Swistok says that growers should be giving their irrigation water a thorough test a minimum of once a year to prevent problems that may affect their equipment.
Photo: Laura Watilo Blake

Researchers at Penn State University are helping growers decipher what the data on their water tests mean by providing practical definitions of each parameter, which measurements should lead to concern, and how the parameters can be stabilized and/or removed. Bryan Swistok, Penn State Extension’s senior associate and water resources coordinator, explains the reasoning behind the research and shares the biggest irrigation issues  growers face. A factsheet is available at bit.ly/1QYXk1D.

GIE Media: What are the most common parameters in irrigation water that you see?

Bryan Swistok: Clearly, the most common issues we see are the high pH, high alkalinity and high hardness levels that can create a variety of problems not only for the irrigation equipment, but for the actual health of the plants. We have less common issues with things like metals; iron and manganese are probably the two most common that can also cause problems for plants. They can also clog up equipment.

GIE Media: What prompted you to create this factsheet?

BS: We get a lot of questions from people who get their water tested for irrigation. One of the first questions they have is, “What do these numbers mean?” It’s kind of like if you go to the doctor and get your blood tested, they hand you a bunch of numbers and they don’t mean anything until somebody interprets them. It’s really important that we give people some idea of whether these numbers are bad or good. It gives them some sort of background about what are the typical values that we see, where do we think problems might be and what can be done about some of these issues.

Growers should test pH, alkalinity and hardness often because they can change with the season.
Photo by GIE staff

GIE Media: How did you gather the information presented in the factsheet?

BS: There are a number of resources out there that we put in the reference section that come from other universities. Also information that was available from past publications here at Penn State.

One of the issues that you have is—unlike drinking water—it’s very easy to just look those up. When it comes to things like water for irrigation or livestock or for agricultural use, it gets into more of a grey area. You even get into differing opinions about research that’s been done because there hasn’t been nearly as much research as there has been with drinking water. So we really tried to look through a bunch of different references and get differing ideas, and that’s which it’s important to give references for people to be able to look up what others are saying.

We [also] did an irrigation water study last year across Pennsylvania, so we used some of that data in this factsheet to provide information about the frequency of problems, and what are the typical values that we see.

What we wanted to do was gather more information about irrigation water quality, because the lab has a certain number of samples that have been submitted to them, but we wanted to get more samples across a wider part of the state. We actually provided free test kits to people that attended one of the Penn State irrigation workshops that were done around the state, and we had folks send those in and we analyzed them for free and provided those results to the grower. And we were able to use that data in this factsheet in summary form to provide more education about what the problems are and where we are seeing them.

Growers, no matter where they’re located, can get their water tested by Penn State University’s Extension to see if there are any problems worth addressing.
Photo by GIE staff

GIE Media: What parameters are difficult to remove from irrigation water?

BS: Very rare organic contaminants, man-made materials that might need to be carbon filtered, or salt in the water [are] very difficult, [or] a high fluoride concentration. For example, I have a well near the road that gets a lot of salt applied to it, and I have salt in the well. It’s very difficult to remove that because it has to be done with reverse osmosis or distillation units that are very expensive to use. Carbon filtration [for parameters like] organics, are very expensive because you have to filter all the water.

Some of the easier ones are some of the most common where you can, for examples, acidify water that has a high pH or high alkalinity. Thankfully, those are some of the easier problems to deal with.

GIE Media: What is the biggest mistake you see growers make when it comes to their irrigation water?

BS: The one big mistake is that they don’t test the water at all. There’s often an assumption that you can put any water on there and it’s going to be fine. And unfortunately, sometimes they find out down the road after problems are already occurring, that they may have wanted to test the water up front.

GIE Media: How often should growers test their irrigation water?

Growers, no matter where they’re located, can get their water tested by Penn State University’s Extension to see if there are any problems worth addressing.
Photo by GIE staff

BS: For things like pH, alkalinity and hardness, there are simple meters and test strips [you can use on site]. It’s a good idea to have those on hand and be testing pretty frequently because they are such important parameters and they can change pretty consistently with weather and season. They may want to have some of those simple meters, [along with] a conductivity meter, [which are] very inexpensive things to have on hand to generally look at the water quality and make sure things aren’t changing drastically.

But a good, thorough, water test at an accredited lab should be done at least annually, and that doesn’t even deal with things like GAP [Good Agricultural Practices] testing for bacteria, which really needs to be done very routinely, especially if it’s a surface water supply. That would also have to be done at an accredited laboratory.

Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.