Farmers are told they must manage their own destiny through droughts, floods and, of course, good times. But our most precious resource, water, is tied up in a bureaucratic jungle where priority is given to every other sector of the community before irrigated farmers.

Our dairy farm, “Murray Eden”, is situated near Barham, on the NSW side of the Murray River, about 100 kilometres downstream of Moama. We get less than 13 inches of rainfall per year on average, so regular secure supply of water is essential. At present, we are hand feeding approximately 700 head of cattle and have moved to sell around 120 of our young stock to reduce the burden. This was a decision not easily made as we’ve already reduced the main milking herd by 150 cows.

On the bright side, we’ve had 70mm of rainfall in the last five to six weeks, which has transformed the farm from a bare, dusty landscape to a beautiful green colour. It hasn’t looked like this for about four or five years.

But it’s hardly a drought-breaker. Farmers call this a fool’s paradise, the farm may look green right now but what we’re really counting on is the follow up rain to make the farm a place of plenty for the dairy cattle we look after.

The Prime Minister was referring to these crucial follow-up rains when he told farmers to start praying.

We only need another an inch of rain every month until September to keep the place green but because we’re basically farming in a desert, the rain that really counts is the rain in the hills to fill the dams so that we can get water allocation.

In these times of reduced allocations farmers are encouraged to carry water over (i.e.: keep some water from this season in storage to kick off the following season) and most dairy farmers in the Murray Valley try to carry over approximately 30% of their allocation either by saving water or by buying it in at the end of the season off other farmers. This is their insurance against a low allocation.

This season through no mismanagement of farmers, that carry over amount was slashed by 50% well into the season, leaving all plans; budgets and hopes absolutely out of kilter with the way things were going to be. One local farmer and friend described this as having a shed full of hay and someone coming in and taking half or taking 50% of someone’s saving account because the rest of the community had none.

Farmers have a water entitlement that is allocated to the farm, but this entitlement is met subject to the amount of water collected in storage from year to year. In the past three years, our allocation of water to that entitlement has fluctuated from 48%, to 63% and this year, 0%, so the ability of farmers to either carry over unused (but allocated water) or buy the water off other farmers’ excess is essential for our survival.

There are rumours at present that certain irrigation areas will be targeted to buy water back into a system that is over allocated, but surely the best use of water is nearest its source, so before areas in the middle and upper reaches of the Murray are targeted every effort must be made to ensure that the water that travels farthermost (that which goes to South Australia) and has the most transmission losses (evaporation, seepage etc approx 5 meg lost for every 1 meg delivered) is being used in the most efficient manner.

Individual state water usage for the last five years in total has been:

NSW — 5635

SA — 9536

VIC — 7912

A weir at Wellington should be constructed to stop the purging of salt water out of a naturally saline environment (Lower lakes) during severe drought sequences. Water should be piped beyond this point for Adelaide, stock and domestic, community, industry and irrigators etc, and with the suspension of the tri-state water sharing arrangement that water saving benefit transfers back to upstream users.

The benefits would be substantial when you consider that in 2003-4 1,180,000 Ml evaporated from the lower lakes and 280,000 Ml flowed out to sea.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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