First evidence of widespread, severe soil erosion underneath centre-pivot irrigation systems


Centre-pivot systems are widely used for irrigation in agriculture. However, excessive water application rates under low pressure centre-pivot systems can lead to soil erosion, which degrades soil structure and increases crop vulnerability to droughts. Although efforts have been deployed to measure soil erosion underneath individual centre pivots, a large-scale systematic assessment of extent and severity of soil erosion in centre-pivot irrigated fields is currently lacking. Here we used Google Earth™ satellite images to provide first evidence of widespread, severe soil erosion in centre-pivot irrigated agricultural land. We focused on the municipality of Cristalina (6154 km2), in the Brazilian Central Highlands, where centre pivots irrigate approximately 60,000 ha of cropland. The study area is in the Cerrado biome, which is one of the most important grain-producing regions in the world and Brazil's main centre-pivot irrigation area. By mapping erosion features under centre pivots, we found that 29 % of centre-pivot fields displayed signs of rill erosion, with individual rills up to a length of 1200 m. Most erosion features were identified during the dry season of the Brazilian Cerrado, which coincided with the period of greater satellite-image availability. Moreover, we found that compacted centre-pivot-wheel tracks often triggered rill incision and that eroding centre-pivot fields displayed higher slope gradients and were better connected to surface waters than the non-eroding fields. Ultimately, the frequent identification of severe erosion features in the centre-pivot fields during the dry season indicates that irrigation causes and/or aggravates soil erosion in Cristalina and likely in other parts of the Brazilian Cerrado. This first systematic evidence of widespread soil erosion underneath centre-pivot systems highlights that irrigation erosion is an important but neglected driver of land degradation, and that urgent action is required to protect affected soils for future generations.