Sustainable irrigation based on co-regulation of soil water supply & atmospheric evaporative demand

Sustainable irrigation based on co-regulation of soil water supply & atmospheric evaporative demand

Nature Communications   volume 12 , Article number: 5549 (2021)


Irrigation is an important adaptation to reduce crop yield loss due to water stress from both soil water deficit (low soil moisture) and atmospheric aridity (high vapor pressure deficit, VPD). Traditionally, irrigation has primarily focused on soil water deficit. Observational evidence demonstrates that stomatal conductance is co-regulated by soil moisture and VPD from water supply and demand aspects. Here we use a validated hydraulically-driven ecosystem model to reproduce the co-regulation pattern. Specifically, we propose a plant-centric irrigation scheme considering water supply-demand dynamics (SDD), and compare it with soil-moisture-based irrigation scheme (management allowable depletion, MAD) for continuous maize cropping systems in Nebraska, United States. We find that, under current climate conditions, the plant-centric SDD irrigation scheme combining soil moisture and VPD, could significantly reduce irrigation water use (−24.0%) while maintaining crop yields, and increase economic profits (+11.2%) and irrigation water productivity (+25.2%) compared with MAD, thus SDD could significantly improve water sustainability.


Irrigated agriculture accounts for ~72% of the total water withdrawals from surface water and groundwater globally, while contributing 40% of total food production1,2,3. At the same time, agricultural irrigation has led to severe water scarcity issues at regional to global scales due to the expansion of irrigated areas and increase of irrigation amount4,5. For example, the U.S. used an estimated 162.8 km3 of water to irrigate 25.7 million ha in 2015, accounting for 42% of total freshwater withdrawals6. Increasing areas of croplands with intensified irrigation have caused groundwater depletion in High Plains, Central Valley, and Mississippi Embayment aquifers in the U.S., which highlights the urgency of more sustainable water use for irrigation, especially, under climate change7,8,9.

Understanding plant water relations10 is the prerequisite for sustainable water use for irrigation (Fig. 1). Plant growth is regulated by the balance of water supply and demand in the soil-plant-atmosphere-continuum (SPAC). Water supply is represented by available water in the soil for plant uptake, while water demand is controlled by atmospheric aridity that passively drives water to move from plants into the atmosphere11,12,13. The atmospheric aridity is quantified by vapor pressure deficit (VPD), i.e., the difference between the saturated and actual vapor pressures at a given air temperature. Current irrigation practices have primarily focused on the soil water supply side, though we acknowledge that to calculate soil water balance to get soil moisture, evapotranspiration (ET) based on different methods is usually used in most methods14. Here we argue that the plant-centric irrigation schemes are crucial for sustainable irrigation based on the interplay between soil water supply and atmospheric evaporative demand via plant physiological regulations15 (i.e., plant hydraulics and stomatal response).

Fig. 1: Conceptual schemes of two methods to quantify plant water stress.



a  Plant-centric: regulating stomatal conductance (gs) by considering both soil water supply and atmospheric evaporative demand.  b  Soil-moisture-based: management allowable depletion (MAD) solely considering soil water supply15.

Soil water deficit and high VPD both can reduce terrestrial ecosystem productivity16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23. In the SPAC, low soil moisture and high VPD can lead to plant water stress which drives plants to close their stomata to prevent excessive water loss11,12,18,23,24,25 (Fig. 1a). At the same time, reduced stomatal conductance, reflecting the physiological regulation of the uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, and water loss through transpiration11,20,26,27 also limits carbon assimilation and increases the risks of crop yield loss13. A long-term increasing trend of VPD16,28 and high probability of concurrent soil water deficit with atmospheric aridity21,29 have been projected globally under the climate change, further underscoring the need of including the physiological impact of high VPD in irrigation management.

This study has three objectives: (1) to investigate the co-regulation of the soil moisture and VPD on stomatal conductance of maize using field measurements and a validated process-based ecosystem model; (2) to propose a plant-centric irrigation scheme for sustainable irrigation based on the co-regulation pattern; (3) to test and compare the plant-centric irrigation scheme with soil moisture-based management allowable depletion (MAD) irrigation scheme under current climate and the representative concentration pathway 8.5 (RCP-8.5) scenario. The innovation of this study is to apply the co-regulation pattern into irrigation management, and we find the proposed method has demonstrated a large improvement over the existing soil moisture-only irrigation metrics and thus could have significant contributions to water sustainability.


The co-regulation of soil moisture and VPD on stomatal conductance

Stomatal conductance can be treated as one of the most effective metrics to quantify plant water stress considering both soil water supply (i.e., soil moisture) and atmospheric evaporative demand (i.e., VPD). Figure 2 showed the co-regulation pattern of soil moisture and VPD on stomatal conductance of maize based on observations (including those from greenhouse experiments and eddy-covariance sites) and process-based modeling under different climate conditions. Based on the contour fitted using a statistical model (see Methods), the whole regime can be classified into the co-regulated regime (i.e., inclined contours) and the VPD-dominated regime (i.e., horizontal contours). The greenhouse measurements of maize indicated that stomatal conductance increased with soil moisture and decreased with VPD in the co-regulated regime (large gradient of stomatal conductance with soil moisture and VPD, Fig. S1), while it was mainly driven by VPD in the VPD-dominated regime (Fig. 2a, b). The co-regulation of soil moisture and VPD on stomatal conductance was further confirmed with eddy-covariance measurements (Fig. 2c, d). Stomatal conductance was higher under higher soil moisture (more water supply) and/or lower VPD (less water demand). All these observed patterns could be reproduced by a validated hydraulically driven ecosystem model ( ecosys ) under maize cropping systems across 12 sites in Nebraska (an example site-GD in Fig. 2e, f, and Fig. S2) (see Methods). The co-regulation pattern indicated that plants can have water stress even at high soil moisture but under high VPD conditions. In contrast, plants may not have water stress when soil moisture was relatively low and VPD also happened to be low.