By Mike Wade [1] and Stefanie Schulte

With the progressive implementation of the Basin Plan 2012 and the ongoing debate about how to best and most effectively achieve the triple bottom line objectives of the Water Act 2007, the NSW Irrigators’ Council initiated a project to better understand where effective partnerships and cooperative arrangements between irrigators and environmental water managers have let to positive outcomes for all – communities, the environment and rural businesses. Not only do we want to shine the light on great projects that are already underway, but also seek opportunities for small scale complementary measures and mutually beneficial partnership that could achieve a more effective and efficient environmental outcome while having no detrimental effects on rural industries and the communities that depend on them.

Needless to say, there are many great New South Wales examples that highlight how close collaboration between a diverse set of regional partners – including irrigators and the irrigation infrastructure operators [2] the NSW Government, researchers and local communities – lead to mutually beneficial environmental/industry outcomes. One inspiring example is the recently launched campaign “Water for Wildlife and Rice Project [3]” championed by the Ricegrowers’ Association of Australia that builds on years of research, hard work and dedication by NSW rice growers [4] around “The Bitterns in Rice Project” [5]. The Bitterns in Rice Project was a project focused on how farming and wildlife conservation could work together to protect a globally endangered Australasian Bittern whose numbers have dwindled to only 1500-4000 in the world.

In order to explore whether there are more innovative ideas and new initiatives that could lead to improved environmental-social-economic outcomes in regional NSW, we started a dialogue with irrigators and irrigation representative bodies in NSW to ‘pick their brains’ on what else might be possible. While we were not surprised to hear many great ideas – some of which involved the use of existing irrigation infrastructure or other natural resource management activities – many irrigators told us that ‘in order to achieve success, everyone needs to be willing, cooperative and think outside the box’.

While we have not concluded yet the project yet (see below), we thought it might be worth looking at how other jurisdiction have approached ‘partnerships’ and how successful they have been. For that reason, we have spoken to Mike Wade, CEO of the Californian Farm Water Coalition to pose the questions: “what has/hasn’t worked?” and “what should we look out for when we are developing more effective partnerships in Australia?”.

 Mike, California has some complex water challenges, can you tell us a bit about these issues?

California is America’s biggest producer of agricultural products, in terms of both the value of production and the sheer number of crops produced. The farm gate value of California agriculture was US$46 billion in 2016 with the production of over 400 commodities. California is also America’s most populous state, containing almost 40 million people. In addition to the pressure on water supplies from a growing urban population, there is an added burden to increase support for the state’s environmental resources; California’s plants, animals, birds, and fish. As a result, there is a lot of competition for the state’s land and water resources.

  1. How have your farmers overcome some of these challenges?

The critical element in managing the wide range of competing stakeholders is cooperation. Battles over water resources have been happening since California’s Gold Rush [6] in 1849, prior to gaining statehood in 1850. Our current system of water rights, based on English Common Law, grew out of the conflicts between gold miners over who had senior rights to divert water for their mining claims. This process of “first in time, first in right” eventually evolved into the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation, which is fundamental in California today. Much of this water rights system [7] remains intact and was instrumental most recently in managing dwindling water supplies during California’s 2012-2016 drought.

In California, water rights are held by the State with the understanding that water is owned by the people. While they are considered a property right, California water rights are attached to the land and are not bought and sold by individuals as they are in Australia. The right to use water is permitted by the State under various forms including riparian rights, appropriative rights, groundwater rights, and federal reserved rights. All water use in California is required by the state constitution to be beneficially used and not wasted. Irrigation, as a practice, is considered to be a beneficial use although recently, some have tried to define certain types of irrigation or various crop choices to be wasteful and therefore not meeting California’s beneficial use standards. To date, those efforts have failed.

  1. Can you give us an example of a partnership that is working well? How did it come about? Who was involved?

Some of California’s most valuable partnerships have evolved through the cooperative efforts of urban and agricultural water users joining together to support environmental goals. For decades, the three sides often fought for their self-interests, hoping to gain the advantage and ultimately a bigger, more reliable water supply. Under the authority of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) [8], the balance, and a considerable amount of the state’s water supply, shifted in favour of the environment starting around 1992 with the federal Central Valley Project Improvement Act [9]. The process of adopting more stringent environmental laws and regulations lasted many years and has culminated with the imposition of two biological opinions in 2008 and 2009. Adopted to increase protections for the Delta smelt and Chinook salmon on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta [10], these new rules significantly reduced the amount of water pumped from the estuary for the benefit of agricultural and urban water users. This resulted in the re-purposing of roughly 1 million acre-feet (1,233 GL) per year from agriculture and urban use to the environment.

That model has begun to shift, partly due to the failure of this redirection of massive volumes of water to correlate with improvements in fish populations. Salmon and Delta smelt have not rebounded as predicted so water users began looking for better science to help solve the problem. What they found was that non-flow (complimentary) measures play a bigger role in supporting the ecosystem than simply adding more water. That realization was enhanced through partnerships with environmental organizations looking for solutions that worked for farmers, urban water users, and the environment.

One such effort is called the Nigiri Project [11], named for a form of sushi with a slice of fish n top of a compact wedge of rice. The Nigiri Project uses harvested rice fields during the winter by flooding them and reintroducing salmon in an effort to mimic historic floodplains that once inundated the area. The results are encouraging with improved habitat for salmon and shore birds while maintaining productive farming operations during the summer.

  1. What are the signs of success?

Twenty years ago, a multitude of water users signed the Yuba Accord, which improved timing, as well as flows, on the Yuba River. In short, more cold water was made available for fish at the right times of the year to have a positive environmental impact while preserving water supplies for farmers to use when they needed it.

And new projects continue to develop today. The San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority is a joint powers authority serving 28-member public water agencies, 26 of which contract with the federal Bureau of Reclamation for water supply within the Central Valley Project. The agencies collectively deliver water to 1.2 million acres (485,600 hectares) of farmland, 2 million California residents and millions of waterfowl on nearly 200,000 acres (81,000 hectares) of managed wetlands in the Pacific Flyway.

Numerous members of the Authority have embarked on water supply and ecosystem restoration partnerships that provide valuable water supply reliability for both farmers and their managed wetland neighbours [12].

  1. What are you hoping you will be able to achieve in the context of partnerships for the next 10 years?

These successes, fuelled by multi-stakeholder partnerships, are achieving very encouraging results. More environmental groups, farmers, and public water agencies are willing to invest in cooperative research projects that are leading to measurable results. The environmental community finds success in creating more productive habitat that helps struggling fish populations. Agricultural and urban water users are able to look toward more reliable water supplies; learning that non-flow measures are more effective than an environmental water grab at achieving broad ranging ecosystem goals.

  1. Are there any take-home lessons for Australia?

Look for common ground. We don’t always agree on everything but even the most diverse group of stakeholders can find areas of common interest on which they can work together. That is where the real successes are. Defining common goals and working together to achieve common interests is the solution that has often eluded California water users for more than a century.

Further details:

If you have any involvement in environmental watering or have a great idea how it could be improved, we would love to hear from you. Get in touch with NSWIC via email


[4] In partnership with Birdlife Australia, the Australian Government, Coleambally Irrigation,  Murray Irrigation, National Landcare Programme, Rural Industries (Research and Development Corporation, the Norman Wettenhall Foundation, Murrumbidgee Naturalists Fields, Murrumbidgee Landcare, Local Land Services Murray, Local Land Services Riverina and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.

Editorial by Andrew Gregson

We’ve just concluded our first Conference. Held at Old Parliament House in Canberra, it attracted great numbers and some sensational international keynote speakers. The theme of the event was Perspectives on Irrigated Agriculture and was designed to prod people – in the words of Professor Tony Allan – to “think differently”.
Why “think differently”? Simple, really; a different perspective on a problem is a great way to find a solution that in hindsight might be obvious. It is very simple to be caught up in the day-today issues in which we find ourselves dealing. To occasionally take the time to step back, look from a different angle and to view the bigger picture can be most rewarding. It allows us to refocus, to see where it is that we’re trying to go and to fashion a path to get there.
The last session of the day was titled “What Have We Learned”. Its aim was to ensure that people captured something from the event; that they identified at least something in the day that was worth remembering and acting upon. I know I certainly did. In listening to the views of our two international keynote speakers – Professor Tony Allan from Kings College of London and Mike Wade, the Executive Director of the California Farm Water Coalition – I quickly realised that we’re not alone. Irrigators in Australia are facing many of the same issues that those in California and Europe are facing. We’re all dealing with it in subtly different ways, which is ideal; there is much for us to learn from others. What works in dealing with public perceptions in California might well work here. At very least, it’s worth a try. A big realisation for me, though, came from Professor Allan. Like all good realisations, it’s one that is perfectly obvious in hindsight. The demand for water is not driven by irrigators – it’s driven by consumers. We grow what consumers demand. It is the consumer, then, that must take at least part of the responsibility for the use of water in agriculture.

Read the full Productive Water Journal from Winter 2013 [HERE]

Editorial by Andrew Gregson

I’ve heard the word “done” a lot in the last few days in reference to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, albeit in a range of contexts. I’ve heard “we’ve been done”, I’ve heard “the Greenies got done” but perhaps most troubling of all I’ve heard “it’s done”. The good news is that we’ve ended up with a Plan drastically better than it might have been, thanks in no small parts to the efforts of community and irrigation leaders who give their time to NSWIC. As the article inside attests, the Plan is a long way from perfect, but a long way from what it might have been. By no means, though, is it “done”. The implementation period lies ahead, and it is in that period that danger lies. During the last four years, we invested a whole lot of resource into ensuring the Plan was a discussion point around the dinner tables of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane. We took a rural issue and made it important in urban electorates. That, to a large extent, assisted in softening the impact of the thing. The danger now lies in those  same dinner tables thinking it is “done” whilst we get “done” in the implementations. We need to be on top of – and involved in – Environmental Watering Plans, Water Recovery Strategies, Environmental Works and Measures
programs and countless funding and charging decisions. Each and every one of those has the capacity to turn the Plan on its head and leave us with the sort of outcomes that we don’t want. Now is the time for detail, the time to be vigilant and the time to be well informed. We need to hear from you and you need to hear from us. Thanks for staying in touch. 
ake no mistake – water is scarce and there are many competing demands. Ensuring sufficient Productive Water is and will continue to be an ongoing and difficult task. It’s far from done…

Read the full Productive Water Journal from Summer 2013 [HERE]

Editorial by Andrew Gregson

We’re at the pointy end of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. As I write, furious negotiations continue between the States and the Commonwealth to arrive at a position that they can support. There’s no guarantee that it will
be reached, but Federal Minister Tony Burke is sufficiently confident as to have extended the timeframe in which the States can make comment.
Inside this issue, we look at one of the longest running and most vexed issues in NSW water infrastructure – Menindee Lakes. There can be little doubt that this system is an engineering feat in the first instance, but more clearly needs to be done to ensure their efficient operation. Evaporation in that part of NSW can run as high as two metres per year resulting in whopping losses of water when they’re full – as they are now. Irrigators across the State have an interest in seeing that system managed efficiently.
At the same time, focus on water recovery at Menindee brings into start contrast the absurdity of the entire Murray-Darling Basin Plan debate. As one irrigator put it to me recently, what’s the point of saving water from evaporating at Menindee only to send it off to evaporate in the lower Lakes of South Australia? I had the great pleasure not too long ago to attend the 100th birthday of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. Her Excellency,  Professor Marie Bashir, the Governor of New South Wales, spoke with such passion about the area in which she grew up that it was impossible not to be transported back to the time that our forebears carved such a magnificent
agricultural area from so little. Their forethought, effort and sacrifice created a food bowl that sustained Australia’s growth into the modern democracy that it is today.
As I drove through the area, appreciating it in a new light, I couldn’t help but marvel how far divorced Canberra is from this reality. What sort of mindset drives a policy maker to risk inflicting damage such as the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on the achievements our forebears made?

Read the full Productive Water Journal from Spring 2012 [HERE]

Editorial by Andrew Gregson

Welcome to the fourth edition of Productive Water, the Journal of the NSW Irrigators Council. We’ve been delighted at the reception this Journal has received from Water Access License Holders across the State. Your feedback has been greatly welcome – and continues to be. Don’t hesitate to be in touch with us. 
Inside this issue you’ll find a range of articles that, when seen together, reflect the extremely broad agenda that NSW Irrigators Council is faced with. It seems that not a day goes past without another issue falling onto our collective desks. Aside from the Basin Plan (which you’ll find further detail on inside), we’ve recently been advised that both the NSW Government and Opposition intend to separately look at Just Terms Compensation legislation in this State.
That’s obviously a big issue for irrigators as we continue to defend water as a property right. The Menindee Lakes, sitting between the Upper and Lower Darling and as the linchpin between the Northern and Southern Basin, have had their fair share of attention over the past few years. It was under the previous Federal Government
(under Prime Minister Rudd) that first set aside $400m to achieve efficiency savings. To date, nothing has been done to achieve that – but the NSW Office of Water has contributed an article in this edition explaining some of the options at the Lakes.
In our “View From Here” regular feature, we’ve published an academic view of the comparisons between California, Australia and Israel authored by Michael Gilmont from Kings College in London. I first met Michael a few years ago at World Water Week in Stockholm. He’s since visited a range of irrigators and regions in Australia with us and will likely be one of the global thought leaders over the next couple of decades, so his article is well worth a read.
NSW Farmers Association, a Member of NSW Irrigators Council, is at the forefront of the current debate over the impact on land and water resources of mining and coal seam gas development. That leadership culminated in a significant rally at Parliament House in Sydney not long ago. Brianna Casey from NSWFA has contributed an article which provides and excellent background on the issue.

Read the full Productive Water Journal from Winter 2012 [HERE]