The Australian cotton industry and four decades of deep drainage research: a review

Silburn, D. M. and Foley, J. L. and Biggs, A. J. W. and Montgomery, Janelle and Gunawardena, T. A. (2013) The Australian cotton industry and four decades of deep drainage research: a review. Crop and Pasture Science, 64 (12). pp. 1049-1075. ISSN 1836-0947


The Australian cotton industry and governments have funded research into the deep-drainage component of the soil–water balance for several decades. Cotton is dominantly grown in the northern Murray–Darling and Fitzroy Basins, using furrow irrigation on cracking clays. Previously, it was held that furrow irrigation on cracking clays was inherently efficient and there was little deep drainage. This has been shown to be simplistic and generally incorrect. This paper reviews global and northern Australian deep-drainage studies in irrigation, generally at point- or paddock-scale, and the consequences of deep drainage.

For furrow-irrigated fields in Australia, key findings are as follows. (i) Deep drainage varies considerably depending on soil properties and irrigation management, and is not necessarily ‘very small’. Historically, values of 100–250 mm year–1 were typical, with 3–900 mm year–1 observed, until water shortage in the 2000s and continued research and extension focussed attention on water-use efficiency (WUE). (ii) More recently, values of 50–100 mm year–1 have been observed, with no deep drainage in drier years; these levels are lower than global values. (iii) Optimisation (flow rate, field length, cut-off time) of furrow irrigation can at least halve deep drainage. (iv) Cotton is grown on soils with a wide range in texture, sodicity and structure. (v) Deep drainage is moderately to strongly related to total rainfall plus irrigation, as it is globally. (vi) A leaching fraction, to avoid salt build-up in the soil profile, is only needed for irrigation where more saline water is used. Drainage from rainfall often provides an adequate leaching fraction. (vii) Near-saturated conditions occur for at least 2–6 m under irrigated fields, whereas profiles are dry under native vegetation in the same landscapes. (viii) Deep drainage leachate is typically saline and not a source of good quality groundwater recharge. Large losses of nitrate also occur in deep drainage.

The consequences of deep drainage for groundwater and salinity are different where underlying groundwater can be used for pumping (fresh water, high yield; e.g. Condamine alluvia) and where it cannot (saline water or low yield; e.g. Border Rivers alluvia). Continuing improvements in WUE are needed to ensure long-term sustainability of irrigated cropping industries. Globally there is great potential for increased production using existing water supplies, given deep drainage of 10–25% of water delivered to fields and WUE of <50%. Future research priorities are to further characterise water movement through the unsaturated zone and the consequences of deep drainage.

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Item Type: Article (Commonwealth Reporting Category C)
Refereed: Yes
Item Status: Live Archive
Additional Information: Published Version restricted in accordance with publisher copyright policy.
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Current - USQ Other
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Current - USQ Other
Date Deposited: 23 Mar 2014 06:22
Last Modified: 06 Mar 2018 04:31
Uncontrolled Keywords: cracking clay, deep percolation, Vertosol, water use efficiency, irrigation
Fields of Research (2008): 05 Environmental Sciences > 0503 Soil Sciences > 050399 Soil Sciences not elsewhere classified
05 Environmental Sciences > 0503 Soil Sciences > 050302 Land Capability and Soil Degradation
Fields of Research (2020): 41 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 4106 Soil sciences > 410699 Soil sciences not elsewhere classified
41 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 4106 Soil sciences > 410601 Land capability and soil productivity
Socio-Economic Objectives (2008): B Economic Development > 82 Plant Production and Plant Primary Products > 8203 Industrial Crops > 820301 Cotton
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