OPINION: Consultant and water policy specialist Kaye Dalton shares her thoughts on why Murrumbidgee irrigators and businesses have responded so well to water reform over the decades and why the region’s future looks bright.
Since moving away from the Riverina and completing my role as a Director of Murrumbidgee Irrigation Ltd earlier in 2021, I have had the time and distance to reflect on what makes the Murrumbidgee such a hub for innovation in irrigated agriculture.
Certainly, a mix of great soils, reliable catchments and secure water supply, large-scale purpose-built irrigation areas, and a rich cultural diversity helps.
So has a willingness to take advantage of all that water reform has offered.
The past thirty years of state and federal water reform has aimed at achieving two broad goals. Firstly, a water industry that is competitive, efficient, and highly productive. Secondly a balance between water for the environment and consumption.
Ground-breaking policy changes included the Murray Darling Basin Cap, the formalisation of water property rights and the separation of these rights from land. Collectively these created scarcity and subsequent value that meant water could, and would, move to areas and commodity types that generated higher production value and profitability. Carry over provisions and the establishment of a basin-wide water market provided irrigators and environmental water managers with the ability to better plan for and manage risk.
In the Murrumbidgee, the proportion of high security water entitlement, a legacy from the early days of government-led irrigation development, has underpinned production even through the worst droughts, and many farming businesses now own and manage a diverse portfolio of water products to meet their business needs.
The integrity and characteristics of these water entitlements and rights are protected by water sharing plans. These plans define how water will be shared between environment, communities, and industry, and enshrine the dimensions of water rights attached to each entitlement type and set the rules for water access and trade. They continue to be the line in the sand against which future policy change will be analysed and measured.
The Murrumbidgee has always been an early adopter of new technology and improved ways of farming. Farming businesses and irrigation corporations have been quick to take up the opportunities offered from investment under water recovery programs, such as the Snowy Initiative, and the Basin Plan.
Coleambally Irrigation was the first irrigation corporation to embrace channel automation. Computer Aided River Management had its origins in the Murrumbidgee a decade ago, with funding from Water for Rivers, and this model now forms the template for river operations across NSW. The transformation of Murrumbidgee Irrigation’s delivery systems through automation, made possible with funding under the Basin Plan, continues to create new water and cost savings across the business.
Technology will continue to move us closer to accounting for every megalitre from catchment to crop, creating greater water security, supply efficiencies and value-add to farming businesses. Environmental water managers will widen their experience and hone their expertise. The synergies between delivery of water for all uses will become more evident over time, making every precious megalitre go further. The future for areas of the water industry with the capacity to recognise and capture these future opportunities has never been brighter.
Kaye Dalton is Managing Director of The Risorsa Group Pty Ltd a consulting firm specialising in information and engagement in the water industry. She worked for the NSW Government from 1986 to 2006 in soil, catchment and water management and was a Project Director with Water for Rivers until 2011. Kaye is a former Director of Murrumbidgee Irrigation Limited and is currently a Director of WaterNSW.