NSW Irrigators’ Council sent a delegation to California for a study tour of water management and irrigation farming. The delegation visited many of the key irrigation regions in the state, through the San Joaquin Valley, Sacramento Valley, and Imperial Valley.

California and Australia (NSW) have many similarities when it comes to water. Both states are all too familiar with extreme climates of droughts, and have well established irrigation regions as a vital part of the economy and livelihoods. Both states are also amidst the implementation of regimes to ensure water use is sustainable. This means that there is valuable opportunity to share lessons and experiences between the states when it comes to managing water. [1] 

Of course, there are also a number of fundamental differences (e.g. in the legal, engineering and political domains, as well as the sheer scale of production).


California is the largest agricultural producing US state, with 70,521 farms, an average farm size of 348 acres, and 24.5 million acres in total agricultural land. The scale of irrigation development is staggering, with significant further development occurring, particularly permanent plantings. Key crops include almonds, grapes, pistachios, dairy, lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, and walnuts.

In an average year, 40% of California’s irrigation water comes from groundwater, but this can rise to 65% during droughts. The snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains is a key water supply for California. As a general rule, two thirds of California’s water is generated in the north of the State, above Sacramento, and two-thirds of the water use is in the south of the State.

California has developed significant water infrastructure to redistribute water across the state, which has been critical for their economic development, as well as the water security of southern counties such as Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego. At maximum capacity, the State-owned California Aqueduct can move up to 32,000 megalitres per day, and the federally owned Medota Canal around 11,000 megalitres.

The Metropolitan Water Board is the largest supplier of treated water in the United States, serving approximately 19 million people living in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties. The District imports water from the Feather River in Northern California and the Colorado River to supplement local supplies.

Sustainable Groundwater Management Act

Most of the industry organisations and irrigation infrastructure operators whom we met with, reported that the new 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) was their largest concern. That said, it was the largely accepted view that something needs to be done to manage water use sustainably.

Estimates are varied, but it was often quoted that California’s groundwater was being over drawn annually by between 1.8 million to 2.4 million acre/ft (2.2 million to 3 million megalitres).

SGMA is intended to be locally developed with a bottom-up approach, where local level Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSA’s) develop the means to meet SGMA requirements. As of late January, 108 GSA’s were required to submit their initial Groundwater Sustainability Plans to comply with SGMA. These plans must lead to a defined degree of sustainability within 20 years.

SGMA is based on avoiding 6 undesirable results – lowering groundwater levels, reduction of storage, seawater intrusion, degraded quality, land subsidence and surface water depletion.

Overall, SGMA is expected to see a 2.4 million acre foot reduction in consumptive water use. For the irrigation community, this will have tremendous impacts. Economic modelling projects that SGMA impacts will involve:

  • Fallowed acres: 992,000
  • Crop revenue lost: $7.2 billion
  • Lost operating income in San Joaquin Valley agriculture: $1.9 billion
  • Direct farm job losses: 42,000
    • Lost employee income annually: $1.1 billion
  • Total job losses:
    • 65,000 in the San Joaquin Valley ($1.7 billion in lost employee income)
    • 85,000 state-wide ($2.1 billion in state-wide lost employee income)
  • (state-wide) lost operating income annually: $3.3 billion

Progress to sustainability is a matter of either increasing the supply of surface water or decreasing demand. Unlike Australia, water rights in California are tied to land, which limits the ability to trade and is a key determinant/limitation in the policy options in moving towards sustainable use. If the full groundwater overdraft was to be met by reducing demand, estimates suggest between 700,000 and 1,500,000 acres might have to be fallowed, out of the existing 6,900,000 acres of irrigation in the critical groundwater areas. Alternatives include increasing surface water by bringing more water down from northern California, and/or utilising “water banking” (aquifer recharge).

Water Banking [2]

Water Banking – or Managed Aquifer Recharge – involves actively recharging groundwater levels. The Kern Water Bank is a groundwater recharge facility in Kern County which recharges around 600,000 megalitres per year into the aquifer to store for future use. Water Banking has many benefits, including water storage with no/little evaporation loss, improving water security, and replenishing overdrawn aquifers and providing environmental benefits. [3] It would be of interest for Australia to explore the feasibility of this method.

Environmental Management

A number of irrigation farmers, particularly in the rice growing areas, have been working with conservation/environmental groups to manage water, particularly over winter to provide habitat for migrating birds and also for fish nutrient growth. This involves farmers cultivating rice and other crops during the spring and summer, and then providing habitat for wild birds, reptiles and other fauna during the winter.

There has been a dramatic reduction in the population of winter-run chinook salmon making the journey from the Pacific Ocean to the upper reaches of the Sacremento River, from 25,000 in the 1970s to just 2,000 today. Irrigation farmers are actively working to be part of the solution by growing food for fish. This involves flooding rice fields with water, which breaks down the standing rice stalks into food for bugs, which causes a quickly growing bug population providing a nutrient rich diet for fish. This nutrient rich diet, which has 15,000% more fish food than there otherwise would be, which helps to increase the likelihood of young salmon reaching the ocean. This is an excellent example of a positive collaboration between farmers and environmental management.


There is much that we can learn from each other when it comes to water security challenges. We thank our friends at the Farm Water Coalition [4] for sharing their knowledge and expertise, as well as all the many farmers and water managers whom we met along the way. Many of the challenges for managing water are not unique to Australia, and insights from abroad can provide valuable knowledge on just how far we have come, and what future opportunities exist.


[1] Of course, there are also a number of fundamental differences (e.g. in the legal, engineering and political domains, as well as the sheer scale of production).

By NSWIC with photos from Matthew Herring

Have you ever thought of a farmer as a steward for the environment? If not, you might be surprised by the work that some of them undertake to protect the land they live and work on.
To get some insight, you can have a read of our blog posts from the EnvIrrigators campaign where we showcased some examples of the environmental benefits farmers have to the environment around them.

The wet nature of rice fields especially creates a habitat for a variety of bird species including the endangered Bunyip Bird (Bittern). A collaborative project between several organisations and Government Departments called “Bitterns in Rice” works to strengthen conservation efforts by bringing farming and wildlife protection together.  You can find an abundance of information and news on their website [HERE].

One of the contributors to this project is Matthew Herring who has kindly provided us with photos to showcase that not only the Bittern is flourishing in rice fields but several other bird species as well.

While the majority of the area in the Murray-Darling Basin is either managed by farm businesses or the environment, a co-management practice is an alternative that benefits all areas. Especially in times of drought where water is scarce it’s crucial to allow the little water that’s left to be used by agriculture and environment simultaneously so that not one or the other is missing out.





All photos in this post were taken recently and if you want more inspiration, you can head over to Matt’s twitter account [HERE] where he posts updates on the birds he spots in the Riverina.

Water efficiency enables irrigation farmers to stay productive

When you think about irrigation, the first thing that comes to mind, is probably not “water efficiency”. After all, the farmer is using more water, right?

However, that is not the case when you are as efficient in managing water as our Australian farmers.

With the right technology and planning, usage of water can go down while value of production goes up.

Despite the Murray-Darling Basin Plan meaning our farmers have had to hand over 2075GL of water away from agriculture, so it can be used for the environment, we have seen our irrigated agriculture sector increase production value through improved water use efficiency.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that in 2017-18 the value of fruits and nuts produced using irrigation increased by 9.2% and dairy increased by 8.3%.

“In 2017-18 Basin irrigators grew more than 70% of all Australia’s grapes, 41% of fruit and nuts, 20% of our vegetables, 99% of rice and 82% of cotton – among other products.” [1]

And that’s just in the Murray-Darling Basin. When it comes to the whole of Australia, the numbers are even higher: “Australia’s irrigators produced 82.5% of our vegies, 92.5% of fruit and nuts, 92% of grapes, 92% of cotton, 100% of rice, 52.5% of dairy, 52% of sugar cane” [1].

Irrigation is a very important part of Australian agriculture; without it the farmers wouldn’t be able to grow their crops and feed the nation in drier years. Modern irrigation infrastructure allows for water to be stored in dams both on farms and in rivers in wet years, and also includes equipment and technology to use the available water as efficiently as possible to last longer.
This will reflect in data showing that farm production keeps going no matter the weather. This enables the industry to keep communities alive and produce enough food and fibre for the whole nation in both wet and dry years at a relatively stable quality and quantity.

Irrigation allows food and other crops to adapt to the changing climate, and thus will have enduring value to allow Australian farmers to prosper sustainably amidst growing concerns over water security.


[1] https://www.irrigators.org.au/2017-18-stats-show-irrigation-doing-its-job-securing-food-and-fibre/

Why irrigation is important for sustainable food production

  • Irrigation is about getting the most amount of fruit, veggies, grains, fibre (and other produce) with the lowest amount of water resources.

  • Irrigation lets farmers control their water so that it can be used optimally to get the most crop per drop. Water can be applied to a crop in the right quantity, at the right time.

  • Irrigation underpins the production of many fruit, vegetable and cereal crops including soya, berries, nuts, legumes such as mung beans as well as supporting meat, dairy and fibre.

  • Increasing food demand and increasing water scarcity means irrigation has a vital role at the nexus of food and water security into the future.

  • Irrigation technology and infrastructure allows farmers to be more resilient to the harsh realities of Australia’s variable rainfall patterns and dry climate.

  • Since the late 1960s, irrigation farmers have worked with governments through multiple stages of water reform, actively seeking to improve the environmental and productive resilience of their local regions.

  • Irrigation in NSW contributes more than $3.5 billion to the State’s economy [1]  and employs tens of thousands of people across the production and value chain.


We must continue to recognise the role of irrigation in sustainable food and fibre production, through efficient management of water resources, as well as the environmental stewardship of our farmers by protecting biodiversity, providing drought refuges for wildlife, and in conserving native species.


Full credit and all rights for the previous stories are reserved for the relevant Member Organisation. Thank you to our Members, and other partners, for taking part in this campaign.


 [1] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Gross Value Irrigated Agricultural Production 2016-17.

Highlights from World Water Day: Yanco Creek

Irrigation farmers in Yanco Creek are collaborating to improve platypus habitat in their waterways.

This involves over 150 landholders voluntarily contributing through levy payments to improve the health of the creek system. These irrigation farmers highly value wetland ecosystems and the populations of threatened species in the catchment, such as the nationally endangered Trout Cod while at the same time producing high yielding, high quality food and fibre.


Highlights from World Water Day: National Farmers Federation & Australian Farmers

Australian Farmers shared the news of the installation of Australia’s largest solar diesel hybrid irrigation system, which officially turned on last year.

The 1500 solar panels cover almost one hectare of land on Jon Elder’s 6000 acre cotton and wheat irrigated farm. Mr Elder’s irrigation system is now run by a 500kw solar system during the day and as the sun goes down the diesel generator gradually kicks in to water his farm.

“By switching to the hybrid system we will be producing 500 tonnes less greenhouse gas each year. The environmental advantages are incredible,” Mr Elder said.

In the last ten years the price of solar panels has dropped by 85%, which has lead to more farmers making the business decision to use solar in their everyday farming practices.


Photos Courtesy of National Farmers Federation & Australian Farmers. [1

Highlights from World Water Day: 
Murrumbidgee Irrigation

Murrumbidgee Irrigation shared how they deliver environmental flows to several sites, including Tuckerbil Swamp and the Ramsar listed Fivebough swamp, which have been critical in supporting the Australasian bittern breeding.  

Murrumbidgee Irrigation also shared news of a local orchardist, Orlando (Ronnie) Calabria – an 81-year-old orchardist – who has planted 30,000 trees in his lifetime to restore the local environment.

Photo courtesy of Murrumbidgee Irrigation


Highlights from World Water Day: Ricegrowers’ Association

The Ricegrowers Association (RGA) showed how the Australian rice industry is a trailblazer for sustainable irrigation farming, with Australian rice growers using 50% less water to grow one kilo of rice than the world average, and are recognised worldwide for growing high quality rice varieties suitable to Australia’s climate.

The farms where rice is grown host an enormous diversity of wildlife, including threatened or endangered species such as the critically endangered Australasian Bittern and Southern Bell Frog. One of Australia’s most endangered birds, the Australasian Bittern, otherwise known as “the Bunyip bird”, is rarely seen and is a globally threatened species. 

The Bitterns in Rice Project [1]  seeks to bridge the gap between agriculture and wildlife conservation in the Murray-Darling Basin. Rice growers together with scientists are supporting this project. From this project, we have discovered that there is a breeding population into the hundreds using NSW Riverina rice crops as breeding habitat. It is estimated that there is only about 2500 individuals remaining in three countries: Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia.

Highlights from World Water Day: 
Cotton Australia

Cotton Australia shared that Australia is the most water efficient producer of cotton in the world, and is continuing to invest in research to improve water use efficiency. The Australian cotton industry achieved a 40% increase in water efficiencies in the decade to 2013.

On average cotton farms have approximately 42 percent of their land dedicated to native vegetation.  More than 42,000 birds representing 45 species were found on farm water storages in the Gwydir Valley, 153 bird species were found in natural vegetation in the Namoi Valley, and 450 species of invertebrates have been recorded in one cotton field during the summer. [1

Photo courtesy of Cotton Australia


Murray Irrigation

The environment is the single largest customer of Murray Irrigation, which has the largest geographic footprint of all irrigation infrastructure operators in NSW.  Through their agreement with the Office of Environment and Heritage, they are able to deliver environmental flows into  the Edward River, Jimaringle-Cockran and Gwynnes Creeks and the Tuppal Creek.  They also deliver both environmental and operational water into the Wakool River and Billabong Creek (which also service numerous communities in their footprint).

Murray Irrigation has also been working with local farmers and environmental water managers to deliver water through the Murray Private Wetlands Watering Program since its inception in the early 2000s.

EnvIrrigators campaign shows environmental stewardship of irrigation farmers

By Christine Freak

For World Water Day (March 22nd), the NSW Irrigators’ Council launched our EnvIrrigators campaign.

The campaign celebrated irrigation farmers’ environmental stewardship and contributions to water efficient, and thus sustainable, food and fibre production.

The campaign highlighted tremendous examples of irrigation farmers carefully managing their local environment in NSW.

  • Many of our farmers have wetlands on their property and work with the Office of Environment and Heritage to water the area to make a drought refuge for wildlife.
  • We have irrigation farmers in NSW undertaking Native Re-vegetation Programs on their farms to promote biodiversity.
  • We have irrigation schemes who deliver environmental water to valuable wetlands.
  • Furthermore, our irrigation farmers in Australia are some of the most water efficient in the world.


Highlights from World Water Day: Coleambally Irrigation Corporation Limited

CICL has been working with the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) to use their water channel infrastructure to deliver environmental water to natural wetlands in the Coleambally area since 2015. CICL delivers environmental water to a number of native wetlands located on private property that have been otherwise disconnected from naturally occurring periodic water events.

By using their channel infrastructure, environmental water can be delivered to sites which otherwise would only ever be inundated in extremely wet years. These sites are privately owned, and the areas watered are being voluntarily managed by the owners for wildlife conservation.

The primary focus of OEH’s program in the area is the delivery of water to the Wargam Swamps in the south-western part of the CICL area, with water supplied via the West Coleambally Channel. These swamps are located 69km north of Deniliquin and 81km south-west of Coleambally and provide an important refuge habitat in the agricultural landscape for water birds.

CICL is currently partnering with OEH through their Saving Our Species initiative to secure the Southern Bell Frog population in the wild. CICL has also commissioned two field guides for native plants and birds of the Coleambally Irrigation District.

CICL has been working with the Bitterns in Rice team [1]  to monitor bittern breeding in the area and to help develop recommendations for bittern-friendly rice farming. More information about the first Bittern to be tracked by satellites as part of the Bitterns in Rice project, can be found here. [2

Coleambally Irrigation Area has undergone modernisation through a Land and Water Management Program, which is a joint government and community investment in improved land and water management to preserve the environmental sustainability. [3

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 nswic@nswic.org.au


[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.