Science, Tech & Environment

Rationing Water in Australia’s Agricultural Heartland

This story is a part of a series

This story is a part of a series




Jason Margolis

John Ward has one thing on his mind as he drives around the Australian province of New South Wales these days and one thing only: water.

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“I introduce myself from time to time as John Ward, New South Wales Farmers Association spokesman for water, and parent of children in this town that need employment.” Ward adds this last thought because he and many farmers in agricultural towns like Griffith are worried that there won’t be enough water to continue farming into the future.

Australia’s recent 12-year drought hit rural farm communities hard. Now the government may ask farmers, like Ward, to cut their water usage by another 30 or 40 percent. Ward said he and his neighbors will have none of it.

“We need for them to listen to us and for us to listen to them. If we can’t get that, then it goes to war,” said Ward.

When asked if he is at war right now, Ward said “Yes, there’s no doubt. We are in the trenches.”

Ward lives in what is called the Murray-Darling Basin, the breadbasket of Australia, tucked in the southeast interior of the country. Think of the Murray-Darling like the American Midwest. Now imagine if the US government told farmers in Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ohio that they’ve taken more than their fair share of water and now they will have to give a third of it, or more, back to the environment. That is roughly what’s happening here in Australia.

“We’re talking about the heart and lungs of our nation. And you can’t take the heart and lungs out of any person and expect them to survive,” said Mike Neville, the mayor of Griffith. The town of 26,500 produces wheat, rice, vegetables and 30 percent of Australia’s wine.

This area became the country’s major food-growing region through intensive management of its many rivers and tributaries. In the 1920s, the government began building large-scale dams and water diversions for irrigation. Farmers here say these engineering projects performed miracles, turning a largely parched continent into a food exporter.

“Why would we want to limit the production capacity of an area like this? It just doesn’t make sense?” Neville said.

Neville said the proposed cuts will destroy farm communities at the whim of politicians and city dwellers. But others say the proposed changes were born out of necessity.

“The Darling river was running dry,” said Richard Eckard, director of the Climate Challenges Center at the University of Melbourne. Eckard said the impact of 12 years of drought on the region’s Darling River was made even worse by the irrigating practices of farmers upstream.

“You can’t extract that volume of water and have anything downstream. The ecology is pretty wrecked compared to what it used to be, there’s not much life. The fishing industry is all but gone,”
Eckard said.

Now the Australian government is looking to rebalance the distribution of water among farms, cities and the environment. It’s working body, called the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, is tasked with managing the Basin’s water in the national interest. And even though the 12-year drought finally broke last year, many climate scientists believe that it was a taste of things to come as climate change alters weather patterns here.

That is why some conservationists and scientists argue that the government’s new water plan still short-changes the environment. Tim Stubbs, a member of Australia’s Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, said the plan wouldn’t return enough water to the Darling River system — for the environment or other farms.

“I’m an engineer, so I see the river as a really functional machine, if you like,” Stubbs said. “And just like, say, your body, we need a certain amount in the river so it can be healthy, so we can continue to use it for irrigation in the long-term. At the moment, we’re using it in a way that will mean we will run it down and it just won’t be effective or useful for irrigation at all in the not-too-distant future.”

Stubbs said water cuts won’t decimate farm communities. And he points out that cutting agricultural water use by 40 percent won’t mean that 40 percent of farmers have to leave.

“That will mean that a large proportion sell some of their water, maybe upgrade their infrastructure, become more efficient, change their farming techniques, and continue farming. But even if it did mean 40 percent leave, you’re probably looking at over $1.5 million going to each individual to do something different,” said Stubbs.

That big payout to farmers willing to get out of the business is part of close to $10 billion the Australian government is allocating to help farmers.

And Eckard said some farmers have already proven they could get by with less water during the drought.

“We’ve got the northern dairy industry for example, that went from over 100 percent water allocation down to less than 30 percent water allocation in the space of four years. By the end of the drought, they were producing as much milk as they were before,” he said.

Eckard said, yes, a lot of dairy farmers went out of business. But those that adapted to less water, are flourishing. Just try telling that to Murray-Darling basin farmers though.

I went to a cattle auction in Griffith and met people working in agriculture like Jim Jackson who transports melons. He scoffed at the idea that people here can get by with less water.

“They’ve (politicians in Canberra) just, I don’t know, they’ve gone off their rockers, haven’t they?” Jackson said.

Jackson’s attitude reflects a deep contempt for the Australian government, even though it made farming so successful here in the first place by building all those dams and water diversions years ago. Many people here don’t trust the government. They think climate change is a hoax and they see the proposed water limits as a mortal threat to their communities.

And the anger hasn’t been limited to words. Water spokesman John Ward said when a draft of a new water guidebook was unveiled, farmers in Griffith let the government know exactly what they thought of it.

“They piled it all up and burned it up in front of the cameras,” Ward said. “That’s what we think of it, just burn it. Take it away. Go back and come back with something we can live with and something that has balance in it.”

Of course balance is in the eye of the beholder. The final water management plan likely won’t be out until next year. And the final water allocation figures are still being hotly debated.

But it seems clear that one way or another, less water will be the new normal for many of Australia’s farmers.