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Hydraulic management of a soil moisture controlled SDI wastewater dispersal system in an Alabama Black Belt soil

He, Jiajie, Dougherty, Mark, Shaw, Joey, Fulton, John, Arriaga, Francisco
Journal of environmental management 2011 v.92 no.10 pp. 2479
Vertisols, clay, clay soils, cold season, cropping systems, drought, dry season, field capacity, field experimentation, homeowners, infiltration (hydrology), monitoring, preferential flow, rural areas, soil cracks, soil water, subsurface irrigation, summer, warm season, wastewater, wastewater treatment, winter, Alabama
Rural areas represent approximately 95% of the 14000 km² Alabama Black Belt, an area of widespread Vertisols dominated by clayey, smectitic, shrink–swell soils. These soils are unsuitable for conventional onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS) which are nevertheless widely used in this region. In order to provide an alternative wastewater dosing system, an experimental field moisture controlled subsurface drip irrigation (SDI) system was designed and installed as a field trial. The experimental system that integrates a seasonal cropping system was evaluated for two years on a 500-m² Houston clay site in west central Alabama from August 2006 to June 2008. The SDI system was designed to start hydraulic dosing only when field moisture was below field capacity. Hydraulic dosing rates fluctuated as expected with higher dosing rates during warm seasons with near zero or zero dosing rates during cold seasons. Lower hydraulic dosing in winter creates the need for at least a two-month waste storage structure which is an insurmountable challenge for rural homeowners. An estimated 30% of dosed water percolated below 45-cm depth during the first summer which included a 30-year historic drought. This massive volume of percolation was presumably the result of preferential flow stimulated by dry weather clay soil cracking. Although water percolation is necessary for OWTS, this massive water percolation loss indicated that this experimental system is not able to effective control soil moisture within its monitoring zone as designed. Overall findings of this study indicated that soil moisture controlled SDI wastewater dosing is not suitable as a standalone system in these Vertisols. However, the experimental soil moisture control system functioned as designed, demonstrating that soil moisture controlled SDI wastewater dosing may find application as a supplement to other wastewater disposal methods that can function during cold seasons.