There are many things that farmers and irrigators across the country can agree on. One would be that water is a vital commodity for our future and every crop that feeds and clothes the planet needs water to grow.
Another point for general agreement would be that cotton plays an important economic role, generating billions for the national economy, yet is a crop demonised by many. What detractors won't say is that cotton is just one crop of many under irrigation and the amount of water used is comparable at least, and more efficient at best, than many other crops being grown under irrigation.
One thing farmers often agree on is that there is a lack of understanding of 1) what it takes to succeed at farming, including the hours worked, the resources needed (financial and human) and the sheer tenacity required when your livelihood relies on many factors outside your control; and 2) the absolute commitment those on the land have in protecting and caring for the land - quite simply their future, the future of their children and the well-being of the communities they belong to, depend on it.
It may be worthwhile to look at the facts. Cotton is grown across both the northern basin and the southern basin and is an annual crop. Our production varies enormously depending on seasonal conditions however our production cycle often lags the actual climatic condition by about 12 months.
Hear more about the Murray-Darling on our Forgotten River podcast.
Climate is highly variable, but typically the major rains, and river flows normally occur in the Murray-Darling's northern basin in the early part of the calendar year, while cotton is mostly planted in October. Therefore, the cotton crop that benefits from the inflows, is normally planted six to nine months after rains.
And that brings me to correct one misconception that a recent article in the Forgotten River series may have created.
First, the "forgotten river" is perhaps the most talked about watercourse in the southern hemisphere - it's certainly not forgotten.
Second, in an editorial promoting the series, it was suggested that northern cotton irrigators had a "good year" in 2018/19 at the same time of the Menindee fish deaths.
More from the Forgotten River team:
When the Menindee fish deaths came to national and international prominence in January 2019, there was not one hectare of cotton grown in Bourke, simply because the drought conditions provided no opportunity for water for irrigation.
Yes, the crop harvested in autumn 2018 - before the fish tragedy - was relatively large at 4.7 million bales, however, in the spring of 2017 the rain stopped, and our national crop harvested in autumn 2019 was less than half at 2.1 million bales.
The cotton crop picked in autumn 2020 was the smallest in more than 40 years at just 590,000 bales, and as rains commenced again in the late summer and early autumn of 2020, the size of our crop started to recover as evidenced by the 2.8 million bales harvest this year.
It is really important to understand that this crop, and in particular the portion grown in the northern basin, was grown on water that was allocated to irrigators in 2016 and 2017 and conserved by them to use later. There was virtually no new water allocated to northern NSW irrigator in 2017/18. For example, NSW Border Rivers General Security allocations in 2017/18 were just 19.62 per cent, and in 2018/19 they were 0 per cent. Lower Namoi General Security in 2017/18 was 7.8 per cent and in 2018/19 was also 0 per cent. The same story is repeated across the northern basin.
What is also important to note is that no water is allocated to cotton, it is allocated to an entitlement holder who then chooses how to use the water. However, as an industry we are committed to ensuring any water used on cotton is used as efficiently as possible. We can demonstrate our leadership in broadacre irrigation efficiency, pioneering technology such as moisture probes, canopy temperature sensors, evaporation mitigation techniques and many other things. What this has meant is that we can demonstrate that since 1992 we now use 48 per cent less water to grow each bale of cotton, while generating the highest cotton yields in the world.
Floodplain harvesting has become somewhat of a lightning-rod issue, and many commentators and stakeholders have sought to tie it to many water-related issues. Cotton Australia believes that it is perfectly legitimate for people to hold different views on how much water should be extracted from a system, but the debate appears to blame all issues on floodplain harvesting.
Read more about the Forgotten River:
- Learn about Wilcannia. Before it was a COVID hotspot.
- Find out what happened after the historic Menindee Lake fish kills
- Hear the stories of those challenging water policy to save Australia's outback river
- See the mighty Darling River for the first time through a photographer's lens
There is a very strong hint in the word "flood". Floodplain harvesting can only occur when flood conditions exist -that is, water is moving across the floodplain. Floodplain harvesting had nothing to do with the Darling-Barka running dry in 2018-19 - there simply was no rain to generate significant flows, let alone floods for harvesting.
Much is made of the differences between the northern basin and the southern basin, and there are significant hydrological, climatic, social and economic differences that have led to irrigation and extraction patterns being quite different between the two basins. However, all catchments, north and south, must comply with the Sustainable Diversion Limits set under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The important thing is ensuring take does not exceed sustainable levels. Whether the water is captured in government headwater storages that dominate the southern system, or on farm storages that are much more common in the north is immaterial.
To be really clear: Cotton Australia supports the volumetric licencing of all forms of irrigation water take including regulated, unregulated, underground, supplementary and floodplain harvesting. Our industry has actively encouraged the volumetric licencing of floodplain harvested water for at least the past 15 years and we support the accurate metering, measurement and reporting of all irrigation take. We also support full compliance with all government water management instruments including the Basin Plan, and Catchment Water Resource Plans.
In conclusion, not only does Cotton Australia have zero tolerance for water theft, or any other form of illegal activity, the cotton industry is perhaps one of the most diligent agricultural groups in Australia when it comes to sustainable practices and ensuring a crop that benefits all, including our beautiful and natural environment.
- Michael Murray is the General Manager of Cotton Australia.