Table of Contents Next Page



Irrigated agriculture is dependent on an adequate water supply of usable quality. Water quality concerns have often been neglected because good quality water supplies have been plentigul and readily available. This situation is now changing in many areas. Intensive use of nearly all good quality supplies means that new irrigation projects and old projects seeking new or supplemental supplies must rely on lower quality and less desirable sources. To avoid problems when using these poor quality water supplies, there must be sound planning to ensure that the quality of water available is put to the best use.

The objective of this paper is to help the reader to a better understanding of the effect of water quality upon soil and crops and to assist in selecting suitable alternatives to cope with potential water quality related problems that might reduce production under prevailing conditions of use.

Conceptually, water quality refers to the characteristics of a water supply that will influence its suitability for a specific use, i.e. how well the quality meets the needs of the user. Quality is defined by certain physical, chemical and biological characteristics. Even a personal preference such as taste is a simple evaluation of acceptability. For example, if two drinking waters of equally good quality are available, people may express a preference for one supply rather than the other; the better tasting water becomes the preferred supply. In irrigation water evaluation, emphasis is placed on the chemical and physical characteristics of the water and only rarely are any other factors considered important.

Specific uses have different quality needs and one water supply is considered more acceptable (of better quality) if it produces better results or causes fewer problems than an alternative water supply. For example, good quality river water which can be used successfully for irrigation may, because of its sediment load, be unacceptable for municipal use without treatment to remove the sediment. Similarly, snowmelt water of excellent quality for municipal use may be too corrosive for industrial use without treatment to reduce its corrosion potential.

The ideal situation is to have several supplies from which to make a selection, but normally only one supply is available. In this case, the quality of the available supply must be evaluated to see how it fits the intended use. Most of the experience in using water of different qualities has been gained from observations and detailed study of problems that develop following use. The cause and effect relationship between a water constituent and the observed problem then results in an evaluation of quality of degree of acceptability. With sufficient reported experiences and measured responses, certain constituents emerge as indicators of quality-related problems. These characteristics are then organized into guidelines related to suitability for use. Each new set of guidelines builds upon the previous set to improve the predictive capability. Numerous such guidelines have become available covering many types of use.

There have been a number of different water quality guidelines related to irrigated agriculture. Each has been useful but none has been entirely satisfactory because of the wide variability in field conditions. Hopefully, each new set of guidelines has improved our predictive capability. The guidelines presented in this paper have relied heavily on previous ones but are modified to give more practical procedures for evaluating and managing water quality-related problems of irrigated agriculture. They are an updated version of those in the 1976 edition of this paper. Changes from the 1976 edition are discussed in the appropriate sections of the paper.


Water used for irrigation can vary greatly in quality depending upon type and quantity of dissolved salts. Salts are present in irrigation water in relatively small but significant amounts. They originate from dissolution or weathering of the rocks and soil, including dissolution of lime, gypsum and other slowly dissolved soil minerals. These salts are carried with the water to wherever it is used. In the case of irrigation, the salts are applied with the water and remain behind in the soil as water evaporates or is used by the crop.

The suitability of a water for irrigation is determined not only by the total amount of salt present but also by the kind of salt. Various soil and cropping problems develop as the total salt content increases, and special management practices may be required to maintain acceptable crop yields. Water quality or suitability for use is judged on the potential severity of problems that can be expected to develop during long-term use.

The problems that result vary both in kind and degree, and are modified by soil, climate and crop, as well as by the skill and knowledge of the water user. As a result, there is no set limit on water quality; rather, its suitability for use is determined by the conditions of use which affect the accumulation of the water constituents and which may restrict crop yield. The soil problems most commonly encountered and used as a basis to evaluate water quality are those related to salinity, water infiltration rate, toxicity and a group of other miscellaneous problems.



Salts in soil or water reduce water availability to the crop to such an extent that yield is affected.


Relatively high sodium or low calcium content of soil or water reduces the rate at which irrigation water enters soil to such an extent that sufficient water cannot be infiltrated to supply the crop adequately from one irrigation to the next.


Certain ions (sodium, chloride, or boron) from soil or water accumulate in a sensitive crop to concentrations high enough to cause crop damage and reduce yields.


Excessive nutrients reduce yield or quality; unsightly deposits on fruit or foliage reduce marketability; excessive corrosion of equipment increases maintenance and repairs.

1.2.1 Salinity

A salinity problem exists if salt accumulates in the crop root zone to a concentration that causes a loss in yield. In irrigated areas, these salts often originate from a saline, high water table or from salts in the applied water. Yield reductions occur when the salts accumulate in the root zone to such an extent that the crop is no longer able to extract sufficient water from the salty soil solution, resulting in a water stress for a significant period of time. If water uptake is appreciably reduced, the plant slows its rate of growth. The plant symptoms are similar in appearance to those of drought, such as wilting, or a darker, bluish-green colour and sometimes thicker, waxier leaves. Symptoms vary with the growth stage, being more noticeable if the salts affect the plant during the early stages of growth. In some cases, mild salt effects may go entirely unnoticed because of a uniform reduction in growth across an entire field.

Salts that contribute to a salinity problem are water soluble and readily transported by water. A portion of the salts that accumulate from prior irrigations can be moved (leached) below the rooting depth if more irrigation water infiltrates the soil than is used by the crop during the crop season. Leaching is the key to controlling a water quality-related salinity problem. Over a period of time, salt removal by leaching must equal or exceed the salt additions from the applied water to prevent salt building up to a damaging concentration. The amount of leaching required is dependent upon the irrigation water quality and the salinity tolerance of the crop grown.

Salt content of the root zone varies with depth. It varies from approximately that of the irrigation water near the soil surface to many times that of the applied water at the bottom of the rooting depth. Salt concentration increases with depth due to plants extracting water but leaving salts behind in a greatly reduced volume of soil water. Each subsequent irrigation pushes (leaches) the salts deeper into the root zone where they continue to accumulate until leached. The lower rooting depth salinity will depend upon the leaching that has occurred.

Following an irrigation, the most readily available water is in the upper root zone - a low salinity area. As the crop uses water, the upper root zone becomes depleted and the zone of most readily available water changes toward the deeper parts as the time interval between irrigations is extended. These lower depths are usually more salty. The crop does not respond to the extremes of low or high salinity in the rooting depth but integrates water availability and takes water from wherever it is most readily available. Irrigation timing is thus important in maintaining a high soil-water availability and reducing the problems caused when the crop must draw a significant portion of its water from the less available, higher salinity soil-water deeper in the root zone. For good crop production, equal importance must be given to maintaining a high soil-water availability and to leaching accumulated salts from the rooting depth before the salt concentration exceeds the tolerance of the plant.

For crops irrigated infrequently, as is normal when using surface methods and conventional irrigation management, crop yield is best correlated with the average root zone salinity, but for crops irrigated on a daily, or near daily basis (localized or drip irrigation) crop yields are better correlated with the water-uptake weighted root zone salinity (Rhoades 1982). The differences are not great but may become important in the higher range of salinity. In this paper, discussions are based on crop response to the average root zone salinity.

In irrigated agriculture, many salinity problems are associated with or strongly influenced by a shallow water table (within 2 metres of the surface). Salts accumulate in this water table and frequently become an important additional source of salt that moves upward into the crop root zone. Control of an existing shallow water table is thus essential to salinity control and to successful long-term irrigated agriculture. Higher salinity water requires appreciable extra water for leaching, which adds greatly to a potential water table (drainage) problem and makes long-term irrigated agriculture nearly impossible to achieve without adequate drainage. If drainage is adequate, salinity control becomes simply good management to ensure that the crop is adequately supplied with water at all times and that enough leaching water is applied to control salts within the tolerance of the crop.

1.2.2 Water Infiltration Rate

An infiltration problem related to water quality occurs when the normal infiltration rate for the applied water or rainfall is appreciably reduced and water remains on the soil surface too long or infiltrates too slowly to supply the crop with sufficient water to maintain acceptable yields. Although the infiltration rate of water into soil varies widely and can be greatly influenced by the quality of the irrigation water, soil factors such as structure, degree of compaction, organic matter content and chemical make-up can also greatly influence the intake rate.

The two most common water quality factors which influence the normal infiltration rate are the salinity of the water (total quantity of salts in the water) and its sodium content relative to the calcium and magnesium content. A high salinity water will increase infiltration. A low salinity water or a water with a high sodium to calcium ratio will decrease infiltration. Both factors may operate at the same time. Secondary problems may also develop if irrigations must be prolonged for an extended period of time to achieve adequate infiltration. These include crusting of seedbeds, excessive weeds, nutritional disorders and drowning of the crop, rotting of seeds and poor crop stands in low-lying wet spots. One serious side effect of an infiltration problem is the potential to develop disease and vector (mosquito) problems.

An infiltration problem related to water quality in most cases occurs in the surface few centimetres of soil and is linked to the structural stability of this surface soil and its low calcium content relative to that of sodium. When a soil is irrigated with a high sodium water, a high sodium surface soil develops which weakens soil structure. The surface soil aggregates then disperse to much smaller particles which clog soil pores. The problem may also be caused by an extremely low calcium content of the surface soil. In some cases, water low in salt can cause a similar problem but this is related to the corrosive nature of the low salt water and not to the sodium content of the water or soil. In the case of the low salt water, the water dissolves and leaches most of the soluble minerals, including calcium, from the surface soil.

1.2.3 Toxicity

Toxicity problems occur if certain constituents (ions) in the soil or water are taken up by the plant and accumulate to concentrations high enough to cause crop damage or reduced yields. The degree of damage depends on the uptake and the crop sensitivity. The permanent, perennial-type crops (tree crops) are the more sensitive. Damage often occurs at relatively low ion concentrations for sensitive crops. It is usually first evidenced by marginal leaf burn and interveinal chlorosis. If the accumulation is great enough, reduced yields result. The more tolerant annual crops are not sensitive at low concentrations but almost all crops will be damaged or killed if concentrations are sufficiently high.

The ions of primary concern are chloride, sodium and boron. Although toxicity problems may occur even when these ions are in low concentrations, toxicity often accompanies and complicates a salinity or water infiltration problem. Damage results when the potentially toxic ions are absorbed in significant amounts with the water taken up by the roots. The absorbed ions are transported to the leaves where they accumulate during transpiration. The ions accumulate to the greatest extent in the areas where the water loss is greatest, usually the leaf tips and leaf edges. Accumulation to toxic concentrations takes time and visual damage is often slow to be noticed. The degree of damage depends upon the duration of exposure, concentration by the toxic ion, crop sensitivity, and the volume of water transpired by the crop. In a hot climate or hot part of the year, accumulation is more rapid than if the same crop were grown in a cooler climate or cooler season when it might show little or no damage.

Toxicity can also occur from direct absorption of the toxic ions through leaves wet by overhead sprinklers. Sodium and chloride are the primary ions absorbed through leaves, and toxicity to one or both can be a problem with certain sensitive crops such as citrus. As concentrations increase in the applied water, damage develops more rapidly and becomes progressively more severe.

1.2.4 Miscellaneous

Several other problems related to irrigation water quality occur with sufficient frequency for them to be specifically noted. These include high nitrogen concentrations in the water which supplies nitrogen to the crop and may cause excessive vegetative growth, lodging, and delayed crop maturity; unsightly deposits on fruit or leaves due to overhead sprinkler irrigation with high bicarbonate water, water containing gypsum, or water high in iron; and various abnormalities often associated with an unusual pH of the water. A special problem faced by some farmers practising irrigation is deterioration of equipment due to water-induced corrosion or encrustation. This problem is most serious for wells and pumps, but in some areas, a poor quality water may also damage irrigation equipment and canals. In areas where there is a potential risk from diseases such as malaria, schistosomiasis and lymphatic filariasis, disease vector problems must be considered along with other water quality-related problems. Vector problems (mosquitoes) often originate as a secondary trouble related to a low water infiltration rate, to the use of wastewater for irrigation, or to poor drainage. Suspended organic as well as inorganic sediments cause problems in irrigation systems through clogging of gates, sprinkler heads and drippers. They can cause damage to pumps if screens are not used to exclude them. More commonly, sediments tend to fill canals and ditches and cause costly dredging and maintenance problems. Sediment also tends to reduce further the water infiltration rate of an already slowly permeable soil.


The prediction that a water quality-related problem will occur requires evaluation of the potential of the water to create soil conditions that may restrict its use or that may require the use of special management techniques to maintain acceptable yields. There are a number of procedures available for this evaluation but regardless of which one is used, emphasis should focus on relating the potential problem to the field situation since solutions to water quality problems usually must be implemented at the farm level rather than at the project level. The evaluation must therefore be done in terms of specific local conditions of use and the farm management capability of the water user.

This approach is the same as in the 1976 edition of this paper and similar guidelines are proposed for evaluating the potential of an irrigation water to create soil or crop problems. The guidelines are followed by suggestions on management alternatives to overcome these potential problems. This approach is often referred to as a problem-solving approach and emphasizes long-term effects on irrigated agriculture rather than short-term, because of the large investments now needed in irrigated agriculture.

The four problem categories previously discussed - salinity, infiltration, toxicity and miscellaneous - are used for evaluation. Water quality problems, however, are often complex and a combination of problems may affect crop production more severely than a single problem in isolation. The more complex the problem, the more difficult it is to formulate an economical management programme for solution.

If problems do occur in combination, they are more easily understood and solved if each factor is considered individually. Therefore, the guidelines and discussion which follow treat each problem and its solution separately, so that a number of factors are evaluated for each of the problem areas, such as:


Guidelines for evaluation of water quality for irrigation are given in Table 1. They emphasize the long-term influence of water quality on crop production, soil conditions and farm management, and are presented in the same format as in the 1976 edition but are updated to include recent research results. This format is similar to that of the 1974 University of California Committee of Consultant's Water Quality Guidelines which were prepared in cooperation with staff of the United States Salinity Laboratory.

The guidelines are practical and have been used successfully in general irrigated agriculture for evaluation of the common constituents in surface water, groundwater, drainage water, sewage effluent and wastewater. They are based on certain assumptions which are given immediately following the table. These assumptions must be clearly understood but should not become rigid prerequisites. A modified set of alternative guidelines can be prepared if actual conditions of use differ greatly from those assumed.

Ordinarily, no soil or cropping problems are experienced or recognized when using water with values less than those shown for ‘no restriction on use’. With restrictions in the slight to moderate range, gradually increasing care in selection of crop and management alternatives is required if full yield potential is to be achieved. On the other hand, if water is used which equals or exceeds the values shown for severe restrictions, the water user should experience soil and cropping problems or reduced yields, but even with cropping management designed especially to cope with poor quality water, a high level of management skill is essential for acceptable production. If water quality values are found which approach or exceed those given for the severe restriction category, it is recommended that before initiating the use of the water in a large project, a series of pilot farming studies be conducted to determine the economics of the farming and cropping techniques that need to be implemented.

Table 1 is a management tool. As with many such interpretative tools in agriculture, it is developed to help users such as water agencies, project planners, agriculturalists, scientists and trained field people to understand better the effect of water quality on soil conditions and crop production. With this understanding, the user should be able to adjust management to utilize poor quality water better. However, the user of Table 1 must guard against drawing unwarranted conclusions based only on the laboratory results and the guideline interpretations as these must be related to field conditions and must be checked, confirmed and tested by field trials or experience.

The guidelines are a first step in pointing out the quality limitations of a water supply, but this alone is not enough; methods to overcome or adapt to them are also needed. Therefore, in subsequent sections, management alternatives are presented and several examples are given to illustrate how the guidelines can be used.

The guidelines do not evaluate the effect of unusual or special water constituents sometimes found in wastewater, such as pesticides and organics. However, suggested limits of trace element concentrations for normal irrigation water are given in section 5.5. As irrigation water supplies frequently serve as a drinking water source for live-stock, salinity and trace element drinking water limitations for livestock are presented in section 6.

It is beyond the scope of this publication to go into drinking water standards, but this aspect should, nevertheless, be considered during the planning of an irrigation scheme. This is important, because irrigation supplies are also commonly used, either intentionally or unintentionally, as human drinking water. The World Health Organization (WHO) or a local health agency should be consulted for more specific information.

Laboratory determinations and calculations needed to use the guidelines are given in Table 2 and Figure 1, along with the symbols used. Analytical procedures for the laboratory determinations are given in several publications: USDA Handbook 60 (Richards 1954), Rhoades and Clark 1978, FAO Soils Bulletin 10 (Dewis and Freitas 1970), and Standard Methods for Examination of Waters and Wastewaters (APHA 1980). The method most appropriate for the available equipment, budget and number of samples should be used. Analytical accuracy within ±5 percent is considered adequate.

Potential Irrigation ProblemUnitsDegree of Restriction on Use
NoneSlight to ModerateSevere
Salinity(affects crop water availability)2    
 ECwdS/m< 0.70.7 – 3.0> 3.0
 TDSmg/l< 450450 – 2000> 2000
Infiltration(affects infiltration rate of water into the soil. Evaluate using ECw and SAR together)3    
SAR  = 0 – 3and ECw= > 0.70.7 – 0.2< 0.2
 = 3 – 6 = > 1.21.2 – 0.3< 0.3
 = 6 – 12 = > 1.91.9 – 0.5< 0.5
 = 12 – 20 = > 2.92.9 – 1.3< 1.3
 = 20 – 40 = > 5.05.0 – 2.9< 2.9
Specific Ion Toxicity (affects sensitive crops)    
 Sodium (Na)4    
 surface irrigationSAR< 33 – 9> 9
 sprinkler irrigationme/l< 3> 3 
 Chloride (Cl)4    
 surface irrigationme/l< 44 – 10> 10
 sprinkler irrigationme/l< 3> 3 
 Boron (B)5mg/l< 0.70.7 – 3.0> 3.0
 Trace Elements (see Table 21)    
Miscellaneous Effects (affects susceptible crops)    
 Nitrogen (NO3 - N)6mg/l< 55 – 30> 30
 Bicarbonate (HCO3)    
 (overhead sprinkling only)me/l< 1.51.5 – 8.5> 8.5
 pH Normal Range 6.5 – 8.4

1 Adapted from University of California Committee of Consultants 1974.

2 ECw means electrical conductivity, a measure of the water salinity, reported in deciSiemens per metre at 25°C (dS/m) or in units millimhos per centimetre (mmho/cm). Both are equiva-lent. TDS means total dissolved solids, reported in milligrams per litre (mg/l).

3 SAR means sodium adsorption ratio. SAR is sometimes reported by the symbol RNa. See Figure1 for the SAR calculation procedure. At a given SAR, infiltration rate increases as watersalinity increases. Evaluate the potential infiltration problem by SAR as modified by ECw.Adapted from Rhoades 1977, and Oster and Schroer 1979.

4 For surface irrigation, most tree crops and woody plants are sensitive to sodium and chlor-ide; use the values shown. Most annual crops are not sensitive; use the salinity tolerance tables (Tables 4 and 5). For chloride tolerance of selected fruit crops, see Table 14. With overhead sprinkler irrigation and low humidity (< 30 percent), sodium and chloride may be absorbed through the leaves of sensitive crops. For crop sensitivity to absorption, see Tables 18, 19 and 20.

5 For boron tolerances, see Tables 16 and 17.

6 NO3 -N means nitrate nitrogen reported in terms of elemental nitrogen (NH4 -N and Organic-N should be included when wastewater is being tested).

Assumptions in the Guidelines
The water quality guidelines in Table 1 are intended to cover the wide range of conditions encountered in irrigated agriculture. Several basic assumptions have been used to define their range of usability. If the water is used under greatly different conditions, the guidelines may need to be adjusted. Wide deviations from the assumptions might result in wrong judgements on the usability of a particular water supply, especially if it is a borderline case. Where sufficient experience, field trials, research or observations are available, the guidelines may be modified to fit local conditions more closely.
The basic assumptions in the guidelines are:
Yield Potential: Full production capability of all crops, without the use of special practices, is assumed when the guidelines indicate no restrictions on use. A “restriction on use” indicates that there may be a limitation in choice of crop, or special management may be needed to maintain full production capability. A “restriction on use” does not indicate that the water is unsuitable for use.
Site Conditions: Soil texture ranges from sandy-loam to clay-loam with good internal drainage. The climate is semi-arid to arid and rainfall is low. Rainfall does not play a significant role in meeting crop water demand or leaching requirement. (In a monsoon climate or areas where precipitation is high for part or all of the year, the guideline restrictions are too severe. Under the higher rainfall situations, infiltrated water from rainfall is effective in meeting all or part of the leaching requirement.) Drainage is assumed to be good, with no uncontrolled shallow water table present within 2 metres of the surface.
Methods and Timing of Irrigations: Normal surface or sprinkler irrigation methods are used. Water is applied infrequently, as needed, and the crop utilizes a considerable portion of the available stored soil-water (50 percent or more) before the next irrigation. At least 15 percent of the applied water percolates below the root zone (leaching fraction [LF]≥15 percent). The guidelines are too restrictive for specialized irrigation methods, such as localized drip irrigation, which results in near daily or frequent irrigations, but are applicable for subsurface irrigation if surface applied leaching satisfies the leaching requirements.
Water Uptake by Crops: Different crops have different water uptake patterns, but all take water from wherever it is most readily available within the rooting depth. On average about 40 percent is assumed to be taken from the upper quarter of the rooting depth, 30 percent from the second quarter, 20 percent from the third quarter, and 10 percent from the lowest quarter. Each irrigation leaches the upper root zone and maintains it at a relatively low salinity. Salinity increases with depth and is greatest in the lower part of the root zone. The average salinity of the soil-water is three times that of the applied water and is representative of the average root zone salinity to which the crop responds. These conditions result from a leaching fraction of 15–20 percent and irrigations that are timed to keep the crop adequately watered at all times.
Salts leached from the upper root zone accumulate to some extent in the lower part but a salt balance is achieved as salts are moved below the root zone by sufficient leaching. The higher salinity in the lower root zone becomes less important if adequate moisture is maintained in the upper, “more active” part of the root zone and long-term leaching is accomplished.
Restriction on Use: The “Restriction on Use” shown in Table 1 is divided into three degree of severity: none, slight to moderate, and severe. The divisions are somewhat arbitrary since change occurs gradually and there is no clearcut breaking point. A change of 10 to 20 percent above or below a guideline value has little significance if considered in proper perspective with other factors affecting yield. Field studies, research trials and observations have led to these divisions, but management skill of the water user can alter them. Values shown are applicable under normal field conditions prevailing in most irrigated areas in the arid and semi-arid regions of the world.

Water parameterSymbolUnit1Usual range in irrigation water
Salt Content    
Electrical ConductivityECwdS/m0 – 3dS/m
Total Dissolved SolidsTDSmg/l0 – 2000mg/l
Cations and Anions    
CalciumCa++me/l0 – 20me/l
MagnesiumMg++me/l0 – 5me/l
SodiumNa+me/l0 – 40me/l
CarbonateCO--3me/l0 – .1me/l
BicarbonateHCO3-me/l0 – 10me/l
ChlorideCl-me/l0 – 30me/l
SulphateSO4--me/l0 – 20me/l
Nitrate-NitrogenNO3-Nmg/l0 – 10mg/l
Ammonium-NitrogenNH4-Nmg/l0 – 5mg/l
Phosphate-PhosphorusPO4-Pmg/l0 – 2mg/l
PotassiumK+mg/l0 – 2mg/l
BoronBmg/l0 – 2mg/l
Acid/BasicitypH1–146.0 – 8.5 
Sodium Adsorption Ratio3SAR(me/l)1, 20 – 15 

1 dS/m = deciSiemen/metre in S.I. units (equivalent to 1 mmho/cm = 1 millimmho/centi-metre)

mg/l = milligram per litre parts per million (ppm).

me/l = milliequivalent per litre (mg/l ÷ equivalent weight = me/l); in SI units, 1 me/l= 1 millimol/litre adjusted for electron charge.

2 NO3 -N means the laboratory will analyse for NO3 but will report the NO3 in terms of chemically equivalent nitrogen. Similarly, for NH4-N, the laboratory will analyse for NH4 but report in terms of chemically equivalent elemental nitrogen. The total nitrogen available to the plant will be the sum of the equivalent elemental nitrogen.The same reporting method is used for phosphorus.

3 SAR is calculated from the Na, Ca and Mg reported in me/l (see Figure 1).

The Sodium Adsorption Ratio (SAR) can also be calculated using the following equation:

Fig. 1

Fig. 1 Nomogram for determining the SAR value of irrigation water and for estimating the corresponding ESP value of a soil that is at equilibrium with the water (Richards 1954)

Top of Page Next Page