Friday, 2 May 2008

Water Complexity Crisis

Over the last few weeks I've been investigating possibilities for our new block of land. We intend to run some form of commercial operation on it, most likely one or more tree crops. We don't like to put all of our eggs in one basket so spreading across a couple of different crops will meet the goal of resiliency (in addition to the myriad other subsystems we intend to implement for our own use.)

One of the first concerns was irrigation. The region is reasonably well watered with an annual rainfall around 800mm per annum. Certainly not coastal, but good enough. In planning such an enterprise a person generally tries to consider worst case scenarios, and in this instance we're looking at how we would survive a total drought for a year or more.

The answer to this is by having stored water on hand to irrigate the trees. If we can get them through the drought period, even without returning a crop, then we live to try another day.

A landowner has a right to harvest a certain amount of water on their land, known as their "harvestable right", which is set as a proportion of the annual rainfall in an area. Our factor is 0.08, which is 0.01% of the average rainfall or thereabouts (though I am sure there is some much more arcane way of working this out used by the folks in power.) To calculate the size of dams allowed on the property from this, one multiplies the factor by the land size in hectares to arrive at the number of megalitres of storage allowed.

So for our modest estate we come up with a figure of 2.24ML. This is deemed to be sufficient for domestic and stock watering, which seems fair enough.

The real problems arise when you need to consider irrigating a crop. Based on our scenarios we would need somewhere in the vicinity of 10ML to survive a total drought in reasonable condition if we were to plant just 1ha of a tree crop such as olives. If we give up the desire to get a crop off in drought years and irrigate only to keep the trees alive then this could be reduced to 4ML, perhaps.

All of this seems fair enough, we'd be quite willing to pay for the privilege of being able to trap extra water falling from the sky (even though this irks a part of me) but the problem is, how?

It might seem as simple as paying the appropriate licences and getting on with the job, but sadly, no, it's not that easy. It's actually so difficult that even the people in the government department in charge of all this stuff cannot explain it clearly.

They start out with "You need to buy a water allocation from someone else." and that's where the flow of useful & sensible information seems to end.

So I ask "Are we buying part of their harvestable right?" and the answer to that is "no".

It seems harvestable rights are immutable, inalienable, untradeable.

So I ask the next dumb question: "Where does the water for the water allocations come from then, if everyone has only got 'harvestable rights' that cannot be traded?"

From what I could discern there are people out there who somehow have a water allocation beyond their "harvestable right". I have no idea how they would have gained this allocation given that the system apparently cannot create new water allocations, but I guess that's just one of the mysteries of bureaucracy that we just need to accept.

If I wish to get my enterprise secure with respect to water I need to find someone who has water and who wants to sell it. The trouble is a quick check on the government register of water allocation sales shows not a single one in the last two years in our catchment. A search on a national water trading website shows that there are currently none for sale either, so at the moment I've reached a dead end. I'll check in with a few stock and station agents in the region to see what they know, so all might not be lost, but with the mines purchasing water left, right and center, I don't hold out much hope.

There are of course other ways to skin a cat, and we will proceed with our primary course of action which is storing water in the soil itself, but we will be operating without the backup of dam-based storage for the times when the soil goes crispy. I guess that way we're not taking all of the excitement and risk out of the enterprise!

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