Australia’s National Water Initiative is attempting to satisfy competitive demands from farmers, city dwellers and the environment.

Story by Robert Milliken

To the naked eye, the Murray River is a beautiful sight as it meanders past Albury, on the New South Wales/Victoria border, through Australia’s richest irrigated farm belt. As with many things in country Australia though, looks can be deceiving. A meeting of farmers and financiers in Albury is told the Murray’s flow is actually at its lowest level in 100 years. Laurie Arthur, a rice and cereals grower in the Deniliquin region, west of Albury, says, “We had the Federation drought of the 1890s, then the 1940s drought – two of the biggest ever. But hydrologists tell us this one has exceeded even those. I call it the New Millennium Drought.

It’s all we’ve talked about around here for the last five years.”
Against this seemingly grim background, Arthur has come to Albury to join a group of experts on the topic that has now sprung to the top of Australia’s national agenda: water. They have been invited to speak to the Agricultural Finance Forum, a body that draws together bankers, accountants, finance houses and rural counsellors to share information about the problems and successes of Australia’s farmers.

The forum meets three times a year, usually in Canberra, and is chaired by Sussan Ley, parliamentary secretary to the federal minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Her electorate of Farrar sprawls from the Snowy Mountains to the town of Wentworth, where the Murray meets the Darling to form a river system that supplies more than two-thirds of water used for Australia’s farming irrigation. With the Murray-Darling Basin at the flashpoint of the water debate, Ley has decided to take this meeting, in the winter of 2006, out of the rarefied world of Canberra to the heart of the bush, where farmers, irrigators and townsfolk alike are coming to grips with the latest rules governing how Australians manage our precious water resources.

This story excerpt is from Issue #49

Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2006