After five decades of minor successes and some spectacular failures, the Kimberley's Ord River Irrigation Scheme is set to more than double in size. But who will farm the new land and what will they grow?

Story By Nathan Dyer

It's six o'clock on a hot February evening and the storm clouds building over the Ord River blush a brilliant red. A steady stream of cars is making its way across the Kununurra Diversion Dam where roaring jets of fresh water thunder through the big metal gates turning the river below into a churning white storm. In a flood event, the 20 radial gates can let through a controlled tsunami of 29 million litres per second, enough to supply Perth’s annual water usage every three hours. Fifty kilometres south, Lake Argyle has been overflowing for 12 months after a record 2011 wet season saw it swell to more than 1500 square kilometres. It’s not surprising the name Kununurra was derived from an Aboriginal word meaning “big river”.
Upstream of the diversion dam a family is digging holes in the riverbank at the town’s swimming beach. Clumps of weed and mud are tossed aside and small crustaceans retrieved and flicked into a bucket. “Some people like to eat them, but I’d rather use them to catch barramundi,” Kununurra resident Warren Shaw says, picking up a bucket of red claw, or yabbies, from the muddy bank. Nearby, children splash in the shallows and a young man jumps from a dead tree into the dark green water. Down the road, developer Michael McConnachy is putting the last touches on Kununurra’s newest real-estate development. The 80-unit Freshwater East Kimberley Apartments are evidence of a thriving regional economy. “We looked right up the east coast of Australia, the central mining belt of Queensland, and we went down the west coast of Western Australia looking at different locations to develop, and Kununurra just stood out,” Michael says. “Unless people have been to Kununurra they have this idea it is some dusty outpost miles from anywhere, but people are gobsmacked when they get here, when they see the amount of water.”
Eight-hundred kilometres by road south-west of Darwin and 3300km north-east of Perth, this West Australian town is booming. Kununurra’s population of 7500 – half of whom are Indigenous – is expected to reach 10,000 by 2026. A $195 million Commonwealth investment in social infrastructure has seen upgrades to the local high school, hospital, TAFE and airport, while a State Government injection of $310 million means the long-awaited expansion of Ord farming land is now a reality. The agricultural area will expand from 14,000 hectares to 22,000ha this year, and the government wants to grow that to 38,000ha by 2016. Young families are moving here, houses are being built, and Ord farmers are looking to the future with renewed optimism.

This story excerpt is from Issue #83

Outback Magazine: June/July 2012