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Cutting-Edge Tools Help Farmers Seek Out Salt

By Erin Peabody
September 2, 2004

Getting too much salt in your fields? A network of federal agencies is helping farmers in America's Southwest to answer that question.

Led partly by scientists with the Agricultural Research Service, the network provides resources to growers who wish to pinpoint salt-affected areas in their irrigated fields. High soil salinity can lead to stressed-out plants and reduced yields.

The collaborative agency effort--known as the Lower Colorado Region Salinity Assessment Network (LCRSAN)--hopes to identify areas plagued by too much salt and help alleviate the excess salinity. The effort is based on a partnership between the ARS George E. Brown Jr. Salinity Laboratory at Riverside, Calif., and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR).

Irrigation is a necessary lifeline for almost 1.25 million acres of agricultural lands in Arizona, southern Nevada and southern California. But as waters are channeled from the Colorado River and its tributaries and conveyed to needy fields, they inevitably pick up salts such as sodium, calcium and magnesium from the rocks of corridors and canyons along the way.

Through the network, USBR brings salt-detecting hardware and software developed by ARS to salinity action agencies that, in turn, assist their local farmers and growers.

Participating agencies include the Coachella Valley Resource Conservation District and the Imperial Irrigation District, both in California; the Yuma Agricultural Center in Yuma, Ariz.; and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, along with the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Parker, Ariz.

Scott Lesch, the network's technical program coordinator based at the ARS laboratory in Riverside, says that before LCRSAN, many growers were ill-equipped to diagnose complex salinity problems. Lesch and ARS soil scientist Dennis Corwin help train field personnel on using the new remote sensing soil-assessment equipment.

Corwin says an ideal use of the ARS field equipment and software is to test the feasibility of using recycled drainage waters for irrigation. This could help conserve the region's valuable freshwater sources.

To learn more about the salinity network, see the September issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific agency.