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8th Conference of the Smarter Irrigation Association
Opening Address

Shepparton Civic Centre
10.30am, Tuesday 20th May, 1997
Senator the Hon Ian Macdonald
Parliamentary Secretary to the
Minister for Environment, Sport and Territories

To the distinguished guests in the audience and rather than say ladies and gentlemen this time I am going to say and to smarter people because obviously by being at this Conference you are being smarter people and the people who are interested in the very latest technology in irrigation.

I do come from an irrigation area up in the Burdekin area of North Queensland. We always thought we were the best irrigators and knew most about it but from seeing all of you people here and some of the equipment outside, I think perhaps I may have to re-assess that. But it is good to be with people today who are involved in irrigation and who are interested in doing it smarter and better.

I also wanted to recognise my friend and colleague and your representative, Sharman Stone. Sharman is a tremendous advocate for this area in the Federal Parliament, in fact she is almost at times tiresome because she never shuts up about this area, the Shepparton region and the marvellous things that happen here. She like I and the Government, are concerned with the Fireblight problem which is around at the present time and I do understand the concerns that many of you who are involved in the industry and many of you who live off that industry in subsidiary supporting industries are so concerned about that particular problem before us at the moment. Sharman, thanks for looking after me while I am here and keep up the good work as you always do for looking after these people here.

But Mr Chairman I am very pleased to be here this morning as Parliamentary Secretary to the Federal Minister for the Environment, Senator Robert Hill as someone who does have some involvement in managing the Government's environmental agenda.

Senator Hill has asked that I pass on to you his best wishes. He, like I, are confident that you have a productive and informative conference and we look forward to hearing of the outcomes from this conference.

My portfolio responsibilities as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment the Antarctic and the Bureau of Meteorology.

That's a bit ironic because the Antarctic is recognised as the driest continent on the earth even although nearly 70% of the world's fresh water is locked up in the Antarctic icecap. Australia, as you know, is essentially an arid continent and the management of our precious water supplies is a challenging issue, not only for the government and industry, but for the entire community.

Many areas of the environment which support our agricultural productivity, and contribute to our quality of life, are seriously degraded.

If we are to continue to enjoy the fruits of our labours, we need to ensure that the resource we so depend upon will still be there in the future.

Much has been said about the irrigation industry in Australia both in terms of the environmental costs of historical management decisions and of the potential for change. This Conference will, I understand, address two key issues in achieving a more sustainable future, they are smarter tools and smarter people.

We need to develop a more cost effective technology which will allow us to more sustainably utilise our existing resource allocations of water, and we need to provide farmers with the knowledge and expertise to enable them to use these technological advances more effectively.

While a lot of work has been done in these areas, clearly much more needs to be done. This Conference is therefore making an important contribution to achieving that goal.

To appreciate the current state of the irrigation industry it is probably appropriate that I briefly mention the history of irrigation in Australia.

Our early construction of dams on rivers allowed improved navigation for transport of produce, and improved reliability and flow for irrigation and development opportunities and this was the successful approach that had been used in Europe in the last century and previously.

Initially irrigation sciences and engineering entered Australia via British and American influences, applying the experiences from Egypt, India and North America.

The drought of the 1870s led the Victorian Government to implement an Act to provide for irrigation and water supply.

By 1886 the Irrigation Act vested in the crown the right to use all water in any stream, lake or swamp, and prohibited the further issue of riparian rights to water. This put in place a new era of water rights, ownership and regulation.

Development and conservation are not mutually exclusive, but the single-minded approach of the first interventions regulation excluded any considerations of the needs of both the instream ecosystems and that of the riparian and flood-plain systems.

Further government influences in the culture of water management in Australia resulted from the soldier settlement schemes which followed the First and Second World War and the Korean War.

Plans in 1947-48 to divert water from the Snowy River to generate hydro electricity again had a single focus on water use.

The Snowy scheme was a remarkable feat, that remains Australia's most ambitious large scale water management project, providing significant economic and social benefits. Unfortunately there was little consideration of instream needs and sustainable riverine resources.

The current debate about increase flows down the Snowy River, where 99% of the flows have been diverted across the Great Divide, is a testimony to the lack of balance in past decisions between environmental needs and irrigation.

We have inherited an arid continent. "A land of droughts and flooding rains" as one well known poet mentioned. When Sturt crossed the desert heading north from Adelaide to Darwin, he found the Murray River to be green, and too salty to drink.

Historically, the climate has been variable to the point of being hostile to human habitation in many parts of Australia. There is a long geological and hydrological history of nutrient leaching, soil mobility, saline influences and major sulphur deposits.

We now recognise that many parts of our continent should never have been disturbed - in any way. Run-off is the lowest of any continent at approximately 12% compared with 38-50% on other continents.

Flow regimes in some regions are very seasonal, in others, random, to the degree that no dam can regulate. Ancient aquifers supplies cover about 25% of the continent, but only 10% of that contain irrigation standard water.

Quality and quantity varies significantly, affected by salts from marine sediments, nitrites and ammonia from termites. Similarly, ground-waters vary in quality and quantity and mobilise soil and mineral sediments when distributed.

The natural climactic systems, soil moisture holding ability, soil mobility, and blue green algae etc, have limited primary production and development in Australia.

Indigenous Australians and their habitation of our continent was strongly influenced by access to water, and so too the spread of industry and urban development - this has created huge demands upon our land and water.

And all of which leads to a degree to the problems in the current environment of our regulated rivers.

Regulating the flow to improve drought resistance for irrigation smooths out the natural flood and drought cycles. However, indigenous flora and fauna populations require flood cycles for long term survival. Floods, for example, promote fish breeding and regeneration of plant communities.

Regulating flows also encourage the growth and the spread of some pests. For example you would be well aware of the European Carp that's thrived with the regulation of flows. The behaviour of the carp increases turbidity, restricts flow, and mobilises nutrients, causing water quality deterioration and further impacts upon our native populations.

Applying major flushing irrigation techniques, successful in the Northern Hemisphere, result in ground-water percolation under crops and water tables rising by a dozen meters or so, to within a few meters of the surface, some, with a head above the surface.

So unless we take strong and effective remedial action, by the year 2010-2020 it is expected that all irrigation regions in the Southern Murray Darling Basin will have water tables within 2 metres of the surface. Marine sediments in this zone and losses due to capillary rise from shallow water tables cause salinity problems, waterlogging and salt scalding.

This has severely limited productivity - in places, irreversibly.

Leaching and run-off from irrigation areas to the rivers affects down stream water quality. Resultant soil and salt mobility results in soil loss, riverbank destabilisation and nutrient loads entering rivers, with major implications for potential water use, river health, infrastructure maintenance costs, and the costs of evaporation and desalination programs.

In considering all the on-farm and off-farm potential impacts of irrigation on the environment, what are the solutions and the future for irrigated agriculture in Australia?

Firstly, the future of irrigation is being challenged, not only by the increasingly limited resource base and reducing farm productivity, but by the economic and social agendas.

The allocation of small holdings of land for irrigated cropping to returned servicemen resulted in small holdings on marginal land particularly in this area. Much of the irrigation in the Murray Darling Basin is mixed farming, where returns on irrigation investment per megalitre of water diverted is marginal, sometimes negative.

Such circumstances limit investments in new approaches and technology and social and economic stress results.

What we can be reasonably sure of, is that the irrigation industry we know today will see some major changes in the next 5 to 10 years.

There are many pressures for change - from the implementation of the COAG Water Reform Framework on pricing and allocation of environmental flows, to the use of more efficient applications of water.

It is important to look at changes, not in isolation, but in their totality - moving towards one goal - the ecological sustainability of the irrigation industry.

We must however in the future increase our productivity per megalitre and use less water overall. It is important to direct water use to the most effective applications which will mean switching to higher yield produce and the use of improved irrigation technology.

Improvements in infrastructure will also be a major factor in improving the way we use water.

There are many examples of how irrigation applications are changing and many of them you see outside in the displays. These include the use of dripper systems, and satellite imagery and the Southern Oscillation index has an impact which has to be taken into account.

This is all a world wide trend. There is a lot of potential to improve returns and productivity from current marginal practices - some say that the improvement could be up to or between 20 to 40% if we do it right.

Conflicting demands for water, and an eroding resource base require an equitable approach to distribution and ownership. The challenge is to fairly allocate water using continuously improving scientific and social data to achieve maximum sustainable production, environmental and social values.

Continuing community and industry support for implementing a sustainable approach is critical to ensure that resources are protected for future generations.

Government assistance for improving the efficiency of irrigation industries is significant and placed to assist in growth faze.

If the industry does not recognise the warning signs, and take on the challenge to develop and apply innovative approaches, then not only will they compromise their own productivity but the productivity of our future and future generations of Australians. And that's why I'm very pleased as Sharman is to be part of a Government that has determined to spend $1.25m on the Natural Heritage Trust which will amongst other issues address the riverine environment. This investment into the environment and all things associated with it is the first and major investment ever made by any Australian Government into the environment and things like our rivers and streams and this will be particularly important to the Murray Darling Basin.

All of the initiatives under the Trust - the National Rivercare Initiative, the Murray Darling 2001, the National Landcare Program and the National Vegetation Initiative - are central to developing an ongoing partnership with the community, with industry and with all levels of government, to improve our land, water and vegetation - our natural environment.

These Natural Heritage Trust partnerships will involve commitment from both government and the community to ecological sustainability - a win/win situation.

You'll be aware that the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council at its meeting in December last year agreed to nearly all of the recommendations of the Independent Audit Group report on the implementation of a final cap.

The issues which were not agreed, but are being resolved by the Commission, relate to the hierarchy of property rights, format of the annual audit report, urban allocations and allocations for the A.C.T. The Council has agreed to capping extractions to 1993/94 levels in the Murray Darling Basin.

Queensland's cap is still to be determined following the completion of it's Water Allocation Management Plans, reviewed by the Independent Audit and considered by the Ministerial Council.

The cap, to be implemented from 1 July, is a first phase in stopping the unsustainable growth in diversions pending implementation of the COAG process, including the provision of appropriate environmental flows.

The long term sustainability of our river and wetlands system is dependant on developing environmental flows and monitoring the benefits to achieve a appropriate balance between consumption and environmental needs.

The Natural Heritage Trust will fund through the National River Health Program, ongoing essentials research into environmental river flow.

The Program is developing a decision support system in conjunction with the Murray Darling Basin, which will be trialed in the Border Rivers catchment, to allow communities to have information on the likely impacts on the environment of a range of flow regimes.

One of the key outcomes of the COAG Water Reform is to encourage trading of water to maximise its contribution to the national income within the social, physical and ecological constraints of particular catchments.

As you would be aware the Murray Darling Commission is actively developing the pilot water trading project in the Mallee region. The formal start of the trial will occur following the implementation of the cap and the minor amendments required to the MDB Agreement.

Essential to the COAG process is full cost recovery and consumption based pricing, and the removal of cross subsidies. In the case of rural services, full cost recovery is expected by the year 2001.

The aim is for real rates of return on written down replacement costs of assets by that date. COAG has also agreed that future investment in new irrigation schemes or extensions will only be undertaken after an appraisal indicates it is both economically viable and ecologically sustainable.

Finally, I would like to share with you some findings of a recent United Nations Report on the assessment of the freshwater resources of the world.

The report found and, I quote, "that the world faces a series of local and regional water quantity and quality problems, largely as a result of poor water allocation, wasteful use of the resource and lack of adequate management action." I don't think it perhaps needed the UN to tell us that.

It also found that water shortages and pollution are causing widespread public health problems and limiting economic and agricultural development and harming a wide range of ecosystems. It predicts that by the year 2025 two thirds of the world's population could be under water stress conditions. Fortunately for us Australia is ahead of many other countries in that we have recognised our water problems and have developed comprehensive strategies, such as the COAG Meetings and outcomes and the Murray Darling Basin Initiative, to attempt to reach ecological sustainability of our water resources.

But we do have a long way to go. The implementation rests with the urban and rural communities - this is a challenge that we must meet together not only for the long term sustainability of the irrigation industry but for Australia's unique and precious environment.

And so ladies and gentlemen that's why we in the Government are so interested in your ..... the Conference. We're very pleased to see so many people taking such an active and intelligent role and participation in this conference in looking at ways of using irrigation and using our water smarter and better. So we do wish you very well with this conference. We look forward to what comes out of it and we wish you all the very best for today and tomorrow.

Thank you very much.

Commonwealth of Australia