Australians have adapted to using less water but many more changes are needed to save our rivers and groundwater and the communities that depend on them.

Story By Robert Milliken

Stuart Barden rarely stops moving between the two properties he and his wife Annie farm on the western plains of New South Wales. In this, one of Australia’s driest farming regions, life is a constant battle to grow more with less water. “We call it micro-water harvesting,” Stuart says. “At the end of the day, it’s all about water.”

A third-generation farmer, Stuart, 39, has won a Nuffield Australia Farming Scholarship with his work using water more efficiently at his family’s dryland properties near Gilgandra and Condobolin, north and south-west, respectively, of Dubbo. He is one of 16 Australians to win the coveted scholarships in 2009. They reward innovative farmers with a $25,000 grant to travel overseas and explore how other countries are dealing with the challenges Australian farmers face at home.

In 2009, no challenge has embedded itself more in the country’s collective conscience than the one focused on our most precious natural resource – water. After 221 years of European settlement, and fairly profligate water use, farmers and townsfolk alike have never been under more pressure to think differently about their water priorities. Once the country’s transport lanes, then the source of water for growing crops and pastures, our rivers are now being called on to share their dwindling stocks with the environment as well. In Australia’s new world of water, wetlands and river red gums are seen as having equal rights with farm crops and town users.

It makes this a crunch year for the Murray Darling Basin, Australia’s biggest river system, which contains our three longest rivers and accounts for more than half the country’s water consumption. This will be the first full year for the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), the new body Canberra has set up in a bid to right past management wrongs. For the first time, the authority will have power to devise a truly national management plan to save the rivers. It will be based on science and sustainability, not bickering and rivalry between the four basin states – Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia – that hampered the Murray Darling Basin Commission, the body it replaced in late 2008. And it could not come at a more critical time.

This story excerpt is from Issue #64

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2009