and other organic chemicals added to the soil.
Plants take up most of these salts as nutrients, but salts can still accumulate in the soil over time. However, plant growth, crop yield, and soil structure are all significantly affected due to high soil salinity levels.
The Impact of Soil Salinity in Plant Growth
The roots of a plant absorb water through osmosis, which is a process that occurs spontaneously due to the differing salt level of water within the plant and the soil. Because of this, water molecules move to a region of higher salt concentration in an effort to equalize salinity.
Healthy levels of soil salinity mean that plants continuously absorb necessary nutrients from irrigation. When soil salinity becomes too high, water from within the roots may flow back into the soil. This results in dehydration or even death of the plant. No matter how much water you add to the soil, the roots will be unable to absorb it. New seeds may not be able to germinate—if they do, seedling growth may be stunted.
Salt tolerance differs across plant species, so crop yield losses may not be immediately apparent.
The Impact of Soil Salinity on Soil Structure
High soil salinity levels, especially sodium, can significantly affect soil structure. Soil is made up of sand, silt, and clay particles that clump together to form aggregates. When soil salinity levels are ideal, these aggregates create the ideal environment for plants to grow. The soil is aerated enough to encourage root penetration and growth, leading to high nutrient intake.
However, if these soil particles contain too much sodium, they become grainy and separated. If the soil aggregates aren’t solid enough, plant roots will not be able to find an anchor to grow correctly.
The Impact of Soil Salinity on the Environment
Soil salinity doesn’t just affect a plant and its nearby surroundings. The effects of soil salinity don’t end with crops and soil. Additionally, nearby vegetation and water sources can be affected. The salinization of fresh rivers can affect local biodiversity and the quality of drinking water in nearby rural and urban communities. When natural vegetation is damaged because of soil salinity, it leads to tremendous change in nearby landscapes and wildlife.
High salinity levels can lead to the following problems:
- Soil erosion – As the soil degrades due to high salinity levels, it is more vulnerable to erosion.
- Rising water table – If the soil cannot absorb water applied through irrigation, it will leak into the water table.
- Flood risk – Damaged soil can no longer absorb rainfall, leading to runoff and local flooding.
Correcting Soil Salinity
High levels of soil salinity can be detected through soil testing. Salt-affected soils can then be corrected through improved drainage, leaching thousands of gallons of low-salt water below the root zone, or chemical treatments.
Water naturally contains salts absorbed by most plants as nutrients. However, these salt deposits can accumulate on soil over time. This can lead to many adverse effects in the immediate environment. Chemical treatments and improved drainage can be used for desalination.
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