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.