Australia’s oldest surviving irrigation settlement is working to right old wrongs and restore the environment it negatively impacted through past irrigation practices, by making a commitment to global water sustainability.
- The Renmark Irrigation Trust is Australia’s only irrigation trust with global Alliance for Water Stewardship certification
- It’s setting a model for other irrigation districts to help rehabilitate and return water to the environment
- Irrigators are now focusing on adapting their practices to deal with the challenges of climate change in the region
The Renmark Irrigation Trust (RIT) formed in 1893 out of a collapse of the Chaffey brothers’ irrigation settlement in the Riverland region of South Australia.
A state government royal commission into Renmark and the Village Settlements in the late 1890s led to the trust taking on a loan to upgrade its irrigation pumps and channels, becoming the District Council of the Renmark Irrigation Trust — a role it held until 1960.
Today, the irrigation channels have been filled and the pumps and pipes that provide water to local irrigators have been upgraded and replaced.
This same infrastructure that is used to irrigate a large variety of crops in one of the nation’s most diverse food bowls is now also delivering water to the environment, through a unique partnership between RIT and the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH), signed in 2016.
RIT’s general manager Rosalie Auricht said there was a major shift of the trust’s board and vision in 2009 after the community suffered its worst drought in years.
The partnership with CEWH has led to the delivery of environmental water to seven active sites within the trust’s catchment zone, with an additional eight sites to be added by 2022.
Since then, environmental water has been used to rehabilitate local floodplains and wetlands, which provide essential living habitats for native animal and plant species.
“The board set themselves some quite tough targets and said by 2020 they wanted to be seen as a leading irrigation body in line with the triple bottom line targets — social, economic and environmental sustainability,” Ms Auricht said.
Global award for good water stewardship
These targets prompted RIT to become the first agricultural site and irrigation scheme in the world to be awarded gold-level certification by the global Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) in 2018, which was boosted to platinum-level certification in 2020.
“The Renmark Irrigation Trust has demonstrated leading water stewardship practices, that is not just in best water delivery efficiency … but also an important understanding and contribution to the social and environmental values of water in their catchment and their community,” AWS program director Megan McLeod said.
It is now working to sustain this certification level into the future and support the district’s local government body, the Renmark Paringa Council, to apply for AWS certification of its own.
RIT’s good water stewardship has become a model for other irrigation organisations across the country, including Murray Irrigation — Australia’s largest private environmental and irrigation supplier across the southern Riverina in New South Wales.
Murray Irrigation water policy manager Michael Pisasale said the organisation was impressed with RIT’s efficient environmental water delivery and noted shared interests.
“We feel we can also replicate a similar approach in our part of the footprint,” Mr Pisasale said.
“We are utilising a similar concept where we have hundreds of irrigation outlets and a number of structures to deliver water to our environmental assets, which are quite extensive in this area.”
Murray Irrigation currently provided irrigation water and services to more than 2,200 farm businesses and landholdings.
Irrigators adapt to fight future challenges
Back in the Riverland, the early days of growing mainly dried fruits on small blocks in Renmark and the surrounding agricultural district has transformed the region into a diverse food bowl with a variety of fresh and alternative produce grown today.
Historic challenges like transport restrictions and accessing markets to sell produce has set up local irrigators to be resilient and adapt to today’s drought, climate change, and water availability issues.
RIT’s presiding member and local citrus grower Humphrey Howie grew up in the township and has witnessed the good and bad years of farming, water flows and environmental changes, including the Millennium Drought.
“For about 100 years we always got our allocations, so for growers to suddenly have to adapt very rapidly to very minimal allocations was a very big shock.”
While it did have a devastating impact on the community and led to frustration among irrigators and the trust, Mr Howie believed it led to a broader outlook on water management, farming practices, and a whole-basin approach.
He said growers had been witnessing the effects of changing weather patterns and environments and were already adapting.
“There is quite a bit of experimentation into more heat-tolerant crops, I think pistachios are one of those examples.
“In the Riverland in general there has been a bit of an uptake of growing dates and also looking at different management techniques like netting to shade the crops.”
Ms Auricht believed fit-for-purpose water policies in South Australia and the entire Murray-Darling Basin were essential in tackling the future threats of climate change and maintaining healthy natural habitats.
“While our water allocation plan copes with that and modifies things, it doesn’t set the irrigators up to put water aside in good years for those drier years and that is what we would like to definitely see changed.”
RIT is committed to continuing its leadership in good water stewardship and is working on its vision for the next 10 years with a strong focus on environmental watering.