There must be few Australians nowadays who do not know that they live in the world's driest continent. Over the last few years this water fact of life has had very wide public mention. Quite a few people, some of them well known, have used this fact as a prelude to some rather startling statements about our "grave shortage of water". The rainfall and water run-off records of the United States, which is a country of similar size nearly 8 million square kilometres (three million square miles) may be compared to our own lesser figures. How many people realise the much more important fact that these oft-quoted figures quite clearly disclose, namely that Australians are much better off for water in Australia than Americans are in the United States? On the basis of average annual rainfall of 400 mm (16 inches) in Australia and 740 mm (29 inches) in America our population of near 20 millions would appear to be several times better off than America's 200 millions. It is very apparent that the Australians do not really live in "Dry Australia", because the vast majority of its people live in the parts of the continent with an average annual rainfall comparable to that of America. Although a large part of the rain on this continent falls in dry and very sparsely populated areas, much water is lost by evaporation without doing much good or promoting any run-off. Again, on the basis of run-off water Australia's average is reputed to be about 25 mm (1 inch) per annum against America's 225 mm (9 inches), so Australians still have a sizeable advantage on the same per person basis. The run-off from the part of Australia where over 95% of our agricultural production is carried out is considerable. It thus appears therefore that Australians are, relatively, very well off for water.
Australia and America share a common belief about two aspects of the discussion on agricultural water:
(1) A blind faith in the "Big Dam" for the supply of Government irrigation water,
(2) Common neglect of the collectively vastly larger and more valuable water resources which could be used for the same purposes of irrigation and which belongs on all their farm lands, grazing properties and forested areas.
This last great water resource is treated almost as if it didn't exist and certainly as though it was of insignificant value.
Control and storage of water resources on the farm for irrigation should have been the starting point of irrigation development. Had this been done far more irrigation land would be available than there is now, or will be in the foreseeable future.
Had economic resources been mustered for farm water, the farmer would have seen that despite efforts much water was still getting away. If the farmer saw a need for more water, he would have discussed this with his similarly placed neighbours who were affected by the same climate pattern. They would have recognised the possibility of storing more water at a place where water could be held and released as needed to fill up depleted farm storage. To work satisfactorily, the whole development would have been based on logical geographical planning. But despite this, water would continue to move off the farms because, while water is used, it is not all used up.
The main way in which water is used up is in the cooling of plants and land surfaces by evaporation. An important duty of water is its capacity to expel air from the soil as it fills it and to draw fresh air into the soil as it seeps downward to the river. This water is not used up.
A logical development of water resources is to start from storage on the farm, move to group storage by farmers and on to larger storage for several groups. The water of progressively larger development would be used in its own geographical region with the highest water use efficiency.
This was seen during the periods of Australian drought when water from the great irrigation storages by-passed its own near areas to be carried further afield with great waste from exposure. The remainder was then used much less effectively far from its regional source. All through these drought periods, water was in critical need close to its original source. These nearby farms could have effectively used one megalitre (acre foot) with an effect equal to that of three megalitre (acre feet) at point of delivery hundreds of kilometres (miles) away.
Production loss in these by-passed areas, where higher value per hectare (acre) farming is the rule, could have been cut by a third because three times as much water was finding its way to the ultimate outlet.
With water losses in transport estimated as high as 40 to 60 per cent, the benefit ratio could be up to 18 to one in favour of the use of water near where it fell.
The difference between the big dam and the small farm dam is seen in construction. No big dam is built without a big outlet from the bottom. This serves to get the stored water out cheaply and keeps the enclosed water in good condition by preventing the build-up of bad water. Apart from some of the farm irrigation dams, which have been built as a result of the wide spread influence of Keyline, farm dams generally have no such big outlet from the deep water even though today this is often recommended officially. If there had been a conspiracy to make this type of storage as bad and ineffective as possible, it could not have produced a worse general result.
Normally, before building a new asset, the various processes for building it are examined with the utmost care to find the best means of producing it at the lowest cost. However when the new asset to be produced is the "irrigation hectare (acre)", this ordinary business approach is outside the bounds of public thinking, or so it would seem. But the irrigation hectare, like most other things, has a "value" and since it is a production unit, so the value of it is closely related to what it will produce. The market price of the irrigation hectare (acre) is determined accordingly. Consequently its real value is the price a farmer can afford to pay for it and make a living out of it.
At present, the farmer who irrigates from his farm storages pays for the lot. But the irrigation area farmer does not pay for the big storages and reticulation lay-outs. His payments are limited at most to charges for management of the scheme.
Any agricultural water scheme whether carried out by the farmer or the government must be based on geography so that the best use may be made of the water.
What is an hectare (acre) of irrigation land worth? Here in Australia its value varies according to where it is and for what it is used. If its use is for the general production of wheat, sheep and wool or for beef raising then the value of irrigation land would be, in 1993 prices, about $1,250 per hectare ($500 per acre). However there are some newer intensive grazing systems for which irrigation pasture could be used allowing the value of the irrigation hectare could be higher. For the production of milk its value could more than double to $2,700 per hectare ($1,100 per acre). Its value could double again were it to be used for horticultural purposes. In special but very limited circumstances, it will even be worth as much as it cost the Government to produce, for as far as can be determined, the irrigation hectare produced by large Government under takings costs much more to produce than it is worth, when judged on ordinary business standards.
Government irrigation land is economical only for the production of crops with a high value per hectare (acre) return, such as those mentioned last and vegetable, orchard and vine crops. But such crops may quickly reach the stage of over-production and therefore the growing of them is often controlled in some measure. Rice growing in the Victoria-New South Wales irrigation areas, is a notable example of this type of restriction when it is applied by Government Authority. Another control is the production of certain vegetables and fruits, under contract with food processors and if a farmer produces above or outside that contract, he could be left with his crop unsold or may have to sacrifice it for far less than it cost to grow. There is no shortage of these kinds of home-grown agricultural products in this country.
In the past it has been difficult to obtain clear-cut information on the cost of producing irrigation land by Government Authority, but when it comes to obtaining information with regard to dual or multi-purpose dams where both irrigation and power generation are included, the information is even more confusing.
The following section, compiled and written by the editor and merged into the text, provides some cost figures on a current "big" dam irrigation project and on farm irrigation. They provide a dramatic and relatively current confirmation of the original assessment of large scale irrigation projects by P. A. Yeomans.
The storage capacity of the Burdekin Falls dam in North Queensland is 1,860,000 megalitres, making it the most grandiose in the state. The project is still being brought on line so it has been assessed as a current example. In answer to the question: "What is the cost to supply water to an area of irrigation?" We find in the case of the Burdekin River Irrigation project this cost appears to be about $25,805 per irrigation hectare or about $10,450 per irrigated acre. Values are in Australian currency as at 1990. This is determined by dividing our total investment by the area irrigated, and it is well worth noting, that this cost is just to supply a limited stream of water to the property, it does not include the on farm land preparation costs that are necessary for the stream of water to be applied to the soil.
The progressive (accumulating) cost of the Burdekin River Irrigation Project to June 30, 1990 as detailed in the Water Resources Commission Annual Report 1989/90 Appendices. Table AD 4 on page 10 "Expenditure on Commission Works 1989-1990".
The reports show that 16 farms were sold in 1988/89, bringing the total to 37. The total area of these 37 properties is 4,379 ha. An average size of 118.35 ha. The average of the 16 was 131.25 ha. (Source: W. R. C. Annual Report 1989/90 page 23).
The report also states ".... In addition 5,500 ha of existing development has also been supplied with water by the project." (Source: W. R. C. Annual Report 1989/90 page 9). By summing these two we get a total of 9,879 ha.
Total investment of $254,934,104 / (4,379 + 5,500) ha = $ 25,805 per hectare.
Later in the appendices to the W.R.C. report the marginally higher figure of 11,789 ha is stated. This is made up of 8,345 ha sugar; 2,316 ha cereal and 1,128 ha horticultural crops. (Source: W.R.C. Annual Report 1989/90 Appendices. Table IAPM 10 on page 30.)
The total funds employed in the construction of the Burdekin River Irrigation Area to the year ending June 30, 1990 is $288,648,223. (Source: W.R.C. Annual Report 1989/90 Appendices. Table IAPM 17 on page 37.) These costs do not reflect the present day values as the money that has been invested in the project has been spread out over many years.
In the same report in Table IAPM 9 on page 27 we learn that a total of 250 farms are being served with the water.
If we divide the money invested in the project by the number of farms served with irrigation water we discover: $288,648,223 divided amongst 250 farmers is $1,154,592 per farm.
Just how big are these million plus dollar farms? To determine the average size of each farm we divide the number of farms into the total area irrigated 11,789 hectares divided by 250 farms = 47.16 hectares (116.5 acres) per farm.
The current replacement cost of the project may be close to four hundred million dollars ($400,000,000). If this figure is used in the above calculations to determine the average cost of each irrigated hectare and the cost per farm, it nearly doubles the per hectare and per farm figures.
One might rightly consider that in the early stages of the project that the cost of the irrigation land may be disproportionately high. This may be the case and the following table is intended to show how the project may unfold.
The target is to bring in 500 new farms over 15 years which is an average of 33 per year. (Source: Water Resources Commission Annual Report 1989/90 page 9). That is an annual increase of 33 farms per year. Average size of farms is around 120 hectares so this is an increase of about 4,000 hectares per year. Current expenditure is around $20,000,000 per year. This calculates out at $600,000 per farm and $5,000 per hectare.
The 1991-92 Annual report stated that works were completed to enable 1,339 ha in 11 farms to be supplied with water. (1,339 / 11 farms = 122 ha per farm.) The report also stated (on page 22), that 37 new farms were available for release at the close of the year.
The table shown on this page uses these figures and project them for 15 years.
The 1990/91 Annual Report of the Water Resources
Commission provides confirmation of the $20 million per year figure.
(Financial Statements page 46)
This table reveals that the cost to just supply the water to the Burdekin irrigation area farms, may never get below $8,000.00 per hectare.
Here we divide the total water supplied by the total area irrigated.
1989-90 89,566 ML / 11,789 hectares = 7.6 ML per hectare.
1990-91 122,451 ML / 10,640 hectares = 11.5 ML per hectare.
1991-92 211,293 ML/ 15,650 hectares = 13.5 ML per
What does the farmer actually pay for this water?
Ground water is supplied in some areas at $5.70 / ML. The price is $10.45 ($10.95 in 1992) per megalitre if they undertake private drawing from the river. The price is $16 ($16.80 in 1992) per megalitre if it is pulled from the drains and the maximum price paid by farmers drawing water from the channel is $32.75 ($34.35 in 1992) per megalitre.
In the W.R.C. Annual Report 1989/90 Appendices. Table IAPM 16 on page 36, we learn that the total revenue for the Burdekin River Irrigation Project is $3,524,808. About one third of this figure is for water sold for urban and industrial use. $2,130,472 was water charges and $129,213 was for drainage.
Farm paid revenue, consisting of Water charges levied and drainage levies thus yielded, $2,259,685.00. However in both cases the Operating Costs incurred exceeded the revenue resulting in a $382,309 operating loss for the farming section.
Thus the price paid by the farmers which may well be excessive will not even cover the administration costs of their share of the scheme, let alone interest or capital.
The entire Burdekin project was aimed at growing sugar. Following prolonged dry years at the end of the '80s, the system was connected through to the city of Townsville, however the rains came before it was really used and the initially unplanned connection will not be needed till another series of continuously dry years, forces the city to demand the water.
Although not stated on the W.R.C. Annual Report, the farms sell at auction for around $200,000 each, which works out at $1,525 per hectare ($617 per acre) and this is in an undeveloped state.
It appears the Department is attempting another marketing strategy for the Burdekin River Irrigation Area. This was revealed in a Western Australian newspaper report dated October 1992. This report indicated five blocks of land were currently on offer, by ballot. The blocks range in price from $196,000 to $297,000 and in area from 100 to 120 hectares. Blocks are serviced with water, electricity, road access and cane tram routes. Water is sold to the farm and supplied by an inflow channel, a tail water drain disposes of any run off for a price, and a road to the property is built. The on farm irrigation system must be installed before the water can be used for irrigation.
The landscape of the catchment area of the Burdekin dam is also in a state of declining fertility and active decay in the form of erosion. The silt load coming into the dam, may well prove the demise of the project even sooner than other projects situated below healthier catchment areas in a milder climate. Perhaps the Queensland Government will stop pouring money into this project and wait till the demand for the water comes from the cities who can afford to pay for it. Certainly a better use for the funds would be to start the landscape regeneration of the vast catchment area of the Burdekin Falls Dam using Keyline techniques.
The "big" dam will invariably be the best means for providing the water for the large centres of population where the value of the water is high. But irrigation water from Government sources costs the user from about $10.00 per megalitre to $35.00 or more, while city water may cost around $1,000.00 per megalitre. Therefore, if the expanding population of a big industrial city wants the water of an irrigation dam, who is most likely to get the water? The irrigating farmer? Not likely!
In Queensland the Water Resources Commission has a Rural Water
Advisory Program which develops "on farm" water resources.
It is interesting to compare the comparative efficiency.
In the W.R.C. Annual Report 1989/90 Appendices Table RWA 3 page
44 we learn that in the 1989/90 period, 18 gully dams were completed
and installed by the Rural Water Advisory section in Queensland.
The average cost of each project was $55,417 with an average storage
cost of $222.80 per ML. The average storage ratio (water volume
: earthworks volume) was 11.8 to 1. The total earthworks volume
was 379,235 m³ (cubic metres); the total storage volumes
were 4,477 ML (multiply ML by 1000 to get m³) and the total
cost estimates were $997,500.
Table RWA 3 also shows 6 surface irrigation projects covering
385 ha costing $109,080 with an average cost of each project of
$18,180 and an average cost per hectare of $238. Although one
spray irrigation cost $4,532 per ha.
In the W. R. C. Annual Report 1991-92 in the appendices Table
W 3 on page 89 we find that 26 gully dams were completed at an
average cost of $26,775 per project. Average cost per hectare
was not attempted but the cost per ML was $334.19. The average
size of these dams was 80 ML and average earthworks was 11,110
m3 giving a storage ration of 7 to 1 (water volume to earth volume).
Off stream storages were three times larger on average and stored
water for around $252 per ML
Direct comparison between river projects and farm projects is
a little complex. However, if we assume 7 ML of water is needed
per hectare per year, then storage costs based on average dams
will be $252 times 7, which is $1,764 to store the 7 ML water.
Add to this an average of $238.00 per hectare for surface irrigation
and we get a figure of around $2,000 per hectare for State engineers
to build the dams and develop the irrigation areas. Even doubling
the water allocation to 14 ML per ha still puts the cost at under
$4,000 but many irrigation projects work very satisfactorily on
half of this water usage.
Thus, average "on-farm" developed irrigation can produce
irrigation land for $2,000 per hectare yet the large scale river
dam costs from $8,000 to over $20,000 per hectare just to supply
the water to the farm.
In the W.R.C. Annual Report 1989/90 Appendices Table RWA 3 page 44 we learn that in the 1989/90 period, 18 gully dams were completed and installed by the Rural Water Advisory section in Queensland. The average cost of each project was $55,417 with an average storage cost of $222.80 per ML. The average storage ratio (water volume : earthworks volume) was 11.8 to 1. The total earthworks volume was 379,235 m³ (cubic metres); the total storage volumes were 4,477 ML (multiply ML by 1000 to get m³) and the total cost estimates were $997,500.
Table RWA 3 also shows 6 surface irrigation projects covering 385 ha costing $109,080 with an average cost of each project of $18,180 and an average cost per hectare of $238. Although one spray irrigation cost $4,532 per ha.
In the W. R. C. Annual Report 1991-92 in the appendices Table W 3 on page 89 we find that 26 gully dams were completed at an average cost of $26,775 per project. Average cost per hectare was not attempted but the cost per ML was $334.19. The average size of these dams was 80 ML and average earthworks was 11,110 m3 giving a storage ration of 7 to 1 (water volume to earth volume). Off stream storages were three times larger on average and stored water for around $252 per ML
Direct comparison between river projects and farm projects is a little complex. However, if we assume 7 ML of water is needed per hectare per year, then storage costs based on average dams will be $252 times 7, which is $1,764 to store the 7 ML water. Add to this an average of $238.00 per hectare for surface irrigation and we get a figure of around $2,000 per hectare for State engineers to build the dams and develop the irrigation areas. Even doubling the water allocation to 14 ML per ha still puts the cost at under $4,000 but many irrigation projects work very satisfactorily on half of this water usage.
Thus, average "on-farm" developed irrigation can produce
irrigation land for $2,000 per hectare yet the large scale river
dam costs from $8,000 to over $20,000 per hectare just to supply
the water to the farm.
The cost of water lost in water transport in large
Government supply channels, has been emphasised. There is another
matter of transport which accounts for a seeming paradox in cost
comparison as between the "big" dam and the farm dam.
Generally, in industrial processes the greater the production
the less the unit cost, but not so with water and irrigation.
The "big" dam, which from appearances, should provide
storage for water at lesser cost per unit than the farm irrigation
dam. But it rarely does so. One reason appears to be, the far
higher cost per cubic metre (or yard) of earth for the wall of
the "big" dam which is usually over 10 times higher
than the cost for the earth placed in the farm dam. And here the
cost of transporting the material is a large factor in this comparison.
Whereas on the farm, a dam site to be used has to have good earth
for wall construction at, and usually within, the dam site. A
suitable site for a "big" dam has no such favourable
feature. The materials have to be much more carefully selected
and invariably carried far greater distances. Concrete walls for
these structures are much more costly again.
There is another significant comparison of the two means of achieving irrigation land. In the "big" project the irrigation land is carefully selected because a free draining soil is a standard first requirement. But the problem of water loss in the distributing channels made worse by this requirement. On the farm, the land for irrigation development is precisely selected, but because of the confined area the selection is based on the position of the land in relationship to the water, enabling the cheapest application. The apparent restrictions on suitability fade with the realisation that the biological fertility and thus structure of the soil can be improved, and of course it can be improved much faster with the aid of irrigation.
The way to improve agricultural land and production most cheaply and rapidly, and very importantly, to improve the income of the farmers and graziers, is by the further economical development of present holdings and not by the too rapid bringing-in of new land. The best land is that which is now producing profitably but which, by and large, is capable of being very significantly improved.
The development of farm water resources would create
a collectively vast area of irrigation land spread widely throughout
all the farming and grazing districts. It would not be dangerously
concentrated in the one place, or concentrated on the one class
of production. It would thus create the balanced type of increase
in all fields of agricultural production which would best serve
the nation's progress.
Irrigation procedures for both Government irrigation district and farm developed water can now be considered and related. It will be shown that the relative size of some aspects of these two ways of handling agricultural water is not always in favour of the Government scheme.
One factor to be borne in mind is that once the water is on the farm and the actual irrigation is under way, the significance of the "size" of the Government water scheme disappears. The water may have been stored in one of the largest structures that man can make; it may have travelled many hundreds of miles in huge supply channels; been diverted by ingenious and costly control gates to several smaller and still smaller channels. But only when it arrives on the farm does the real irrigation project start. The size of this irrigation project is governed by the volume of the flow of this final stream of water, which the farmer then diverts onto his land for irrigation.
How big is this Government irrigation project now? The general answer is, that it is small. Why? Because the water is sold, for this reason it is also measured. The common measuring device is the Dethridge wheel which measures flowing water up to five cubic feet per second.
A "cusec", as this old standard of water measurement was known, is a flow of one cubic foot or 6.23 gallons of water per second, or 22,427 imperial gallons per hour which is 101,953 litres per hour.
A flow of 5 cusecs = 509,766 litres per hour = 140 l/s
= 0.5 ML per hour
= 12.23 Megalitres per 24 hours.
Therefore the maximum size of this irrigation stream is about 140 l/s (112,500 gallons per hour), but usually considerably less. An average flow of water, of about 80,000 gallons per hour 8.69 ML/day or 363,960 litres per hour, is then controlled by one man operating the special features for the purposes which were provided by the various land preparation methods.
How large a flow is 100 l/s (80,000 gallon per hour)? In an excavated irrigation channel, as used for hillside irrigation by the Keyline Pattern method, a 100 l/s flow appears and acts as a stream too small for working with, since the method and the operator could handle six times as much water and thus irrigate faster and at lower cost. A 100 l/s stream flowing in the type of channel used in flatter Government irrigation areas and with a very flat fall of, say, 1 in 2,000, it appears to be a large and impressive volume of water until it is diverted to irrigate the land when it again becomes unimpressive.
As an irrigation stream, it will water 0.57 ha (1.4 acres) in one hour, as long as it is so controlled that only 50 mm (two inches) of water soaks into the soil. These irrigation rates are far too slow and too costly in manpower.
Supposing an average flow rate of 10 ML per day is available on a continuous basis. This water should be accumulated in an on farm irrigation dam. Supposing during the peak of the irrigation season that 50 mm water needs to be supplied every ten days. In this situation a dam with a capacity of 100 ML (80 acre feet) would be large enough to store all the water supplied in the 10 days. A contour barrage dam of this capacity is described below in chapter XII Farm Dams - Basic Designs. See also the accompanying figures 15 and 16. On country of 2% slope this dam will cover about 5 ha (12 acres) and hold enough for one watering of 200 ha (500 acres) with 50 mm (two inches) applied.
In many cases farm irrigation water stored in a dam, may be considered for its safety or insurance value alone. This type of approach is referred to as 'supplemental' irrigation and it usually constitutes a stand-by reserve to ensure the production of a special crop and the possibility of a dry spell. Generally, spray irrigation now serves this lesser purpose and since the aim is to equip the area as cheaply as possible, irrigation is planned which will water the specific area in the same time as the planned irrigation cycle. An irrigation cycle, meaning the time interval before the area will need to be watered again, is usually in the range of from 1 to 2 weeks. This slow rate of irrigation greatly reduces equipment costs in a smaller pump, smaller main lines and spray lines, but irrigation is much more costly in man hours.
This type of irrigation, is not a part of the wide and proper development of water resources since it only insures against losses, but does not assure the production of extra profit. Certainly there is the exception, where such a project is for the small area production of high value crops. These projects have a place on some farms, and although the cost per irrigated area is low when compared with that of the large public scheme, they are not of the class which should in the future play other than a minor role in any major drive to develop farm water resources for widespread irrigation. Any drive in this direction would need to ensure that the larger percentage of the new irrigation land is won at low cost and that the irrigation procedures for applying the water to the land be as economic as possible in manpower costs, so that general production can be increased and not rely simply on a selected variety of high priced crops.
It must surely be seen that any extensions of the present Government irrigation schemes, would have to be used for those items of production for which Australia has increasing overseas demand. And apart from the possible gradual rise in sales of the high value per area crops, any new large irrigation districts would need to be used for the lower value per hectare (acre) returns of general production. So any new irrigation hectares would still cost very much more than they are worth.
If the irrigation land is not worth what it costs to produce then who pays or who loses the difference between cost and value? This is a good question. The ordinary tax-payer has the rather naive notion that the farmer benefits so the farmer pays. But the answer is, that the ordinary tax-payers are the ones who pay now and who have the prospect of the continuing to pay for these undertakings into the future.
However, the development of these water resources on the basis discussed throughout this book, is on a broader scope than merely the production of irrigation land, since the objective is the planned development of all the resources of agricultural land.
Some illustrations may serve to show the sheer vastness of this greatly neglected resource.
Suppose for instance that Australian soils covering one third of the continent could have their fertility improved and their soil deepened a little, as is described further on. The soil would then be able to take in more rain-fall and use it effectively. If only an additional two inches (50 mm) of rain per annum was involved, this would be equivalent to over 125,000,000 megalitres (100 million acre feet) of water, and be the cheapest "irrigation" of all. Further it would constitute an improvement in agriculture never before parallelled.
Does it not appear completely illogical in the first place to do anything about storing water in "big" dams for irrigation at such high cost and at the same time neglect the benefits of soil and landscape improvement with tremendously increased production, which are available so economically by simply improving on the use of rainfall where it falls.
By comparison, in the completed Snowy Scheme less than 2.5 million megalitres (two million acre feet) per annum will be added to the waters of the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers for irrigation. Australia's agricultural land of say one third of the country, would have an average annual run-off of well over 100 million acre feet (125 million megalitres). So there is more run-off water than in a hundred Snowy schemes. And the spear-grass and brigalow belts of Queensland's vast farm water resources, would surely supply enough run-off for many more. Practically all this water falls as rain on farm and grazing lands.
Before delving further into the cost position of the irrigation hectare (acre) from farm waters, it would be as well to look for reasons for the over-emphasis of the one and the neglect of the other.
Why should Government projects completely dominate public policy when the objective is to improve aggregate agricultural production? There are probably many reasons. Among them undoubtedly are the spectacle, the size and the glamour of these undertakings which make a powerful appeal. At this stage of our national advancement, who could argue effectively against such things with the outstanding example of the towns and the landscapes of the older irrigation areas created out of water and near desert? Added to their spectacle, are all the conveniences of city life and a bustling industrial complex starting with the factories for processing the product of the irrigation land. For centuries, a crowning achievement of civilisation has been in making the "desert bloom". Sectional interests which could greatly benefit from such projects, are continuously demanding that "something should be done about developing the limited water resources now". Doubtless money follows the water, why not? Of course what is meant by this demand, that something be done about the water now, is that governments have to be persuaded to do something about it. How? By arranging that all the ordinary tax-payers of the state or nation be made to pay for something which will directly benefit just a few farmers and the local business communities. Rarely, is such an undertaking sound enough from a business point of view for the farmers and business men to get together and finance it themselves, or they would do so.
If the object of an irrigation water policy is to benefit as many farmers as possible, or to increase production as much as possible with the money available, then the Government dam and irrigation project is most assuredly not the way to do it. In fact, the rapid extension of such schemes could have the opposite effect of ensuring that the vast majority of farmers cannot get any assistance with their own individual water developments. And, if a few farmers get benefits why should not all of them? Despite this, it seems that almost all farmers tend to favour and support these new schemes when they should be the chief objectors. Big dams are big business and big business always has much to say.
On another view there is a special hazard in the concentration of the highly priced agricultural products of irrigation land which is necessarily a feature of Government projects. A drop in market prices can be disastrous for the farmers and all local workers and businesses which depend on them.
Not all government irrigation and agricultural water supply schemes are as disproportionately costly. But invariable those which are considered good business propositions are the lesser projects and those are the ones which the public does not hear about. Often such fine lesser projects or starting-off schemes are good business and they would be satisfactory for private capital to support. But all too often the demand for extension or enlargement succeeds, and the reasonable relationship between costs and values disappears. Bigness itself is too often the trap. Apparently it matters not how illogical a water scheme may be, as long as it is "big" it will command wide support.
All those projects which could not be regarded as reasonable business propositions are justified in various arguments. The first being their outstanding importance in national development - and that seems to apply to every single project without exception - and the last one being that in the final analysis the profits of all who benefit are going to be taxed, so that ultimately the money spent is returned, presumably to consolidated revenue.
It is said that the necessary factor of reliability or complete safety of water supply in the government schemes, entails a tremendous cost in lost water, whereas with farm water development that factor of complete reliability can never be a reasonable basis for planning.
The totally different philosophies of the two developments become much more significant when the water run off figures are considered. The government project can be concerned only with run off water which has already reached the major streams and, except for the one high mountain development, the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the water which is to be stored has already travelled great distances. As with the great artificial supply channels, so with the natural channels of the rivers in the earth - the water travel has already cost much in water losses. As the total run off is probably somewhat less than 9 percent of the total rainfall, the loss must be considered a serious one from a national water use efficiency view. Apparently if every drop of run off were stored in big dams on the rivers, the quantity of water would still not approach that which is available on the farm and grazing land. It could be also asked; if total run off is nine percent what has happened to the remaining ninety-one percent? Water is lost all the way along the line - everywhere - and the farther it travels the more of it is lost. All the water which runs off the farm does not reach the river.
It is better to keep water on the farm, firstly in deeper living soil with greater 'field capacity' so more water is available to the plants following rain and secondly by storing as much run off water, as is economically possible, on the farm for later reuse.
The purpose of these comments on the large "Government dam and irrigation district projects", is to show by comparison with them the value of farm waters. If a full scale development of these waters took place for no other purpose than the production of more irrigation-lands, then they would have two great advantages over all the large scale projects of Government developments. Firstly, there is vastly more water to deal with, to produce more irrigation-land than from all other sources combined and secondly, the cost of producing this valuable irrigation land would be very much lower (and cost free to the tax-payer by comparison).
Throughout these discussions a comparative analysis emerges on the efficacy of the two ways of developing irrigation land:
(1) By government's "big" dam and irrigation area project and
(2) by the development of the farm water resources.
The "big" dam, the great supply channels and the tight concentration of irrigation farms in the irrigation districts are the impressive, even overawing, features. But from every possible aspect, the extension of irrigated land from farm and grazing land water resources is the best way for national benefit, and the way to improve income for farmers and graziers.
The relative size of the two, when the water actually comes into use on the farms, is very much in favour of the latter, and after all placing water into the control of the individual farmer is the object of both.
In government schemes, large flows cannot be kept available for the irrigater for when he happens to need or want to use the water. In fact, the opposite is the case; the whole working and management of the farm is usually ordered by the times when the farmer is allowed to take water. The rate of supply has to be limited, not by what the irrigater may be able to use, but by the necessity for the water authority to keep the supply channels down to a reasonable size, and to be able to service as many irrigaters and possible from channels of limited capacity. Therefore the rate at which the irrigater can water his land is not governed by his capacity to do so, but by the rate of the available supply which also governs his manpower costs in irrigating.
Water from a farm irrigation dam on the other hand, is not affected by such limitations nor need it be restricted in the rate of flow of the water, by other than the practical considerations of the capacity to use the water and by the size of the dam and the related area of the irrigation paddock. If the land can be watered at a rate of flow only similar to that of the government scheme, then the greater flow can be planned for and used.
A government scheme, no matter how large could not supply each of its irrigater farmers with a flow of 1,260 l/s (one million gallons an hour). Such an idea would be considered quite ridiculous, and such a flow completely uncontrollable by any irrigation procedure. But that need not be so on a farm. That large flow for some farm developments is quiet practicable, being simple to design, economical of construction and fully controllable by one man as a normal irrigation stream. It all depends on the particular circumstances, and when these suit fast and extremely economical irrigation it is better to design the working according to those favourable circumstances.
Hillsides, the irrigation of which is not a feature of government irrigation poses especially attractive irrigation features. Hillside irrigation is not likely to be troubled by those serious problems of irrigation districts, water-logging and poor drainage. Hillside land, in the very limited field of its use, is spray irrigated at the very slow rates of from 1 to 5 ha (2 to 5 acres) per day. But "hillside irrigation" by the Keyline Pattern irrigation system is extremely practical in a very wide set of conditions and at watering rates near 4 ha (10 acres) per hour and with only one man control. Also, one former difficulty of hillside irrigation, the danger of soil erosion is not, with this system a factor for more than passing consideration.
The water available for irrigation developments, which is associated with hillside land, constitutes an enormous, untapped resource spread widely throughout the farm and grazing lands.
Every method of applying water to land which is in wide use in irrigation districts can be used with at least equal advantage on farms and from their own water resources. But further than that, because the flows rates of water on those ordinary farms are not so restricted, they allow every one of these methods to be greatly improved upon. This is particularly the case with lower costs of labour when more area can be covered each day with one man.
Not all farms have water resources which can be developed for irrigation, some, with sufficient water, may not be able to use it because the topography of the land precludes it, or because the available soils are not suitable for dam building. Problems of materials will gradually be resolved, and particularly so when it becomes the serious business of some government departments to conduct tests and to make experiments on average farms, with sufficient money to support the project aimed to solve the problems.
There appears to be no basis to the often repeated statement, that Australia is seriously backward in the development of her water resources, meaning of course the "big" dam type. In fact we seem to be as well advanced in water development of that kind as any other progressive country, particularly on a population basis. So much so that in future, that type of project should be examined more critically than in the past.
It should be acknowledged that in many cases, both with the "big" dam project and with on-the-farm waters as well that it can be good business to do nothing about the water but just let it go. There is always, what we call "waste of water" so why not "waste" the kind which would be the most expensive to hold?
It is now time for governments to encourage, by some special measures the development of the on the farm water resources. It would be good business for governments if they could promote the development of a very large total area of irrigation land at, say, one tenth of the price per hectare that it had been previously paying for it. But even that low cost would be far beyond what any reasonable assistance scheme could involve financially. In the greater proportion of cases, a practical lead and some loan finance would be sufficient inducement to persuade farmers to think again about these matters. But if it is necessary or advisable to offer bounties of various kinds, or tax concessions on the production increase which results from new irrigation lands as is done to the export of the products of secondary industry, then that would still be a means of creating new irrigation land at a cost much lower than that by any other possible means.
P.O. Box 3289 Southport Queensland 4215 AUSTRALIA
Phone: +61 (0) 7 5591 6281 Fax: +61 (0) 7 5527 0847
Mobile: +61 (0) 4 1874 5120
Counter started Feb 1998 You are visitor number:
Contact Keyline Designs via Email
Back to Keyline Designs Homepage