Lost chances to save rural water

23 June 2016

I remember driving through central and southern New South Wales on a weekend escape about ten years ago, in the middle of months of 2006.  Back then, many parts of the country were in drought, in a big way.  During my weekend escape, I saw a lot of nice country, even though much land was really dry.

My escape took me a round trip through townships including Bathurst, Blayney, Cowra, Grenfell, Young, Cootamundra, Wagga Wagga, Narrandera, Leeton, Griffith, Goolgowi, Weethalle, Forbes, and Orange.  It was an enjoyable escape, taking me to places that I’d never seen before.  One of my most vivid memories of that escape was having to negotiate my way through a large herd of cows crossing the road between Grenfell and Young – it’s quite something to try moving forward, really slowly, with your vehicle surrounded by big cows!

Despite the pleasant sight of the countryside that I saw, the effect of drought was plain to see in many places.  The land looked really dry, even though some patches still looked healthy.

But what stuck with me was something that I saw while driving between Leeton and Griffith, in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.  Having driven up a long and straight stretch of highway there, I turned onto a road heading to Griffith.  On both sides of this road, I could see what looked like citrus fruit trees, and they looked dead.  I don’t claim to know if these trees usually look like this outside seasons when fruit grows on them, or whether the drought had left them in a bad state – maybe that’s a sign of a city slicker’s ignorance on my part.  Nonetheless, near many rows of these trees, I could also see long trenches in the ground, and they were totally dry.  I assumed that these trenches supplied water to the trees, though they weren’t supplying water at that time.

Some months after I visited this region, I heard about a major pipeline project in rural Victoria, known as the Wimmera Mallee Pipeline.  This involved building pipelines to replace existing irrigation channels and trenches.  The idea was that these pipelines would save much water which would otherwise be lost in the channels and trenches.  Water was either evaporating in the air, or seeping into the ground around the channels and trenches.  By converting them into pipelines, the loss of water through evaporation and seepage would be reduced significantly.

The Wimmera Mallee Pipeline later had me thinking back to the trenches that I saw in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.  I couldn’t help wondering how much water was disappearing from those trenches, and how much could be saved if they were converted into pipelines.  In a time of severe drought, with water in scarce supply, any project to save water would seem like a no-brainer.

Of course, farmers and irrigators have been coming up with new ways of saving water, whether through building pipelines in place of trenches, or other projects which might never have occurred to most of us.  But is it unreasonable to ask how much water we could be saving around the country if we replaced old-fashioned irrigation channels and trenches, depending on their practicality for farmers and irrigators on a case-by-case basis?  Have we witnessed some lost chances to save rural water in particular?

I don’t claim to know how many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars the agricultural sector contributes to the Australian economy every year.  But whatever its worth, if it’s delivering so much off the back of only a fraction of the water available to it, how much more could it be delivering if it had pipelines in place to save more water for agricultural use, as well as environmental flows?

It’s a pity that, during the drought ten years ago, the Federal Government of the time had a healthy budget surplus, in contrast to today’s massive budget deficit, but seemingly didn’t put any of its surplus into more projects like the Wimmera Mallee Pipeline.  What would’ve happened if some of that surplus went into building pipelines and upgrading other water infrastructure in rural Australia – without having to resort to building dams on rivers and messing with their natural flows?  With a bit of national foresight, farmers and irrigators could’ve been contributing so much more to the Australian economy as a result.

Despite the need to reduce public spending, I fully support some form of spending on water projects in rural Australia, so as to save water, which would otherwise be lost to evaporation and seepage.  I pray that the Wimmera Mallee Pipeline has proven to be immensely beneficial to the Victorian region through which it runs, but what kind of difference would more pipelines like that make?

Notwithstanding that today the Federal Government has a major budget deficit to deal with, the failure to invest in upgrading water infrastructure previously, when there was a budget surplus, represents a lost opportunity.  With water said to be more scarce in future years, we can’t afford lost chances to save rural water in particular, no matter what it costs in the short term.



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