Rethinking soil water repellency and its management

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Title

Plant Ecology




Centre for Ecosystem Management




Ruthrof, K. X., Hopkins, A. J. M., Danks, M., O’Hara, G., Bell, R., Henry, D., ... & Harper, R. (2019). Rethinking soil water repellency and its management. Plant Ecology, 220(10), 977-984.

Available here.


Soil water repellency (SWR) is a widespread challenge to plant establishment and growth. Despite considerable research, it remains a recalcitrant problem for which few alleviation technologies or solutions have been developed. Previous research has focused on SWR as a problem to be overcome; however, it is an inherent feature of many native ecosystems where it contributes to ecosystem functions. Therefore, we propose a shift in the way SWR is perceived in agriculture and in ecological restoration, from a problem to be solved to an opportunity to be harnessed. A new focus on potential ecological benefits of SWR is particularly timely given increasing incidence, frequency and severity of hotter droughts in many regions of the world. Our new way of conceptualising SWR seeks to understand how SWR can be temporarily alleviated at a micro-scale to successfully establish plants, and then harnessed in the longer term and at larger spatial scales to enhance soil water storage to act as a “drought-proofing” tool for plant survival in water-limited soils. For this to occur, we suggest research focusing on the alignment of physico-chemical and microbial properties and dynamics of SWR and, based on this mechanistic understanding, create products and interventions to improve success of plant establishment in agriculture, restoration and conservation contexts. In this paper, we outline the rationale for a new way of conceptualising SWR, and the research priorities needed to fill critical knowledge gaps in order to harness the ecological benefits from managing SWR.