Hydrology and Earth System Sciences (Jun 2018)

Grey water footprint reduction in irrigated crop production: effect of nitrogen application rate, nitrogen form, tillage practice and irrigation strategy

  • A. D. Chukalla,
  • M. S. Krol,
  • A. Y. Hoekstra,
  • A. Y. Hoekstra

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 22
pp. 3245 – 3259


Read online

Grey water footprint (WF) reduction is essential given the increasing water pollution associated with food production and the limited assimilation capacity of fresh water. Fertilizer application can contribute significantly to the grey WF as a result of nutrient leaching to groundwater and runoff to streams. The objective of this study is to explore the effect of the nitrogen application rate (from 25 to 300 kg N ha−1), nitrogen form (inorganic N or manure N), tillage practice (conventional or no-tillage) and irrigation strategy (full or deficit irrigation) on the nitrogen load to groundwater and surface water, crop yield and the N-related grey water footprint of crop production by a systematic model-based assessment. As a case study, we consider irrigated maize grown in Spain on loam soil in a semi-arid environment, whereby we simulate the 20-year period 1993–2012. The water and nitrogen balances of the soil and plant growth at the field scale were simulated with the Agricultural Policy Environmental eXtender (APEX) model. As a reference management package, we assume the use of inorganic N (nitrate), conventional tillage and full irrigation. For this reference, the grey WF at a usual N application rate of 300 kg N ha−1 (with crop yield of 11.1 t ha−1) is 1100 m3 t−1, which can be reduced by 91 % towards 95 m3 t−1 when the N application rate is reduced to 50 kg N ha−1 (with a yield of 3.7 t ha−1). The grey WF can be further reduced to 75 m3 t−1 by shifting the management package to manure N and deficit irrigation (with crop yield of 3.5 t ha−1). Although water pollution can thus be reduced dramatically, this comes together with a great yield reduction, and a much lower water productivity (larger green plus blue WF) as well. The overall (green, blue and grey) WF per tonne is found to be minimal at an N application rate of 150 kg N ha−1, with manure, no-tillage and deficit irrigation (with crop yield of 9.3 t ha−1). The paper shows that there is a trade-off between grey WF and crop yield, as well as a trade-off between reducing water pollution (grey WF) and water consumption (green and blue WF). Applying manure instead of inorganic N and deficit instead of full irrigation are measures that reduce both water pollution and water consumption with a 16 % loss in yield.