Plant, soil and water interactions

Alfalfa is currently a popular crop in the Walker Basin; alfalfa is also a high water use crop. Research is being conducted on alternatives to alfalfa that are both viable in this climate and profitable for local farmers. However, alternative crops for food production, such as teff, amaranth and pearl millet, as well as crops for biofuels production, will alter the ecosystem.

It is important to understand how new crop types may change soil properties over time. Alternative crops, for example, may change carbon and nitrogen cycling in the soils, which are important components of soil fertility. Therefore, scientists are interested in how changes in water use, water table depth and soil salinity would affect both soils and vegetation.

Irrigation of cropland can deposit large amounts of salts in the soil. Over time, these salts can accumulate in the soil and impact the agricultural crop production and native vegetation restoration. High salinity can be detrimental to plant health because it makes it difficult for plants to extract water from the soil.

As water rights are transferred and land is taken out of agricultural production, fields that were previously irrigated and farmed are often abandoned. These areas can become infested with weeds and eventually even degrade to a barren state that is susceptible to erosion. Wind erosion, and the associated increase in dust, can cause respiratory health problems, increase sediments in waterways and cause property damage. Researchers have determined that even small amounts of water can have a significant impact on the re-establishment of native plant species used for restoration of areas taken out of production. By restoring native vegetation and reducing invasive weed species, scientists hope to restore wildlife habitat, prevent topsoil erosion and maintain good water quality in the basin. Restoring native vegetation helps protect the land, air and waterways.