South Australia’s Coorong has a challenging future at the mouth of the Murray but many people who live there have already adapted to its changing environment.

Story By Ken Eastwood

“If we didn’t have that main in, we’d be buggered by now. We would have had to sell all the stock.” Zane Austin, second -in-charge of the 4000-hectare beef and cropping farm “Yalkuri”, is talking about the arrival of the mains water pipeline at the Narrung Peninsula in South Australia’s Coorong earlier this year. Although it is too expensive to irrigate using mains, it takes the pressure off worrying whether there will be any water coming out of the taps in the morning, and allows farmers to reliably get good water to stock. As well as saving farms from further hardship, the pipeline was a symbol of hope – a firm lifeline to grab onto when all around was sinking sand.

The Coorong, the series of lakes at the mouth of the Murray, has more than its fair share of problems – the longest-running drought on record in the Murray-Darling basin, threats of acid-sulphate soils, siltation, salinity and always being last in the queue for the Murray’s water. It seems that every man and his dog have dibs on the precious resource before it gets to the Coorong, and there’s just not enough to go around.

As unemployment has risen in the past five years, Meningie Area School has seen a steady decline from about 300 enrolled students five years ago, to about 200 now. Most of the 40-odd dairy farms in the area have disappeared and, although that’s part of a nationwide trend, the effect is more pronounced here. Bore water is generally too saline to use, and pumps in the lakes have become useless as the water has receded away from them. Even the Narrung ferry has been unable to operate on some days when the wind has pushed the water away from it.

But, like any bush community in tough times, there are those who are not only sticking it out, but also faring pretty well as they change and adapt to the conditions. At Yalkuri, on the shore of Lake Alexandrina, managers haven’t laid off any staff, and still employ a couple of schoolkids in the holidays. They dropped their herd to about 650 Angus heifers, down from 900, stopped irrigating the lucerne and increased cropping on the property from about 400ha to 1200ha. “Next year, if it comes off alright, we might go to 4500 acres [1800 ha],” Zane says. “We planted wheat this year – trying something different – and it looks like it’s going well.”

Zane’s outlook is far from bleak. He reckons there have been such bad times before. “Things go round in cycles,” he says. “They say it’s global warming and that, but I just reckon that’s the way it is. Hopefully the water will be back here one day.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #65

Outback Magazine: June/July 2009