The Federal Government is forging ahead with its plan to improve water management in Australia by addressing over-allocations and promising a $5.9 billion infrastructure upgrade.

By Pamela Robson

It was hailed as visionary, audacious, and a once-in-a-generation chance at the largest modernisation of irrigation infrastructure ever undertaken in Australia’s history. But Prime Minister John Howard’s ambitious $10 billion 10-point plan to ensure a continuing water supply and save the Murray-Darling from dusty extinction, got off to a bumpy start in January.
The Labor leaders of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory were prepared to relinquish their constitutional powers to the Commonwealth for the greater cause, but Victoria’s Steve Bracks, whose borders contain almost half of the nation's irrigation operations, expressed concern that his state’s well-managed and successful water allocation system would be disadvantaged. He also wanted a huge increase in funding, describing the money on the table
as inadequate.
Then there was the Kevin Rudd factor. With a Federal election in the air, the opposition leader has been showing considerable competition for the top job, bringing former rock star Peter Garrett along with him as the next environment minister. From the very beginning, there had been tension between the Liberals and the Nationals over the prospect of the compulsory removal of water rights from the ‘less viable’ operators. With a Labor environment minister on the cards, this suddenly acquired new urgency. Nationals leader Mark Vaile called for no water allocation buy-backs – or at least, only as a last resort. He wanted to concentrate funding on improving infrastructure. But for many, the plan’s success has hinged on the buying back of over-allocated water, thus reducing the strain on the whole system.
A $3 billion fund had been earmarked to buy water allocations and $5.9 billion to upgrade infrastructure such as dams, pipelines and on-farm systems. Despite a few hiccups along the way, it has generally been agreed that this is the plan we have to have if we want security of water supply into the future, and if we want to end interstate squabbling over water allocations. “The core problem is that the different states have competing interests,” the Prime Minister said when delivering his plan. “The South Australians resent, as they have for more than 150 years, the level of diversions by Victoria and New South Wales. The Queenslanders feel they were late to the party in developing irrigated agriculture and want to catch up. The New South Welshmen downstream complain that their overland flows have been diverted to cotton farms.”
The Murray-Darling Basin is known as the ‘food basket’ of Australia because it turns out so much of the nation’s produce. It’s also where 85 percent of Australia’s irrigation takes place. The past five years have been the driest since records began and, during 2006, the inflows into the Murray were a mere 40pc of the previous all-time low. The long-term average inflow into the Murray is 11,200 gigalitres (GL) a year. During 2006, just 1317GL flowed in, nowhere near the 4095GL of water issued to licence holders. Storages on the Murray, holding just 13pc of capacity, are also now at a record low. By May, they will be close to empty. On top of all this, the CSIRO estimates that, by 2020, average annual flows could decline by about 15pc due to several factors such as climate change.
This latest round of debates on Australia’s water goes back to 1994 when the Council of Australian Governments agreed that a national framework for sustainable water use was needed, and it embarked on a 10-year schedule of reform. In 2004, the project was extended and the National Water Initiative (NWI) was created ‘to provide greater certainty for investment and the environment’. The NWI set out three interdependent agendas relating to urban water, rural water and the Murray River.
Although the rules and processes governing water allocation vary widely from state to state, the fundamental principles are the same: producers have water entitlements and they are allowed to use a percentage of their entitlements each year, the amount being dictated by the prevailing season. Producers are able to trade their water allocations, selling the water they don’t need at market prices. The Prime Minister’s plan is to review all water allocations across the states to ensure equitable distribution. Those crops deemed high value but least environmentally damaging will be given first call on water.
The rural sector is Australia’s biggest user by far of water, with irrigated agriculture accounting for 70pc of all water use in Australia. In a normal year, irrigated agriculture uses about 14,000GL of water across Australia. Irrigated production contributed 23pc to the total gross value of agricultural commodities in the 2004/2005 financial year. Through their sheer size and strength, they represent a significant part of the rural sector and effectively underpin the economies of rural communities across much of New South Wales and Victoria.
Cotton and rice are at the top of the list. They are considered high value crops but they are also the least environmentally sustainable. The operations require substantial capital investment and therefore tend to be mostly in the hands of big companies. They are represented by strong and very astute industry bodies.
Although there is a perception that the irrigation industry is dominated by the big end of town, the reality is that there are thousands of small family-run farms. Figures from the Irrigation Association of Australia (IAA) show that about 15,000 operations are devoted to pasture; about 10,000 are broad hectare farms, including cotton, beef and grains; and about 15,000 are horticultural ventures. This last sector is dominated by families growing crops such as vegetables, nuts and fruit, including grapes. There are also plenty of small rice growers and pasture operations. Many of these properties are as small as five to 10 hectares.
The IAA’s chief executive officer Jolyon Burnett says the small family operators are the ones who are going to be most challenged. However, he believes the exciting thing about the 10-point Murray River plan is that $1.5 billion is to be spent on on-farm improvements. Past water initiative funding was concentrated on the broader issues such as reconfiguring and improving delivery systems and regional storage networks. While this was important, little help was available to the small growers. The 10-point plan includes funds for new on-farm technology such as computer-controlled micro spray systems and moisture monitors.
“The government needs to understand that, for a fairly modest on-farm investment, water savings can be made of between 15 and 30pc,” he says. “We now have sophisticated technology that is both available and affordable. It means the farmer can precisely adjust the irrigation program, on a day by day basis, to suit the conditions of the crops, the soil profile and the weather – wind and precipitation.”
Jolyon says there is a new generation of young farmers keen to use technology and apply modern business practices. “Young farmers are more inclined to want a decent lifestyle. They want to take the kids on holiday. They remember their own childhoods – sitting on the farm day-in, day-out because Dad couldn’t leave. Now they can use remote-controlled irrigation systems to monitor the moisture in the soil, and they can phone in on their mobile to switch the system on and off.”
New technology and data systems are already improving water-use efficiency. The $10 million Remote Reading of Irrigation Water Meters project in the Riverland irrigation districts of South Australia is expected to result in water savings of up to 1100 megalitres along with a significant improvement in crop productivity.
Run by the Central Irrigation Trust, the idea is to electronically transfer consumption and flow data from 2300 electronic water meters on irrigation farms to a central computer system at the trust’s headquarters at Barmera. Farmers and system managers will have live access to the data, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Armed with this information, they can precisely plan their irrigation schedules. At a government level, the project will also help water planners analyse supply so that they can improve delivery and better meet demand. The scheme is being funded by the trust ($7.9 million) with a $2.02 million grant from the Commonwealth funding.
Despite the Federal Government’s past reluctance to consider water in the context of climate change, somewhere along the track the question on everybody’s minds has metamorphosed from pondering when the drought will end to asking themselves: will it ever really end? Is this going to be the way of the future? Forecasts point to a two-climate Australia in which the southern parts of the continent – those below a line drawn between Sydney and Perth – become hotter and drier while the northern parts of the country are subject to increased rain and flooding. There would also be a rise in the frequency and duration of extreme climate events such as cyclones. The CSIRO is researching the likely impact of global warming on the frequency and severity of El Niño, as well as on tropical cyclone behaviour.
In New South Wales, the Climate Change Risk Management Project helps farmers combat climate volatility. Project leader Gary Allan is crossing his fingers that the late summer rains that brought some relief to parts of New South Wales do not lead to complacency. “While we’ve got the rain, we need to use the breathing space it gives us to make sure we have water conservation measures in place. Producers should be looking at ways they can overhaul their operations so that they can better withstand the drought times when they return – because we can be sure they will.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #52

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2007