Abstract

Soil water balance studies of profile water content, changes in stored water, crop water use, and spatial variability of water content and use require accurate soil water determinations that are representative across at least field-sized areas. Several capacitance and other electromagnetic (EM) sensors are commercially available for use in access tubes to determine profile water content. Scientists and practitioners need to know if they are suitable replacements for the neutron moisture meter (NMM) in terms of accuracy and utility. In a field calibration of the NMM and three EM sensors in a Panoche clay loam soil in the San Joaquin Valley of California, three access tubes were installed in a site dried by plant water uptake and three were installed in an adjacent plot wetted to saturation and allowed to drain. Sensors were read and volumetric water content samples taken at several depths at each access tube; calibrations of water content vs. sensor reading were calculated for each depth and for appropriate combinations of depths by regression analysis. Calibrations for the EM sensors changed rapidly with depth, often requiring separate calibrations for every 10- or 20-cm depth range, and were relatively inaccurate (RMSE of 0.015–0.063 m3 m−3). The NMM is the preferred choice for accurate profile water content and change in storage determination. In general, the EM sensors cannot be recommended for profile water content or change in storage determinations due to their relatively less accurate (larger RMSE values) calibrations, strong dependence of calibration slopes and exponents on depth, probable dependence of the calibrations on soil bulk electrical conductivity (BEC), and the likelihood of BEC changes in the field during the irrigation season.

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