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Headcut erosive regimes influenced by groundwater on disturbed agricultural soils

Rockwell, D.L.
Journal of environmental management 2011 v.92 no.2 pp. 290-299
disturbed soils, groundwater, monitoring, permeability, plow pans, rainfall simulation, seepage, soil analysis, soil strength, water table
A series of simulated rainfall experiments, testing several soils and slope gradients in a 10m×0.8m laboratory flume, displayed close correlations between initial development of a water table at a 10cm depth and highly erosive headcut formation. On some soils and gradients, highly erosive headcuts formed consistently and predictably within minutes or seconds of initial water table rise. However, headcuts alone were not good indicators of increased erosion. In most experiments some headcuts formed early, often when surface hydraulic parameter values reached established rill initiation thresholds, but resulted in little or no erosion increase. Later, at initial water table rise, other headcuts formed coincident with major erosion increase, often with surface hydraulic values then less than rill initiation thresholds. On the four soils tested, highly erosive headcuts never formed without groundwater development, except on steep 9° slopes. Common visual indicators such as headcut morphology and headcut advance rates were not effective means of determining either erosion or the existence of groundwater. Only local monitoring of subsurface moisture conditions with micro-standpipes and TDR aided in determining headcut processes and erosive regimes. Groundwater-influenced headcut formation was likely caused by increased soil pore-water pressures and decreased soil shear strengths in surface rainflow, not by sapping or seepage from the soil matrix. Highly erosive headcuts can thus form under common agricultural conditions where reductions in permeability, such as plow pans, exist near the surface – without the need for saturated soils. Headcut erosive regimes were also significantly influenced by soil type and slope gradient, with the greatest effects of groundwater on moderate slopes and fairly permeable soils.