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Posts Tagged: Pete Homyak

With dwindling water supplies, the timing of rainfall matters

A view of one plot in the artificial rainfall experiment at Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center. Photo by Marko Spasojevic, UCR

How to help plants in drought-stricken states

A new UC Riverside study shows it's not how much extra water you give your plants, but when you give it that counts.

This is especially true near Palm Springs, where the research team created artificial rainfall to examine the effects on plants over the course of two years. This region has both winter and summer growing seasons, both of which are increasingly impacted by drought and, occasionally, extreme rain events.

Normally, some desert wildflowers and grasses begin growing in December, and are dead by June. A second community of plants sprouts in July and flowers in August. These include the wildflowers that make for an extremely popular tourist attraction in “super bloom” years.

“We wanted to understand whether one season is more sensitive to climate change than another,” said Marko Spasojevic, UCR plant ecologist and lead study author. “If we see an increase or decrease in summer rains, or winter rains, how does that affect the ecosystem?”

The team observed that in summer, plants grow more when given extra water, in addition to any natural rainfall. However, the same was not true in winter.

“Essentially, adding water in summer gets us more bang for our buck,” Spasojevic said.

Their findings are described in a paper published in the University of California journal Elementa.

Over the course of the study, the team observed 24 plots of land at the Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center, in the Palm Desert area. Some of the plots got whatever rain naturally fell. Others were covered and allowed to receive rain only in one season. A third group of plots received additional collected rainwater.

While adding water in summer resulted in higher plant biomass, it generally did not increase the diversity of plants that grew, the researchers noted. Decreasing rainfall, in contrast, had negative effects on plants across both summer and winter, but may lead to some increased growth in the following off-seasons.

Implications of the work extend beyond learning when additional water resources might be applied simply to help plants grow. Whole communities of animals depend on these plants. They are critical for pollinators such as bees and butterflies, and they play a big role in controlling erosion and movement of soils by wind.

“Studies like this one are critical for understanding the complex effects of climate change to dryland ecosystems,” said Darrel Jenerette, UCR landscape ecologist and study co-author.

Desert plants also play an important role in removing carbon dioxide and nitrogen from the atmosphere to use as fuel for growth. Microbes that live in the soil can use the carbon and nitrogen released by plant roots, then send it back into the atmosphere where it can affect the climate.

“Drylands cover roughly a third of the land surface, so even small changes in the way they take in and emit carbon or nitrogen could have a big impact on our atmosphere,” said Peter Homyak, UCR environmental scientist and study co-author.

As the team continues this research over the next few years, they expect to see changes in soil carbon and nitrogen cycling, given that plants are already being affected by changes in seasonal rainfall, as this study shows.

“Can changes in precipitation patterns alter the feedback between plants and microbes, destabilizing the carbon locked in soils and sending more of it into the atmosphere? We are working on figuring that out,” Homyak said.

Editor's note: Jenerette and Homyak are affiliated with University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources through UC Riverside's Agricultural Experiment Station.

Posted on Wednesday, April 20, 2022 at 1:16 PM
  • Author: Jules Bernstein, UC Riverside
Tags: Climate Change (110), Darrel Jenerette (1), desert (5), dryland (1), ecosystem (5), Pete Homyak (2), rain (12), UC Riverside (25), Water (78), water resources (2), wildflowers (7)
Focus Area Tags: Environment, Natural Resources

Drip irrigation in arid regions can cut greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality

Automated chambers measuring soil gas emissions in a field of young sudangrass at Desert Research and Extension Center in Imperial County. Photo by Holly Andrews

Study at Desert Research and Extension Center highlights agriculture's sustainability role

Under the blistering sun of Southern California's Imperial Valley, it's not surprising that subsurface drip irrigation is more effective and efficient than furrow (or flood) irrigation, a practice in which up to 50% of water is lost to evaporation.

But a recent study also concludes that drip irrigation can dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from soil – which contribute to climate change and unhealthy air quality in the region – without sacrificing yields of forage crops alfalfa and sudangrass.

“It was really exciting to see,” said lead author Holly Andrews, a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the University of Arizona. “The crop yield was at least maintained and in some cases increased, but the water use and gaseous emissions were especially decreased under drip irrigation.”

Desert REC crucial to collecting data

Andrews and her colleagues gathered data from field studies at University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources' Desert Research and Extension Center, a crucial hub of desert agriculture research for more than 100 years. Studies in that context are increasingly important, as much of California and the Southwest becomes hotter and drier.

“We already have this history of looking at drip irrigation at this site, so our study was trying to build on that,” said Andrews, who lauded Desert REC's facilities and staff.

With more than 100 years of history as a hub for studies in a high-temperature environment, Desert REC is crucial for irrigation research. Photo by Pete Homyak

In their study published in Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, researchers found that – in comparison to furrow irrigation – drip irrigation in alfalfa slashed per-yield soil carbon dioxide emissions by 59%, nitrous oxide by 38% and nitric oxide by 20%.

Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas with nearly 300 times more warming potential as carbon dioxide, and nitric oxide is a precursor to ozone and major contributor to air pollution.

While drip irrigation only decreased water demand 1% in alfalfa, the practice led to a substantial 49% decrease in irrigation for sudangrass. For more fertilizer-intensive sudangrass, drip irrigation also reduced soil emissions of nitrous oxide by 59% and nitric oxide by 49% – the result of drip irrigation making those fertilizers more efficient.

Water management can help mitigate climate change

Studying alfalfa and sudangrass – forage crops with very different fertilizer requirements – was a strategic choice by the researchers. They are number one and number three on the list of most widely grown crops by acreage in the Imperial Valley (Bermudagrass, another forage crop, is number two).

With so much land dedicated to producing these crops, the adoption of drip irrigation at scale could deliver significant benefits to residents' health and quality of life.

“The thought that saving water can increase yields while lowering the emission of trace gases that affect regional air quality and Earth's climate is quite encouraging,” said Pete Homyak, an assistant professor of environmental sciences at UC Riverside who contributed to the study. “This is especially true for the Imperial Valley, an arid region where water is a limited resource and where residents are exposed to bad air quality.”

Homyak, who is affiliated with UC ANR through UC Riverside's Agricultural Experiment Station, said that this study illustrates how changes in water management can substantially mitigate agricultural impacts on the environment.

The study findings should encourage growers to replace furrow irrigation systems with drip irrigation infrastructure – especially in combination with financial incentives from the state, such as cap-and-trade and carbon credit programs, that can help defray high installation costs.

“It really is worthwhile if you're thinking sustainability and environmental activism in how agriculture can actually support climate change mitigation,” Andrews explained. “These practices might be a way that we can start to change that picture a little bit – and make agriculture more sustainable by tailoring irrigation management to local climate conditions.”

In addition to Andrews and Homyak, the other study authors are Patty Oikawa, California State University, East Bay; Jun Wang, University of Iowa; and Darrel Jenerette, UC Riverside.

Posted on Friday, April 8, 2022 at 8:54 AM
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture, Environment, Health

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