Riverland Drought


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Come next weekend, the Martin brothers' almond farm runs out of water.

The mighty Murray, their lifeblood until now, is running severely low.

The almonds aren't ready to be harvested until February, so the trees aren't going to last for five months without water.

"We'd need up to 50% to keep the trees alive, and anything on top of that might let us have a crop which gives us an income to pay back a bit of debt and keep buying water for next year, if there's water available."

Currently, Riverland farmers can only use 16 percent of their total Murray allocations barely enough to keep most crops alive.

"As of last year we were on restrictions and we got though at 65% allocations and I leased water in to be able to get to that. Now this year we're budgeting on 30%, now that's half that again."

For Loxton citrus grower Peter Barry, one option for survival is to buy water from interstate farmers who have excess. But these days, that comes at quite a price.

"$350,000 to lease in the amount of water I would require to then manage the properties I've got or run the blocks that I've got with the amount of water that they require."

So for Peter, a third generation grower, that means scaling back.

Vines are left to die, orange trees lopped so they draw less water and he has to irrigate more efficiently.

"I've converted 30 acres to drip, which is obviously about $50,000 in cost to try and conserve some more water, and basically I have to lease in water at which $1000 a meg is still going to be about $50,000."

One of the biggest misconceptions about the drought is that because the Murray looks full, there must be plenty of water. Well that's not the case according to Jeff Parish from the Central Irrigation Trust.

"You see the shots you're seeing of the river in the background now and it looks like it's full. But what I can tell you is it's a series of pools, which have no flow in them at all, held up by the locks. And so it is an illusion," says Jeff.

The reality is that without rain�and lots of it�we're going to see a rural disaster, according to Jeff.

"There's no question water was over allocated in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. There's no question it was particularly over allocated in New South Wales. However even if we hadn't allocated more water, I think we'd be in pretty trying circumstances right now. If this weather pattern continues, the Federal Government, I think, are facing billions of dollars in recovery for Australian farmers."

And it's not just the farmers who are affected. It's the entire Riverland community.

At the recent Riverland field days, there was lots on display but people simply couldn't afford to buy anything.

Things have gone so pear-shaped that they're now talking neutral El Nino, and that's not good. In layman's terms that means that the temperatures in the Pacific Ocean are suggesting we're in for another dry period.

Most of those who work the land are now assessing how they can continue their operation.

At the Martins' almond farm, ownership recently passed from dad Tom, to sons Drew and Stuart. The drought forced Tom in to early retirement.

"We're starting to activate our own pensions out of our own investments five years earlier than we planned to, simply to reduce the expenses on the farm," says Tom.

Despite the lack of water, Drew and Stewart aren't regretting their decision to take on the family business, just yet.

"Whether this business can support both of us here, I don't know, we have to do the figures on that. Whether one of us goes away and earns some money elsewhere to try and support the business or prop the business up, don't know."

When you realise the gravity of the situation for our farmers, debates like those of buckets versus drippers, pale into insignificance.

The lack of water for Peter Barry means he'll have to stop irrigating 25% of citrus plantation and with that, he'll lose a quarter of his income.

"I don't like to think that you're going to have to pay more for your fruit, but to try and get us through it might have to happen. My only worry would be that they don't start just importing it all, at lower prices and then they'll just say ours is too expensive and then all of a sudden we've got no where to go."

Despite the dire situation, most in the Riverland manage to keep their spirits up and do what we all do, simply hope for rain.

"You've got to be grateful to have the opportunity to be able to farm the land and grow crops with water. We're certainly very grateful for that," says Drew.

And citrus farmer Peter Barrie says: "If you have positive thoughts, at least you can think your way through the situation. If you have a lot of negative thoughts, I think you'll find that negativity will eventually take over and you won't make the right decisions to get yourself through."