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Irrigated agricultural production in Australia valued at $15.5 billion

Irrigation in Australia might have had a slow start, but significant reform in the last few decades has seen irrigated agriculture punching well above its weight in terms of profitability and productivity. Today, the annual gross value of irrigated agricultural production is $15.5 billion, which is produced from just 0.6 per cent of all agricultural land in Australia. In the future, new technologies and policy changes will help to ensure efficient and sustainable water use continues, keeping Australian irrigators at the top of their game.

From small beginnings: Irrigation in Australia

The story of irrigation in Australia began in the early 1800s with some enterprising individuals who developed water resources to ensure feed for their livestock. It might be a surprise to discover that the first government involvement in irrigation was in Tasmania in the 1830s, when a small scheme was developed along the Derwent Estuary. Almost 50 years later, irrigation development began in earnest in Australia. Larger, government-supported schemes were developed in the late 1870s in Victoria and South Australia (the Renmark and Mildura schemes), and in the early part of the 20th century in New South Wales (the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area) and in Western Australia (the Harvey Irrigation Scheme). In the 1940s, Australia embarked on what was then the nation’s biggest infrastructure project, the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

This complex integrated water and hydro-electric power scheme had a huge impact on the expansion of irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin in south-eastern Australia. By the early 1990s, irrigation development was in high gear, especially in the Murray-Darling Basin states from Queensland in the north to South Australia in the south. In fact, by this time, concern was growing that there was too much irrigation development. An audit in the Murray-Darling Basin in the early 1990s concluded that water use was unsustainable, and that continued growth would reduce security for existing users and exacerbate river health problems. In response, a ‘cap’ was set with the maximum amount of water that could be diverted from rivers at 1993-94 levels of development.

The cap, formally put in place on the 1st of July 1997, has been critical to the long-term health of the basin’s rivers and underpinned the emphasis since then on achieving greater efficiency in water use.

REFORM PROMOTES SUSTAINABILITY

Since 1997, reform of water use in Australia has continued. An important part of this reform was the setting up of the National Water Initiative (NWI) in 2004. Under the NWI, governments around Australia made commitments to:

  • prepare comprehensive water plans
  • achieve sustainable water use in over-allocated or stressed water systems
  • introduce registers of water rights and standards for water accounting
  • expand trade in water rights
  • improve pricing for water storage and delivery
  • better manage urban water demands

Funding for modernisation required as part of the NWI is available under a variety of programs and through partnerships with all the states. Through these programs, on-farm and supply level water efficiency projects have been implemented with the water savings being shared by users and the environment.


IRRIGATION: ESSENTIAL STATISTICS

While irrigated land is a tiny proportion of the total area of land devoted to agriculture in Australia, it punches well above its weight in terms of gross value of production. In fact, irrigation contributed 25 per cent of the gross value of agricultural production of $61 billion (2016-17) from 0.6 per cent of all land devoted to agriculture in Australia, making it much more profitable and productive on a per hectare basis than dryland agriculture. In 2017 there were about 88,100 agricultural businesses in Australia, of which 22,100 (25 per cent) used irrigation. The total volume of water used by the businesses for irrigating crops and pastures was 9048 gigalitres. The biggest percentage of this irrigation water is sourced from irrigation channels, followed by rivers, creeks and lakes, groundwater and then on-farm dams and tanks.

TRENDS

The irrigation industry in Australia recognises that while big improvements have been made in water use efficiency, especially as a result of programs funded by the Australian and state governments in the last 15 years, this is no time to stand still. Improving water use efficiency – or achieving more crop per drop – is still a priority for irrigators. Climate change, which is having an impact on all agriculture and irrigation, adds complexity to the challenge of improving water use efficiency. In many irrigation areas, run-off into rivers is predicted to decrease and we are already seeing great variability in terms of rainfall and weather patterns. Forward-thinking irrigators have examined their records and incorporated risk management strategies into their irrigation farming. This has meant doing earthworks to capture and store more water, installing soil moisture sensors to keep a close eye on moisture and temperature levels, scheduling planting and irrigation when it will have most effect and keeping up with climate and weather forecasts.

DID YOU KNOW There are 40,000 irrigators in Australia, using 9.2 million megalitres of water every year to support agricultural production?

In many irrigation areas, run-off into rivers is predicted to decrease and we are already seeing great variability in terms of rainfall and weather patterns. Forward-thinking irrigators have examined their records and incorporated risk management strategies into their irrigation farming. This has meant doing earthworks to capture and store more water, installing soil moisture sensors to keep a close eye on moisture and temperature levels, scheduling planting and irrigation when it will have most effect and keeping up with climate and weather forecasts.

As with most things in life, irrigation is becoming highly technical, and almost every day the suite of digital and computer-based equipment for managing irrigation systems expands. Much of this technology is about collecting and analysing data such as evapotranspiration, soil moisture and weather conditions and using it to schedule irrigation so that water is most efficiently applied. This means that learning the skills to properly manage new technology and irrigation equipment generally has become a priority with many irrigators for whom skills development is now part of their farming strategy. Irrigation Australia Limited supports a skilled industry through its training and certification programs that are designed for each major sector of the industry – from irrigation manager through to retailer, contractor, agronomist, meter installer and designer. Adopting new technology doesn’t only apply to irrigators.

Water supply authorities across Australia, such as Coleambally Irrigation, Murray Irrigation, Murrumbidgee Irrigation and Goulburn-Murray Irrigation have installed systems (using total channel control technology) that allow them to determine when and how much water is delivered to individual irrigators. As a result, water is delivered and used much more efficiently, and waste is significantly reduced. We have also recently seen a major policy change across Australia to ensure greater compliance with water regulations by monitoring and measuring how much water is harvested by irrigators, particularly from rivers and streams. While much of the water used for irrigation in most states is already metered, a national framework has been developed where all meters must now comply with standards to ensure water is being measured as accurately as possible. This means that many irrigation meters across the nation are being checked for compliance with these national standards, and compliant meters are being installed where necessary.

SETTING THE GLOBAL PACE

Over the last two decades, many irrigators have shown their willingness to adopt new, more efficient technology and practices. At the same time, policymakers, water supply authorities, irrigator organisations and other stakeholders have worked to develop legislation aimed at ensuring the sustainability of the industry and the precious water resource on which they rely. The result has been a productive and profitable irrigation sector, increased awareness of the importance of maintaining the environmental health of our waterways and a policy framework that is recognised as a global benchmark.

 

Originally published by The Australian Farmer.


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