New South Wales irrigators cleared with no evidence of illegal pumping

The Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) has cleared New South Wales irrigators who were accused of illegal pumping during an embargo.

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Key points:

  • Watchdog clears irrigators in the Namoi Valley accused of pumping water during an embargo
  • Irrigators group “not surprised” by finding, says claims caused “negative social media event”
  • Watchdog says it will work with WaterNSW to better inform irrigators of embargoes

A week ago the water watchdog was informed about a number of instances where landholders in the Namoi Valley had pumped water out of the river as the first flush came down.

This was alleged to have occurred despite a voluntary pumping embargo being issued by the area’s industry group for irrigated agriculture, Namoi Water.

A subsequent embargo was also placed on pumping by the NSW Government.

However, NRAR chief investigator Grant Barnes said their initial investigations had not identified any breaches, and found people had acted in accordance with their licence conditions.

The watchdog deployed staff to the Namoi and Macquarie rivers to check in with landholders and water users about their knowledge of the embargo and their compliance with the restrictions.

“My staff advised of no breaches of the embargo had been detected,” Mr Barnes said.

“Generally the widespread compliance of the embargo is very encouraging.”

NRAR is still investigating one complaint alleging breaches of the embargo, but said so far no evidence has been found that is the case.

The watchdog added that any pumping that has been detected during the embargo was for critical human needs, as well as stock and domestic licence holders, which is permitted.

‘No surprise to me’

Namoi Water said its members have been vindicated after NRAR’s initial investigation.

The body’s Executive Officer, Jon Maree Baker, said the results of the investigation were no surprise to her, but added that the allegation had a negative impact on irrigators.

“We’re very pleased to see Grant Barnes come out and make the statement that there has been no pumping or breaches during the embargo,” Ms Baker said.

“The issue of social media associated with the allegation that was made — one allegation was reported — resulted in quite a substantial negative social media event.

“In this case the issue should have really been a good news story for Namoi irrigators who did undertake a voluntary embargo.

“We would encourage people to ensure that you have the issue in context.”

Communication an issue

Since the allegations of illegal pumping were made, Namoi Water has maintained the claims were unfounded and that irrigators were never properly notified of the Government embargo.

At the time Ms Baker said there had never been an unregulated pumping embargo in the Namoi Valley before, and irrigators in the valley had not received formal notification.

While there were local radio announcements of the change and gazette made public on the WaterNSW website, Namoi Water said there was no other form of correspondence.

Mr Barnes said during NRAR’s investigation, irrigators had expressed “displeasure” with the manner in which they were notified.

“That is something both my office and my colleagues in Department of Industry-Water will take on board,” he said.

“[We] will work with WaterNSW to ensure a better means of informing of likely embargos.”

Source: ABC Rural 2019-04

Lake Eyre floodwaters bring life and drought relief to South Australia

Floodwaters have brought parts of South Australia’s outback to life in the face of drought as waters flood into Lake Eyre.

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Key points:

  • Pastoralists, wildlife and rivers surrounding Lake Eyre in outback SAa are reaping the benefits from the recent influx of floodwaters from Queensland
  • Instead of being forced to destock their cattle due to drought, some pastoralists are taking on new stock
  • The waters also drawing pests like wild camels, foxes and cats, prompting landholders to take extra precautions with trapping

Pastoralists along the Warburton River and are seeing some much-needed relief from the drought, while a wildlife sanctuary is coming alive with insects, frogs and the native mammals that eat them.

Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the last stops before the Warburton Creek empties into Lake Eyre and is run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

It covers almost 680,000 hectares and is home to 22 species of mammal, 167 species of bird and 58 species of reptile.

Manager Mark McClaren said that large parts of the sanctuary have been flooded, including the camping grounds, but that is not stopping interest from visitors.

“We’re looking at this year 126 tours so far this year,” he said.

“Last year we had 12 permanent tours.”

Aside from the visitors, Mr McClaren said it is a boon for the local wildlife.

“It actually encourages them because with the creek flow, the wildlife will benefit from the flows because there’s frogs and snakes getting about,” he said.

“You also get a lot of insects as well, so the small mammals will come along to eat them too.”

Ms Oldfield said floodwaters reached her property at just the right time.

In the 18 months prior to the flooding, Cowarie Station had only 15mm of rain and Ms Oldfield says she was about to have to make some very hard decisions.

“If we hadn’t had this flood we would be seriously destocking … so this is great for us,” she said.

“We’d get rid of everything we could, and we’d try to keep our core breeders.

“We already started destocking last year but we’re now in a position where we might have to destock our breeding herd which is quite serious.”

Destocking no longer necessary

However, because of the floods, Ms Oldfield said rather than destock, she was looking at buying more cattle to replenish her herd.

Further north on the SA–Queensland border, floodwaters made Alton Downs Station all but unreachable by land.

However, they have been a welcome change for pastoralist David Brook, who said his business had suffered due to drought.

Before the floods, he said he had to destock down to 1,000 cattle on Alton Downs, only about 40 per cent of its maximum capacity.

“It’s been fairly ordinary, the last decent rain was in September 2016 so there’s been very little since then,” he said.

But with rains and floods he too plans to restock, once he can get to the station that is.

Not all good news

Mr McClaren said while the wildlife loves the extra water, so do pests like camels, foxes and cats, which can hunt native animals and graze plants meant for native herbivores.

He said in response, he will be starting up his feral cat and fox trapping program soon, and that there were aerial culls of camels on Kalamurina to keep their numbers in check.

Also, while those in the path of floodwaters have benefited, only a few properties have received them.

Namely the properties of Kalamurina, Cowarie, Clifton Hills, Pandie Pandie and Alton Downs are likely to be the only properties directly benefiting from the flooding in South Australia.

Source: ABC Rural 2019-04

Fish kill final report recommends cameras and water meter subsidies

Buying water entitlement from irrigators, installing cameras  and a subsidy to install water meters are at the centre of a $70 million spend.

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Key points:

  • Government commits $70 million to prevent fish kills in Murray-Darling Basin
  • Scientific study recommends sticking with basin plan
  • Cameras to be installed on river and live stream in bid to increase transparency

Water Minister David Littleproud has splashed the funding in response to the findings of Professor Rob Vertessy’s scientific study of mass fish kills in the lower Darling River.

The funding includes $25 million to subsidise AS4747 water meters in the northern basin, $5 million for cameras to live stream river flows, $20 million for water and environment research and a commitment to, together with the NSW Government, buy A-Class licences in the Barwon-Darling.

“We’re looking to protect those low flows through securing some of those A-Class licences in consultation with the community, making sure we can bring them with us,” Mr Littleproud said.

In a preliminary report released in February, Professor Vertessy found “exceptional climatic conditions, unparalleled in the observed climate record”, exacerbated by water extraction upstream, contributed to the mass fill kill in the Lower Darling between December 2018 and January 2019.

Mr Littleproud reiterated a commitment, agreed to with the Opposition and NSW Government, to provide more water for Indigenous communities, and announced a further $10 million to restock native fish species across the Murray-Darling Basin.

The Minister accepted 10 recommendations relating to the Commonwealth Government, and said he would work with the states on the remaining 17 recommendations.

“It was an extreme event and obviously a tragic event,” Mr Littleproud said of the fish kill.

“It’s not the first one and it won’t be the last.”

Mr Littleproud said the report found the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was the best way to prevent further fish kills occurring.

“Improving our water management between the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the states is paramount, and understanding that these extreme weather events will happen again and we need to be better equipped to handle that and be prepared for that,” he said.

Professor Vertessy supported the basin plan.

“This is a really important time, where I think all stakeholders in the basin need to get behind the basin plan,” he said.

“It is a good plan, it does need to be accelerated, but it is really important that we get on with things.

Professor Vertessy’s report called on NSW to modify its water access arrangement to protect low flows and remove barriers to fish movements.

It included a recommendation that “NSW and the Australian Government support structural adjustment of lower Darling farms with permanent/perennial crops that depend on high reliability water entitlements, including appropriately targeted strategic water acquisition and compensation for the reconfiguration of farm business”.

“There are a small number of horticulture users in the lower Darling that have high security licences, they’re just the type of water licences the government needs to provide water to eco-systems during dry sequences, like the one we’re in, and we think strategic acquisitions of water like that from willing sellers is good policy,” Professor Vertessy told the ABC.

It is estimated more than one million fish died in three separate kills, near Menindee NSW, in December 2018 and January this year.

The funding, which was not in last week’s federal Budget, comes a day after more than 600 irrigators protested in Albury, NSW calling on State and Federal Government to pause the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

It follows a separate report by the Australian Academy of Science, requested by Labor, that in February found excess upstream irrigation, drought, and water releases from the Menindee Lakes created the perfect storm that led to the fish kills.

Buying water entitlements at low flow areas

Professor Vertessy’s 27 recommendations to improve water flows included better flow management, improved management of lakes, and ways to enhance fish mobility by removing barriers.

But it is the Government’s decision to buy some water entitlements from irrigators that will be under considerable scrutiny.

The CEO of the National Irrigators’ Council, Steve Whan, said the A-Class licences were the ones at the lowest level of flow.

“NSW has already taken quite a bit of action with embargoes and things to protect low flows, and that work’s still going on with the co-operation of irrigators.”

He said he welcomed the report, but not everyone would reap the benefits.

“It potentially has a negative impact on the economy of Bourke because that does take away some of the water which might have been seen as slightly higher security,” he said.

“Bourke, over a number of years for example, has completely lost its orange industry, and I think some people there would’ve hoped that they could get back into some horticultural industries there.

“But without this sort of water they wouldn’t be able to.”

Live streaming takes ‘slow TV to a new level’

Cotton Australia welcomed the report, and said Australia must now commit to fully implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

General manager Michael Murray said the cotton industry supported a world-class metering policy and the infrastructure to back it up.

“Any financial assistance to get that happening is fantastic,” he said.

“The main thing is to be absolutely clear what is a compliant meter and have policies in place — not only to get those meter readings but for the responsible departments to have that information and then act on that information if anything is out of order.”

Mr Murray said he welcomed transparency but was bemused about the effectiveness of live streaming river flows, which the Government will fund with a $5 million grant.

“If it was up to me, I’d probably devote that money to building some better web-based systems that can actually ‘live show’ — not by video — but the river data, and whether or not pumping is allowed in certain sections or not.”

Royal commission call

Rob Gregory from the Menindee Regional Tourism Association said for those who spent their lives on the river there needed to be action, and fast.

“It’s damning, the reports that have come back, that some things need to be done to get the basin plan functioning as it should,” he said.

“If they’re going to spend some money and it’s spend wisely on infrastructure and metering, and they’re talking cameras and flows and that sort of thing, it should be a wise move.”

Outspoken Pooncarie grazier Rob McBride of Tolarno Station continued his call for a royal commission to find those accountable for the state of the Murray-Darling “because this is the worst environmental disaster”.

“It’s got 1,500 kilometres that is dry at the moment, there are floodwaters coming down the Barwon which is good, but how far that gets, who knows, but we’re still a long way from getting out of trouble,” he said.

He said $70 million, did not give any confidence at all when looking at upgrading meters, live camera streams.

But the general manager of the Central Darling Shire Council, Greg Hill, is optimistic.

“This is good news for our area, especially for the Menindee Lakes, especially for the installation of fish ladders and the potential of a fish hatchery kicking off,” he said.

Mr Hill said the council was already getting to work on a feasibility study for the hatchery.

Over-extraction a contributing factor

Adelaide-based environmental consultant and Healthy Rivers Ambassador Dr Anne Jensen welcomed the report and believed the Federal Government’s funding to implement measures such as securing A-licences and installing cameras to live stream river flows were a good first start.

“The recommendations in the report are absolutely spot on, we need the Basin Plan to be accelerated and the elements within it,” Dr Jensen said.

“One of the key causes of the multiple causes for the fish kills was over-extraction from the Upper Barwon-Darling, which was allowed by the regulations that were brought in just before the plan was signed.”

“That over-extraction over a period of several years contributed to the fact that there was no water reserve left in Menindee Lakes.”

“So, when we had an algal bloom there was no water to be able to be released to flush the bloom away and that’s a major contributing factor then to the fish kill.”

Dr Jensen regarded the response of buying back some of the water licences as a good decision but said there were a number of elements to be looked at going forward.

“The Lower Darling has been identified as a critical drought refuge for large native fish and obviously a drought refuge needs minimum water in it.”

“We are in a situation where we’ve got thousands of kilometres of the Lower Darling that is dry.”

“It’s absolutely critical that there are minimum flows in the Barwon-Darling and in all the sub catchments.”

Dr Jensen said findings from fish biologists stated the Lower Darling was absolutely critical to all large native fish species as the fish spend some time of their life cycle in the Lower Darling and the redistributed to the other rivers.

“So, if we want to be catching native fish in the South Australian Riverland for example there needs to be water in the Lower Darling for critical parts of their lifecycle.”

Source: ABC 2019-04

Demand for pistachios is going nuts giving growers good reason to smile

A cold winter and hot summer has given pistachio growers good reason to celebrate, with many farmers harvesting great volumes to meet high demand.

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Key points:

  • Australian pistachio growers cannot keep up with the rising demand for the healthy nut
  • The demand is being attributed to an increasing awareness of the nut’s low-oil content
  • Growers are predominantly along the Murray River and many are expanding their orchards to keep up with demand

The majority of the nation’s pistachio crop is grown along the Murray River by about 20 growers.

Robinvale pistachio grower and director of Australian Pioneer Pistachio Company, Chris Joyce, said looking at the two-year average the industry was doing well and growers were confident.

“Pistachios are an alternate-bearing crop, so one year they have a big crop and the next year they have a much lesser crop,” he said.

“In 2018 we had a record crop and in 2019 we had the inevitable off-crop, significantly less than the previous crop.

Farmer Martin Simpfendorfer is one of the longest standing pistachio growers in South Australia’s Riverland region.

He has been growing pistachios since the 1970s and has seen the industry develop over the decades.

“We’ve grown up with change all the time, from not knowing how to grow pistachios in the first place,” Mr Simpfendorfer said.

“With the help of the Loxton Research Centre the manager there helped us to get the right variety and got the orchard going.

“We are only a small family run business … we ‘ve got about 1,500 trees all together.”

His son James Simpfendorfer said they saw a reasonable crop come off their trees this year and weather conditions were great.

“Pistachios are a very desert-suited plant, so they don’t mind the heat at all — in fact if it is hot and dry in summer it’s ideal because any rain during spring and summer can cause diseases, and they like a good cold winter,” he said.

Struggling to meet demand

Despite expanding their orchard over the past years, the Simpfendorfers have not been able to keep up with rapidly rising demand for pistachios.

He believed awareness of pistachios’ health benefits has led the increasing demand.

“Pistachios are one of the least oily nuts that you can get but they’ve got a good range of vitamins and minerals.”

Jay Ruediger has been growing pistachios at his orchard in Renmark, SA and said he was developing another 100 acres of his farm to meet the demand.

“People know more about pistachio nuts now through cooking shows and advertisement; they are using a lot more pistachios in recipes and cooking so everyone is aware of it.”

Mr Joyce asserted the growing awareness in Western markets about pistachios’ health benefits but also rising middle class in China and India lead to the nut’s popularity.

“There is a giant body of science that has accumulated over the last 20 years which describes nuts as a true superfood,” he said.

“Pistachios come with a natural open split which makes it really easy for consumers to eat because you don’t need a nut cracker — you just need your fingers.”

Growers’ challenges

As the pistachio nut has gained popularity many growers have started to expand their orchards and some new growers entered the industry, but growing nut-bearing trees does come with challenges.

Mr Joyce said pistachio farmers had to be very patient.

“Pistachios take the longest of all of the nuts to come into production,” he said.

“You will not see any crop until year six and then you might break even that year, so you won’t see a return on your investment until year seven.

“So people need have deep pockets and they need another source of income for the seven years it takes to establish the trees.”

Source: 2019-04

Trade lambs break through 700 cents in face of possible shortage

With the exception of weekly slaughter data, all major industry signs are pointing towards an impending lamb shortage during winter.

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The Eastern States Trade Lamb Indicator averaged 708c/kg carcase weight (cwt) on Wednesday, up 22 per cent year-on-year.

At this level, the indicator remains 176 cents below the all-time high reached in August last year.

However, if the anticipated supply shortage comes to fruition, price volatility may return.

Considering the recent high sheep slaughter, poor seasonal conditions and reported low marking rates, the supply of lambs has remained surprisingly reliable throughout 2019.

Meat and Livestock Australia reports that for the year-to-date (through 5 April), eastern states lamb slaughter averaged 360,000 head per week, up 2pc on 2018.

A look back at 2018 demonstrates just how responsive prices can become when supply levels change.

For the month of May 2018, eastern states lamb slaughter averaged in excess of 400,000 head per week, while the ESTLI averaged 604c/kg cwt.

By August, slaughter had fallen 31pc to average 280,000 head per week, as deteriorating seasonal conditions hampered the supply of finished lambs.

In response to the shortfall, the ESTLI averaged 815c/kg cwt in August, which was 35pc higher than the May average.

As it stands, many national sheep production regions are yet to receive any decent rainfall this year.

The challenging conditions look increasingly likely to have a strong impact on lamb supply at some point during winter.

Hence, the timing of any southern break is more pertinent to the lamb market than ever.

Source: FarmOnline 2019-04

Sources include: ABC Rural, The Land, The Weekly Times, Stock and Land, Stock Journal, Bloomberg, Farm Online, Queensland Country Life

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