The Water-Energy Nexus Down Under

Water scarcity and rising power costs meet on farms in New South Wales, Australia

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[Truck ignition starts up]

Trevor Hill: I'll show you the top, the difference, you can see that that just looks like an open field. Well, it's got little banks across it, and that retains the water in....

[truck noise]

Jean Kumagai: Every morning just after sunrise and every evening just before sundown, Trevor Hill examines the rice fields on his thousand-acre farm.

[sound of metal chain striking gate and footsteps on dirt]

Jean Kumagai: He wades knee-deep into the irrigation channel that feeds the tender green shoots and he checks the water level.

[sound of water flowing]

Trevor Hill: I'm going to increase the flow here because my green marker—there's about a centimeter of white post there below the green marker—I want to bring that back up a little.

Jean Kumagai: Too little water won't do for a thirsty crop like rice. But too much water, well, that's even worse.

[sound of irrigation water]

Jean Kumagai: In Australia, water now commands a price, and in drought-stricken areas like Griffith, New South Wales, that price is high. The country has the world's most sophisticated water market, which Hill and other farmers rely on to buy and sell their irrigation water. The intention was to make water users more efficient, and in that sense it's working.

Trevor Hill: In those early days we were really wasting water, there's no doubt about that. We were just, uh, there was plenty of it. We were just splashing it around. And our annual usage would get up to about two-and-a-half thousand megaliters.

Jean Kumagai: These days, with an annual water allocation of just 1600 megaliters, Hill's splashing-around days are done. Now he does a daily computer check to log how much water he's used and to track the current market price.

Trevor Hill:…and then what we'll do here is I'll click on that…and then I'll put today's date, which is the 25th of Jan…

Jean Kumagai: Trevor Hill and his wife, Gerardine, have worked their farm for 33 years and raised three children here. Despite the dry surrounding fields, their yellow-brick farmhouse is a warm, inviting place. A rose garden blooms at the foot of the sloping yard, and there's a menagerie of chickens, ducks, dogs, a wary cat, and a chatty long-billed Australian cockatoo named Charlie. Just before dawn, flocks of native birds strike up a raucous, rousing chorus.

[sound of birds]

Trevor Hill: Did you hear them at daylight this morning? All the birds?

Jean Kumagai: Oh my gosh…yes [laughing]

Trevor Hill: It was like, do you ever get peace here?

[sound of birds]

Jean Kumagai: It's not the birds that bother Hill's sleep. His difficult profession is becoming an impossible one as he watches the price of water rise by a factor of 10 in a single growing season.

Trevor Hill: You're trying to do everything to stay on top. You're really dotting the i's and crossing the t's, and through external forces, you're becoming—not a bad manager, but you could've done it better.

Jean Kumagai: Now, Trevor and Gerardine Hill are seriously thinking about moving on.

Gerardine Hill: I love this place and I love farming. But I like what we used to do, not what we're doing now….In some of the rural small towns you go through, they're just like a ghost town. We still want to do farming, but just not with irrigation. It's just too hard.

Jean Kumagai: Farming in Australia is about to get even harder. The federal government is now devising new rules restricting the amount of water throughout the country's main food bowl, known as the Murray-Darling Basin. Mike Taylor is the head of the agency overseeing the new plan. He explains how past efforts tackled problems like water salinity but didn't address the fact that far too much water was being used.

Mike Taylor: We actually dealt with the salinity problem remarkably well. What we weren't dealing with well were the environmental impacts of what is very much an overused system in terms of its water allocation. And now we find the system unbelievably stressed.

Jean Kumagai: “Stressed” can take many forms: pesticide and fertilizer runoff that triggers rampant algal blooms; healthy streams reduced to muddy puddles; infestations of carp that push out native fish; the dying off of native trees and grasses; the disappearance of entire wetlands, and with them, all the birds, fish, and animals. Trevor Hill comes from a family of fishermen. He grew up on the river and witnessed the damage firsthand.

[sound of water]

Trevor Hill: See that ripple going through there in the water? That'll be fish. They're carp—they're a disaster to this country. On the river system down there on our other property, there's a big lagoon or billabong, and the river used to fill it and the carp would breed up in it. And over a period of about 10 years, the river become so overloaded with carp that they took over all the native fish.

Jean Kumagai: The new water plan aims to restore the environment by fundamentally changing the way water is managed. Government scientists are now figuring out just how much surface and groundwater there is. Then they'll set limits on how much of it can be used by humans. Mike Taylor.

Mike Taylor: So one of the important tasks we've got, even though the environment comes first in this, is working out how we can develop watering regimes that will both address the environment but also address critical human needs for water and provide a sustainable level of diversions for productive purposes. And that is going to be a serious challenge. Some people are not likely to be pleased about these changes. Almost certainly the decisions of the basin plan will contract the amount of water available for human consumption purposes.

Jean Kumagai: Meanwhile, farmers are doing what they can to use less water. Trevor Hill's rice fields are irrigated by way of a century-old network of open-air channels that crisscross the farmland around Griffith. Many of those channels are now being replaced with high-pressure pipelines and pumps, to reduce the amount of leakage and evaporation and allow for water-conserving techniques like drip irrigation. But those pipelines and pumps consume a lot of electricity: about two and a half million dollars' worth each year. That means a farmer can end up paying more for the electricity used to deliver the water than for the water itself. Brett Tucker is CEO of Murrumbidgee Irrigation, which manages the irrigation network.

Brett Tucker: Our customers ultimately wear the bill for this, so the two and a half million dollars extra that we incur as a cost to run our sites we ultimately pass through the water charges to our customers. Customers are literally saying, yes, we like the advantages of drip irrigation, we love the fact that it saves water, we can then market our spare water and create additional revenues. But the energy costs are becoming quite significant, and they're nervous that they're only heading one way. They're not getting any cheaper; energy's not getting any cheaper. So they're worried that it will become a more and more significant cost to their business.

Jean Kumagai: For Mike Neville, the mayor of Griffith, the issue is not just the added burden on each farmer but also whether the community itself can continue to thrive.

Mike Neville: The resource that we run on, live on, dream about, is water. It's well documented that the first European that actually saw this area said that it was desolate, and nothing good could ever come from it, couldn't grow anything, therefore just forget about it, and he moved on. But years later after at the turn of the last century, they started the irrigation system and brought water here and with it, brought prosperity. This community's heart is the people, but the stimulus for that heart is the water that comes here.

Jean Kumagai: With less water to go around, the heart falters. There's been an uptick in suicides in the past few years, and the state government now sends a mental-health worker to monthly meetings in town. Some farmers have sold their land and water rights and moved elsewhere. Keeping enough water in the region is a high priority, Mayor Neville says.

Mike Neville: Once they start to leave, it's very, very hard to stop that and stem the tide. But we're very clever; we're resourceful and resilient. And I guess resilient if anything is probably the most appropriate word for people that choose to stay here long term.

Jean Kumagai: You could describe Griffith farmer Terry McFarlane that way. A tall, lanky man in his 40s, he grows pumpkins, lettuce, and other vegetables and then extracts and sells their seeds. He recently installed an automated, GPS-guided irrigation system. One of the main advantages, he says, is that the plants get exactly the water they need.

Terry McFarlane: On a hot day you could have water sitting in the field and these things will be wilting. It's because they got so wet that it took all the oxygen out of the soil, and the plant had shut down, basically. But this system here, it's really neat; it's um, there's no stress at all to the plant, so we're hoping to see a yield improvement with these too.

[sound of irrigation motor starting up]

Jean Kumagai: As the water pressure builds inside the sprinkler system, the irrigator rolls forward slowly on wheels, and a gentle spray of water starts to descend.

[sound of water sprinkler]

Terry McFarlane [in background]: You're going to get wet. You better step away.

Terry McFarlane: It's really nice, isn't it, when it does that.

Jean Kumagai: Yeah, it's really beautiful.

Terry McFarlane: It is, very. I just love the way—it's a very peaceful way of irrigating, I think.

Jean Kumagai: But the system has required major upgrades on the farm. Then there's the added cost of electricity. It's the first season with the new set-up, and McFarlane is still not sure if it will ultimately pay off.

Terry McFarlane: So I need someone to tell me whether I've done the right thing. I've gone from a low-cost system—no-cost, virtually—gravity fed—to a system where now I'm relying on fuel and electricity. Did I do the right thing? [laughs]

Jean Kumagai: For Trevor and Gerardine Hill, doing the right thing just gets more difficult every year. They believe city folks have little regard for the struggles that farmers endure.

Trevor Hill: I got a feeling they just seem to think the shelves in the supermarket just keep stocking themselves. They don't sort of realize that somebody actually has to produce this. If they want to cut our supply off and we're not doing anything out here, where's the food gonna come from? Sometimes we think, come on, bring on the drought. Make those people realize just how well off they are by having farmers out here that are actually supplying good food.


Jean Kumagai: In New South Wales, Australia, I'm Jean Kumagai.

To Probe Further

Check out the rest of the special report: Water vs Energy.