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"Salts" in Irrigation Water

“Salts” are soluble cations (negatively charged ions) and anions (positively charged ions).  Here we will concern ourselves with salts that are present in irrigation water, either from natural sources or added. 

  • Note that “salts” in the context of irrigation water are not just sodium or sodium chloride, table salt.  They include all of the soluble cations and anions.  
  • If irrigation water is high in salts, they will build up in the soil through repeated irrigations.  The only way to remove them is by periodically irrigating enough to move the dissolved salts downward through the soil profile below the root zone.  This is called “leaching”.  Some amount of salts will also be removed with the crop.
Effects of Salt in Soils
  • With the exception of sodium, carbonates and bicarbonates, all cations and anions in the table below are necessary for plant growth.
  • Yields may increase with increasing EC, up to a point.
Problems with salts in irrigation water
  • High soluble salts damage plants by osmotic effect.  Water will move from an area of lower salt concentration (the root) to an area of higher salt concentration (the soil).  This causes water stress even though there is plenty of water in the soil.
  • Soluble salts can burn leaves when applied to foliage.
  • Salt deposits can cause leaf and fruit discoloration, reducing crop quality and market value.
  • If irrigation water supplies nitrogen in excess of the crop need, yield and quality may be reduced.
  • High SAR (sodium adsorption ratio) may clog the soil pore structure and limit infiltration.
  • Salts can accumulate in the soil, changing the nutrient balance of the soil.
  • Tolerance of vegetables, fruits and herbaceous plants to salinity may be found at this FAO link.
Cations and Anions, “salts”, commonly found in irrigation water
  • Cations (positively charges ions) and anions (negatively charged ions) are referred to as “salts” when dissolved in water.  In a water test, cation and anion concentrations in may be reported with units of ppm, mg/L or meq/L.  1 mg/L = 1 ppm.  The conversion to and from meq/L is given below.
    MagnesiumMg2+12.2SulfateSO42-48 4
    NitrateNO3-62 3
    BoronB10.8 2
    1. To convert from meq/L to mg/L or ppm, multiply by the conversion factor, e.g. 5 meq/L Ca = 5 * 20 = 100 ppm Ca.  To convert from ppm or mg/L to meq/L, divide by the conversion factor.2. Boron can also be in several anionic and neutral forms in water.3. To convert to the amount of nitrogen nutrient in nitrate, use a conversion factor of 14.4. To convert to the amount of sulfur nutrient in sulfate, use a conversion factor of 32.1.Boron and chloride in excess in irrigation water can injure plants. See below.
  • A measure of the balance of acidic hydrogen ions and alkaline hydroxide ions.
  • pH of neutral, balanced water is 7.0.  pH ranges from 14 (very alkaline) to 0 (very acid).
  • Water pH has an effect on availability of plant nutrients.
  • Units. An increase or decrease in pH by 1 is a factor of 10x difference in hydrogen ion or hydroxide ion concentration. In math terms this is the negative log (base 10) concentration of H+ ions. In practice it is best to think of pH as having no units.
  • Typically irrigation water should be in the range of 5.0 to 7.0 pH, depending on the crop.
  • A measure of the ability of the soluble compounds in the water to neutralize acids.
  • Bicarbonates and carbonates in the water have the greatest influence on alkalinity.
  • Carbonates are not a factor for water with pH < 8.0.
  • Units are ppm of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) equivalent.  It may also be reported as meq/L (1 meq/L CaCO3 = 50 ppm CaCO3) or bicarbonate (HCO3) equivalent (1 ppm CaCO3 = 1.22 ppm HCO3).
  • Alkalinity that is too high is a problem because of bicarbonates reacting with soluble calcium or magnesium to produce insoluble calcium carbonate (ag lime) or magnesium carbonate, both of which may clog emitters, leave white spots on leaves or fruit, and reduce the amount of calcium and magnesium available for the plant.
  • Alkalinity that is too low is a problem because it can allow the pH to swing wildly. There needs to be some buffer for pH swings.
  • The alkalinity of water used for small pots is more critical than for large pots or in-ground plants.
  • Alkalinity levels of 30-60 ppm are mentioned for greenhouse cannabis growers.

Alkalinity Levels (ppm CaCO3 equivalent)

Field crops100-150150-200>200
Greenhouses and nurseries75-100100-150>150
Greenhouse plugs63-7575-100>100
  • The sum of the molar concentration of Ca2+ and Mg2+.  When expressed in ppm or mg/L, it is the equivalent mass of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) that, when dissolved in a unit volume of pure water, would result in the same total molar concentration of Ca2+ and Mg2+.
  • Hardness is what produces scale in pipes, white spots on glassware and soap scum.
  • Units are ppm (CaCO3 equivalent), mg/L (1 ppm = 1 mg/L), grains per gallon or gpg (1 ppm = 0.05842 gpg).

Classification of hardness by University of Florida Extension:

ClassificationHardness in ppm
Soft< 50
Very hard> 300
Electrical Conductivity (EC) or Conductivity
  • A measure of the bulk salinity of water.
  • EC measures the ability of water to conduct electricity.  This is affected by the amount of dissolved salts or impurities.
  • Units are micro-Siemens per cm (µS/cm) or milli-Siemens/cm (mS/cm). 1 mS/cm = 1000 µS/cm.  Units may also be written as mmho/cm (1 mmho/cm = 1 mS/cm) and deciSiemens/meter or dS/m (1 dS/m = 1 mS/cm).
  • Seawater will have an EC of approximately 50 mS/cm while rain water will be near zero.
  • EC is related to TDS.
Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) or Soluble Salts (Logan Labs saturated paste test) or Salt Concentration (Logan Labs water test)
  • Salinity tolerance of vegetables, fruits and herbaceous plants may be found at this FAO link. Note that the EC mentioned in the link is the saturated paste EC (ECe), not the water EC (ECw).
  • A measure of the amount of substances that have been dissolved in the water.
  • A true measurement involves evaporating the water and measuring the weight of the remaining solids.  However, a measurement of EC and a conversion factor will give a good approximation.  There are some dissolved solids that don’t contribute to EC but these are usually a small percentage.
  • Units are parts per million (ppm) or milligrams per liter (mg/L).  1 ppm = 1 mg/L.
  • TDS (ppm) = EC (dS/m) * 640, for EC between 0.1 and 5.0 dS/m.  TDS = EC (dS/m) * 800, for EC > 5.0 dS/m.
  • Good quality water will be in the range of 0 to 600 ppm.  Readings over 1000 – 1200 ppm are unsatisfactory.
Irrigation SalinityEC (mS/cm)TDS (ppm)
No effects usually noticed0.75500
Can have detrimental effects on sensitive crops0.75 - 1.5500 - 1000
Can have adverse effects on many crops1.5 - 3.01000 - 2000
Can be used for tolerant plants (on permeable soils)3.0 - 7.52000 - 5000


Sodium Adsorption Ratio (SAR)
  • Ratio of the concentration of sodium to the sum of calcium and magnesium in water.
  • Sodium affects the ability of the soil to form clay aggregates and therefore affects the structure and permeability of the soil by clogging the soil’s pore structure.  High sodium in the water can create crusts on soil which reduce crop yield.
  • The equation for SAR is below.  It is calculated using the concentration of Na, Ca and Mg in meq/L.  A conversion from ppm to meq/L is given under the discussion of cations and anions above.

  • Units – SAR does not have units.
Adjusted Sodium Adsorption Ratio (SARadj)
  • Same as SAR except the calcium concentration is adjusted for the level of bicarbonate and EC of the water.
  • An adjusted SAR should be calculated when levels of bicarbonate are greater than 1 meq/L.
  • The adjusted Sodium Adsorption Ratio (adj SAR) can be calculated from the procedure given in Ayers and Westcot (1976): adj SAR = SAR [1 + (8.4 – pHc)]
  • pHc is the theoretical pH that water could have if in equilibrium with CaCO3.
Water Infiltration
  • A relatively high SAR compared to a relatively low EC will give an irrigated soil a tendency to reduce the rate of water infiltration due to dispersion of clay particles in the soil.  The table below shows the levels of SAR and EC(irrigation water) where restrictions on use may occur.
    EC (dS/cm)
    SARNoneSlight to ModerateSevere
    0 - 3>0.70.7 - 0.2less than 0.2
    3 - 6>1.21.2 - 0.3less than 0.3
    6 - 12>1.91.9 - 0.5less than 0.5
    12 - 20>2.92.9 - 1.3less than 1.3
    20 - 40>5.05.0 - 2.9less than 2.9
Residual Sodium Carbonate
  • Residual sodium carbonate (RSC) is a measure of the ratio of carbonate and bicarbonate to calcium and magnesium in the water. Too high a RSC will tend to precipitate calcium and magnesium from the soil, increasing the percentage of sodium and clogging air pores in clay soils. High RSC irrigation water should be treated with gypsum to supply additional calcium. Ref 1
Cation / Anion Ratio
  • This number should be between 0.8 and 1.2 as an indication of an accurate water analysis.
  • For water with very low levels of cations and anions this ratio is meaningless.

Relative tolerance of plants to Boron concentration in irrigation water

Very sensitive
< 0.5 ppm
0.5 - 0.75 ppm
Less sensitive
0.75 - 1.0 ppm
Moderately sensitive
1.0 - 2.0 ppm
Moderately tolerant
2.0 - 4.0 ppm
4.0 - 6.0 ppm
Very tolerant
> 6.0 ppm
LemonAvocadoGarlicPepper, redLettuceTomatoCotton
BlackberryGrapefruitSweet potatoPeaCabbageParsleyAsparagus
OrangeSunflowerCarrotCeleryBeet, red
PlumBean, kidneyClover



Chloride levels in irrigation waters and their effects on crops

Cl concentration (ppm)Effect on cropSusceptible Plants
< 70 Generally safe for all plantsRhododendron, azalea, blueberry, dry beans
70 - 140 Sensitive plants show slight to moderate injuryOnion, mint, carrot, lettuce, pepper, grape, raspberry
141 - 359Moderately tolerant plants usually show slight to substantial injuryPotato, alfalfa, sudangrass, squash, wheat, sorghum, corn, tomato
> 350Can cause severe problemsSugarbeet, barley, asparagus, cauliflower

From: Ref 1

Chloride tolerance of selected crops. Listing in order of increasing tolerance: (low tolerance) dry bean, onion, carrot, lettuce, pepper, corn, potato, alfalfa, sudangrass, zucchini squash, wheat, sorghum, sugar beet, barley (high tolerance). Source: Mass (1990) Crop Salt Tolerance. Agricultural Salinity Assessment and Management Manual. K.K. Tanji (ed.). ASCE, New York. pp 262-304.


[1] Managing Irrigation Water Quality for Crop Production in the Pacific Northwest (Oregon State University Extension)

[2] How to Properly Read Your Irrigation Water Analysis for Turf and Landscape (University of Florida Extension)

[3] Reclaimed Water Use in the Landscape: Understanding Landscape Irrigation Water Quality Tests (University of Florida Extension)

[4] Water Quality for Agriculture (FAO)

[5] Understanding the Numbers in Your Irrigation Water Report (University of Arkansas Extension)

[6] Irrigation Water Analysis Guidelines (Univ of California Extension)

[7] Irrigation Water Quality For Greenhouse Production (Univ. of Tennessee Extension)

[8] Irrigation Water Quality (Zaman, Shahid, Heng)

[9] Water Guidelines (Logan Labs)

[10] Guide To Interpreting Irrigation Water Analysis (Spectrum Analytic)

[11] Assessment of Irrigation Water Quality (Tamil Nadu Agricultural University)

[12] Management of Iron in Irrigation Water (Rutgers Univ. Extension)

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