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).

NSW leaving the Basin Plan now would mean more buy-backs instead of $1 billion investment in infrastructure projects.

The Basin Plan has damaged irrigation communities, but now, scrapping the Basin Plan would make matters so much worse. With the hurt that a suite of reforms has had on irrigation communities, it is no wonder why people are calling for big change. But – we need to be very careful what we wish for.

  • Leaving the Basin Plan means less water – through buybacks

Withdrawing from the Basin Plan means the Federal Government would be required to buy-back additional water – another 20%. We cannot afford to forgo any more water.

  • Leaving the Basin Plan would not mean any more water

Abolishing the Basin Plan would not change how water is shared between the states. That is because those arrangements are not in the Basin Plan – they go much further back to earlier agreements (e.g. the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement). It is also separate to state water allocation policies.

  • Abolishing the Basin Plan would not change the water market

The water market also predates the Basin Plan, and is separate to it, so abolishing the Basin Plan would not fix the critical issues with the water market. Water prices would remain high, trends of water demand would continue, and market operations would continue.

  • An Inspector-General with investigative powers akin to a Royal Commission is good news

This statutory position will be critical to building integrity to water management. It is also much more informative and valuable then a one-off review. From our discussions so far, we have confidence in the Commissioner.

  • The Basin Plan is pretty much complete, in terms of the impact to farmers.

Water recovery is complete in nearly every valley. The irrigation industry has done our fair share, now the remainder of the lifting is up to the NSW Government through implementing projects.

Perhaps the greatest risk in terms of the Basin Plan now (apart from withdrawing), is if the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism (SDLAM) stalls. The risk is, that government would then have to go back into the agricultural water bucket and buy-back more water. There remains a problem that the projects have been so poorly developed that communities lack confidence and support – we need flexibility to get these done right for local communities.

  • Abolishing the Basin Plan would not fix the supply issue – drought.

It is devastating timing that the worst drought on record has coincided with one of the largest water reforms in our history – meaning the lack of water, and removal of water, have come as one big hit. However, getting rid of the Basin Plan now would not reverse this damage, nor would it fix the supply issue (lack of rain and inflows).

People say, “it is not just the drought”, and they are right there, but it is one mighty big part of the problem. With less than 1% of typical inflows coming into the system there becomes an issue. Water management becomes difficult when there’s not much water to manage.

  • Abolishing the Basin Plan would likely lead to another centrepiece reform

With high public interest in the Murray-Darling Basin, it is unfathomable to think that if the Basin Plan was abolished, there wouldn’t be a round 2. In the current era, what would Basin Plan 2 look like?


So, where does that position us?

Earlier this month, NSWIC passed a policy motion on the Basin Plan with unanimous support.

The motion acknowledged that NSWIC historically (pre 2012) opposed the Basin Plan, but since it has become implemented as law (post 2012), NSWIC works to ensure optimal implementation of the key individual elements for the sector.

It is the policy position of NSWIC that future implementation of the Basin Plan must involve no additional water recovery through buy-backs, recognition that the remaining elements of the Plan present significant challenges and require increased flexibility in implementation, and greater adaptive management that acknowledges the issues facing the irrigation sector and communities.

The situation is far from good, and there are many areas that require vast improvement in the implementation of the Basin Plan – such as what has already been provided in a thorough review of the implementation of the Basin Plan by the Productivity Commission. That is our pathway forward to better outcomes.

For that reason, and after thoroughly assessing all possible options, NSWIC cannot possibly support any action that would place our sector at such monumental risk of a further loss of water.


So, what are we doing about it? 

NSWIC asks Basin Governments to work towards a Better Plan that truly gets better outcomes for these people and helps stop the economic depression that faces communities. 

NSWIC has continued to work on advocating for better water policy that achieves real outcomes for our communities. You can see our Action Statement on our website.  

This is all about getting water to our farmers so they can grow food and crops for the benefit of all Australians, and keep pressure off the costs of living of Australian families.  

See our website for more information on how NSWIC is working towards a Better Plan. [HERE]

By Steve Whan – CEO of National Irrigators’ Council (NIC)

With most farmers in NSW on zero allocation and many in Victoria and NSW unable to afford prices for temporary allocation, it is entirely understandable that we are seeing a significant amount of frustration, anger and many people are looking to find a solution. 

I understand that’s why some people think that the answer is to ditch the Basin Plan. 

“Scrapping” the Basin Plan would not stop the impacts of drought. But it is important to think through what that would mean. 

Inter-governmental agreements that pre-date the Basin Plan (and are separate) govern how water is shared between the States, so ‘scrapping’ the Plan would not change how much was allocated to NSW, Victoria or South Australia. Not one more drop of water would be available. 

The Water Market is also separate to the Basin Plan, so ‘scrapping’ the Plan would not return water to anyone who sold entitlement or has not received an allocation.  It would do nothing to reduce the very high price for allocation, address the operation of the market or the movement of allocations.

Environmental Water ‘owned’ in exactly the same way as irrigators own their entitlement so getting rid of the Plan would not mean environmental water returned to the consumptive pool. 

The question that needs to be answered by advocates of scrapping the plan is what would it be replaced with? Is it realistic to think that some iteration of a new plan would include less than the current Plan requires for the environment? 

There is no scenario in which there is a majority in the Parliament for a Plan that requires less water for the environment.  Some loud voices seem to think that individual MPs can achieve these results, forgetting that any change has to get a majority of all members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. 

And we have to be realistic about that.  It’s unlikely a change like that would even get through the Liberal Party room, let alone a Senate where Labor, Greens and just South Australian cross-bench command a majority. 

There are some real challenges remaining with the Basin Plan implementation.  We need to work to overcome them – but we won’t do that with slogans.

The supply projects that make up the 605GL of Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Measures are a key one. 

The real danger of our current situation is that these measures may not be successfully put in place by the State Governments. 

If they are not, the Basin Plan legislation makes it very clear that the Federal Government can go back in and buyback the 605GL.  Most of that would come from the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Goulburn. 

Minister Littleproud has been criticised for pointing this challenge out, he has been accused of threatening communities.  The fact is the ‘threat’ was very deliberately put into the legislation in 2012 and even if he wanted to, the Minister can’t just make it disappear. 

He could take the easy option of saying what people want to hear, of making promises he knows he can’t keep.  But that’s not leadership.  Leadership means telling people a tough truth rather than going for easy populism. 

NIC knows that a failure to achieve the supply projects is a threat to irrigation, it’s a threat with a potential billion dollar negative impact on Murray and Murrumbidgee communities.  We have, a number of times, pointed out how wrong it is to have the cost of failure resting on communities while the responsibility for implementation rests with Government. 

No matter how you look at it, it is a threat and the only way to remove it is to make sure the 605 projects (or equivalent) are implemented.  That’s why we have been urging State Government’s to accelerate their activity, accept their responsibility and ensure maximum flexibility on the projects.

We do have a way forward on some of these really difficult issues, it is via the recommendations of the Productivity Commission’s five-year review.  The review pointed out how difficult it was going to be to deliver the supply measures by 2024 and it questioned whether the 450GL efficiency measures could be delivered (given system constraints); it also called for a reassessment of the salt export objective (linked to how much water flows out the Murray mouth). 

It and several other reports talked about the importance of complimentary measures as well. 

So far Government’s have been somewhat half-hearted in their response to the Productivity Commission. NIC and National Farmers have called for more action and this is real opportunity to improve the implementation of the Basin Plan and address some of the Plan related issues that are causing problems. 

In my view anyone really concerned about the future of irrigation communities would direct their efforts at lobbying hard to make sure we use the opportunity provided by the Productivity Commission recommendations to get changes to the way remaining elements of the Plan will be implemented to ensure they are realistic, deliverable and produce good outcomes all round.

Finally, like so many of us I have been thinking a lot about the bush fire victims and the volunteers over the last couple of weeks.  It is often hard to know how to help but as a regular donor to the Red Cross I decided to give some money via this link [HERE], I know the Salvos also have a fund. 

When I was NSW emergency services Minister, a decade ago, this sort of early simultaneous fire season (i.e. QLD, NSW and even still California) was quite unusual – now with climate change and this terrible drought it seems to be becoming common.  It’s frightening and reminds us all just how grateful we are to the volunteers from the RFS, SES and the welfare groups who are being stretched by these conditions. 

Best wishes and stay safe. 

Visit the National Irrigators’  Council website [HERE].

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/

By Christine Freak, Jim Cush, Linda Christesen

This week a number of our Members took part in our Floodplain Harvesting Tour. The Members travelled throughout the Gwydir and Namoi Valleys to look at a range of irrigation farms and river systems, and also heard from the Government about the Healthy Floodplains Project.

The tour was a huge success, and we are very thankful to our Members Gwydir Valley Irrigators Association and Namoi Water for hosting the group, and for Coleambally Irrigation, Murray Irrigation and Ricegrowers Association for taking part. 

Some of the take-home messages from the trip included:

  • FPH is a very infrequent and irregular event, with events happening only 1 in 5 years (estimated average) or for many farms further from a waterway, only 1 in 8 years. 
  • Farmers have invested significantly to develop structures to store flood water in these wet years, in order to have a water supply for a number of years into the future when it’s dry. This prevents the need to take water from rivers during these dry periods. These structures also allow water to be recycled on the farm.
  • The geography and hydrology of the Northern Basin is unique, as water moves through small creek systems and floodplains.
  • FPH is just part of a portfolio of water sources which irrigation farmers have to manage risk.
  • The current licensing process is about regulating an existing historic practice – it will not allow any more water to be taken.
  • The volume of take during a floodplain event is often very small in comparison to the total volume of floodplain flows at the time.





Day 1

The tour started in the Gwydir Valley at Moree, where we heard that the valley is characterised by low water reliability, but is also currently facing serious drought conditions – on par with the worst drought on record. The below maps shows the extent of the floodplain areas in the Gwydir. As you can see, the flood extent map covers a significant amount of the area.

Our first visit was to Peter’s property west of Moree. Peter explained how his family have developed their land and built infrastructure to carefully manage the extreme climatic fluctuations between floods and droughts, which are typical in the area. This has involved significantly investing in infrastructure to prevent floodwater from damaging crops, and having the storage capacity so that when it does flood on to his farm, his family can use that water in future years. Peter is pictured below at their pump site where the water is metered, with the NSWIC Chair Jim Cush.

Peter also showed us a creek at the back of his property where the force of the extreme floods in this area can be seen.

We then went to see the farm of the NSWIC Chair, Jim, and we saw how the farm is designed to manage and recycle water. Jim explained that his farm has been designed around managing floodwater effectively. Jim explained:

the ability to store floodwater takes the pressure off
both farmers and the river system in dry years.”

We then headed into Narrabri where we met with a representative of the Department of Industry who gave a presentation on the Healthy Floodplains Project.

The Healthy Floodplains project aims to improve on this system of regulation by implementing a new three-fold compliance approach, including monitoring of actual take at an individual and valley-scale rather than using modelled estimates, and monitoring of storages to determine volumes of take. Currently floodplain harvesting is controlled through work approvals process under the NSW Water Act 1912. This process provides regulation of floodplain protection structures.

Note – The NSWIC is supportive of the need to licence floodplain harvesting activities and to issue the appropriate water access licences to bring a recognised and accepted practice into line with the requirements of the Water Management Act 2000.


Day 2

Day 2 started with a visit to a cotton farm in the Namoi Valley. The farmer explained that a large focus of theirs over the previous few years has been gaining the ability to determine the sources of water used on the farm, particularly when the water is recycled to be used multiple on the farm. He explained that the use of telemetry has been a huge benefit to recording the volumes of water on farm more easily. The dam storage has been surveyed, including all the internal curvature, so that a reading of the water level can accurately indicate the volume of water in the storage, which can then be communicated directly using telemetry.

Groundwater is used to provide the baseline amount of water, with the bore deeply sunk so that smaller nearby farms and graziers can use shallower bores for their water access. Floodplain water is used occasionally on this farm as part of the water portfolio.

We then headed to Namoi Water, where we learnt of the history of FPH management and policy development. This included how irrigation farmers have actively participated in the process in good-faith, such as through Irrigator Behavior Surveys. We also heard some more technical information regarding the modelling of FPH, and asked whether the model can generate an entitlement that will accurately reflect historical use, as is intended.

We discussed the challenge of including rainfall runoff within a FPH licence. The group discussed that rainfall runoff is a ‘created water’ rather than a form of take, as farmers have invested significantly in ensuring the runoff from their properties can be recycled and reused to maximise water efficiency – and thus this recycled water is not a form of take.

The next stop was Waverley, near Wee Waa. This property is located a larger distance from the major waterways, so there is significantly less opportunity to store floodwaters. Here the reliability of flood water is about 12.5% (1 in 8 years). We got to see a cotton harvest (grown from groundwater and supplementary), as well as a new system of irrigation using a double channel to reduce labor time. 

Overall, the tour was a great success and clearly demonstrated two of the core values of NSWIC under our 2019-2024 Strategic Plan: Collaboration and Leadership. It is so important that our community of irrigation farmers in NSW work together to understand and discuss the challenges we face.

Moving forward, we must continue our efforts to ensure that FPH is licensed appropriately in a way which supports public confidence and trust, and recognises this highly valued form of water security for farmers in these areas who face climatic extremes of droughts and floods.


For more information on FPH – see our video: https://www.nswic.org.au/factsheets/