Australia's Mirage Of Green Pastures Evaporates

Mighty rivers are being drained to a trickle to feed thirsty farms on an arid continent

Australia, the world's driest inhabited continent, is in the middle of a full-blown water crisis.

Growing demand for water has reduced rivers to sluggish levels, leaving them laden with silt, toxic algae, and fertilizer runoff. Native fish and wetlands are disappearing. City water supplies are at risk. Salty ground water is poisoning prime farm land.

"This storm has been gathering for over 20 years," says Peter Wright of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF). "But only in the past five years have people said 'We have to do something.' The economic effects are so severe we can't ignore them anymore."

Most at risk is Australia's agricultural heartland - the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) - a watershed the size of Spain and France and home to 1.8 million people in four states. Heavily irrigated since the 1880s by the chocolate-hued Murray and Darling Rivers, the basin has been transformed from semi-desert into a high-output Eden.

Like southern California, the Murray-Darling Basin is an agrarian dynamo producing 40 percent ($6.5 billion) of Australia's agricultural output. It includes half the nation's crop land, half its sheep, more than half its orchards.

Yet 3.7 million acres (including 1.2 million acres of prime farm land) of the basin are already poisoned by saline water tables that have risen to the surface, with more acreage lost every year. Because settlers long ago stripped the land of trees, more rain sinks now to the water table. That water raises the water table toward the surface, dissolving layers of salt left by ancient seas. Excess irrigation adds to the problem.

Lost farm production due to increasing salinity will cost $385 million per year by the year 2050, the New South Wales (NSW) government reports. At the rate ground water is rising, most irrigated regions in the southeastern basin will have saline water tables at or near the surface by 2020, scientists say.

Salt wastelands emerge

Salinity's impact is on display near the tidy town of Deniliquin, a rice-growing, sheep-raising region. Just down the road from Jamie Hearn's sheep ranch, pastures suddenly give way to a wind-blown salt flat with skeletal trees in slow decay. "This gully was fully timbered once," Mr. Hearn says, pointing into the distance. "After the salt came up, it all died. Once that ground water rises within one to two meters [three to six feet] of the surface, we're in trouble."

Desolate scenes like this are appearing across Australia. More than 11 million acres of farmland have already been rendered unusable by saline "scalds" or seeps. If nothing is done, this "dry land salinity" will expand over the next 40 years to cover as much as 10 percent of the continent, according to government scientists.

The water crisis has grown so urgent even politicians have been forced to acknowledge it. In February's election campaign, both parties pledged millions to reclaim lost farm land. The new conservative prime minister, John Howard, has promised $244 million over five years and a national "water audit."

An audit may help since many say Australia's problem is not simply that it has too little water, but that what it does have is used unwisely. Water rates are so low that much of it is wasted, many say.

'Greening the desert'

Even within the agriculture industry, there is dismay over the common practice of flooding acres of pasture to grow grass for cattle grazing.

"It's the development dream - the dream of greening the desserts - and it's come unstuck," says Jason Alexandra, the ACF's water expert. "Nowhere else in the world do they water so much grass as we do in Australia."

To make the desert basin bloom, a volume of water is released from dams into the Murray and Darling Rivers roughly equal to the annual flow of the Colorado River. That amount is divvied up by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, which coordinates use among the states of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia.

Developing farming in such a water-poor region would have been impossible had not large rivers, been dammed and diverted to inland reservoirs that feed the Murray. Yet dozens of rivers across the MDB now suffer extreme environmental degradation because of this massive water diversion. Diversion causes already slow-flowing rivers to become torpid. At the time of writing, there were at least 20 toxic algae outbreaks in the basin. Some ecologists say basin water consumption must be cut by 20 percent if rivers are to survive.

But many see restoring water to rivers as a waste. A prime example is the problem of the much- beloved Snowy River, mythologized and made famous internationally by "Banjo" Patterson's poem, "The Man from Snowy River."

Originally a rushing torrent pouring about 830 million gallons (3,200 Olympic-sized pools) of water a day downstream, the Snowy is today a meek 7 million to 13 million gallons-a-day stream. Jindabyne Dam was built in 1967 to divert most of its water into the Murray River instead of the sea.

On some low-flow days, stagnant pools form on the Snowy. Local groups are pushing to get more water for the Snowy's moribund ecology - but that would mean less for Australia's rice industry hundreds of miles downstream on the Murray.

Rice heartland

Rice production is an Australian success story - a $500 million industry - 65 percent of which is exported. Australia competes strongly with southern California for Japan's rice market. But some environmentalists wonder what a water-poor country like Australia is doing growing rice at all.

Rice usually requires 6 to 10 inches of standing water over hundreds of acres. Much of it evaporates. More seeps into the water table. Rice growers are under pressure to grow more with less water and reduce over-irrigation.

"We will corporatize these [public water] districts and users will pay the full costs of water," says Don Blackmore, chief executive of the Murray Darling Basin Commission. "Rice and pasture production will either become more competitive or they will disappear."

By capping water diversions for agriculture at 1994 levels, the government hopes to create water scarcity, boosting water prices toward their actual value - and curbing profligate uses such as pasture watering.

To use less water, Stephen Plant, a Deniliquin rice farmer, has spent thousands of dollars on laser-guided scraping of his fields to level them to within a fraction of an inch. Lasered fields require far less water to cover them. "We don't use a lot of water compared to some," Mr. Plant says, standing in his rice paddock, water not quite up to his knees. "We have a lot of water, but we're pretty careful with it."

Even so, Plant estimates he will use about 1.6 million gallons (6 megaliters) this year for each acre of his 360-acre rice crop. A megaliter is about the amount held in one Olympic-sized swimming pool. And he will pay about $12 per megaliter. His cost to grow an acre of rice is $230 ($77 is for water). "This is the best rice in the world, though I guess the Yanks might dispute that." he says. "A lot of what I grow will probably end up in Japan."

Plant concedes he is more fortunate than some neighbors because the saline water table is still 26 feet beneath his fields - and there is an impermeable layer of clay between the two. Still, map projections (see map above) show the Deniliquin region as a pockmarked salt wasteland by 2020 if something is not done to keep water tables down.

Grass-roots solutions

In 1989, the government tackled water-quality problems like rising salinity and toxic algae blooms. Saltwater drains have been installed to lower water tables and scientific studies are under way. Resembling thick, lime-green paint, the algae blooms float on the river surface - a soup of toxic farm fertilizer runoff and other natural toxins baking in the sun. In 1991, a toxic algae bloom more than 600 miles long on the Darling River threatened water supplies to dozens of towns and cities.

But for many, the government action is still too glacial. So solutions are bubbling up at the grass roots. A few miles from Deniliquin, in the Cadell region not far from the salt flat near Hearn's ranch, Robert Meares slams his jeep to a halt near a patch of ground planted with rows of "salt bush" - a salt-tolerant plant that sheep can eat. Mr. Meares is raising 16,000 sheep on his 6,500 acres - 1,000 acres of it reclaimed from a saline scald that once spread across his land.

"It happened very quickly," he says of the salt poisoning. "It began in the early 1970s; and one year it was 50 acres of my land, the next year 100, then 500. There was nothing I could do. Nobody had any ideas."

Finally Meares began looking into scientific research that led him to install pumps to lower the ground water, install drains, then to plant salt bush and trees to draw down the water table. Eight years of hard work and $0.5 million dollars later, he has his farm back.

Thousands of farmers like Meares have emerged to form a national grass-roots "land care" program focusing on planting trees and working with the government to preserve their farm land.

Now because of the awakening and growing concern for the MDB's future, there is hope, Meares says. "I used to be in tears but now I've about got things fixed," says the ruddy-faced farmer. "I think a lot more of us are going to be thinking hard in the future about how we use the water in these rivers."

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