Central Queensland horticulture growers near Emerald are buying the most expensive water in Australia in an attempt to keep their trees and vines alive.
- Growers are walking away from crops in Emerald as the forecast of rain doesn’t deliver
- Farmers say they’re not used to having an unreliable water source
- Fairbairn Dam hit a historic low in December causing water prices to skyrocket
According to the agribusiness Ruralco, the price for a megalitre of temporary allocation water peaked at $3,380 last year, about 1,900 per cent higher than what growers would expect to pay in the Nogoa Mackenzie system.
Queensland water broker Lincoln Parr said prices for temporary water out of the Fairbairn Dam system were still the most expensive in Australia, despite decreasing from recent record highs.
“Those prices paid for current season water back in December were actually higher than what people would pay to secure permanent medium priority water,” Mr Parr said.
He said growers with grape vines, citrus or macadamia trees paid the higher prices because letting their plants die would be more costly.
High rainfall was predicted for the region when the Bureau of Meteorology announced a La Niña weather pattern in September.
Since the announcement, some parts of central Queensland have missed out on average rainfalls by up to 400 millimetres.
Grower’s toughest season
Cotton grower Nigel Burnett said the expensive water market gave growers an opportunity to make more money selling water than planting a crop.
When full, Fairbairn Dam holds about three times as much water as Sydney Harbour, but in December it hit a historic low of just 7.39 per cent, meaning most farmers had no access to water
Mr Parr said the last time growers started the season with so little access to water was in 2006.
Due to the forecast of rain, the cotton planting window was extended by two weeks to mid-January to allow growers to capitalise on any late summer rain.
But inflows into the dam have been limited.
Mr Burnett said that in a good year his paddocks in Emerald would be full with cotton, but this year half were empty and the cotton planted was struggling.
“We were hoping this year was going to be the year things would change [and] the forecast sounded positive with La Niña, but rain has been below our average,” Mr Burnett said.
He said about 70 per cent of his crop would not make it to harvest, meaning a loss of about $1 million.
“We’ve got about 230 hectares of cotton and, of that, we’ve had to walk away from 170 hectares,” Mr Burnett said.
“[It would yield] a bale and 1.5 bale in irrigation country.”
Farmers have had access to less than 10 per cent of their water allocation in the past nine months.
That allocation is expected to increase with Fairbairn Dam now about 15 per cent full.
Drought affects whole community
The agriculture industry contributes $1 billion to the Central Highlands community each year.
Emerald Chamber of Commerce secretary Di Hancock-Mills said the whole community suffered during drought.
“It has a huge impact. It doesn’t just affect agriculture, which is the biggest one of course, but it affects all the businesses,” Ms Hancock-Mills said.
“It’s a huge snowball effect. That’s a huge effect and that affects every family.”
The former real estate owner said she had seen many businesses “rise and fall” with the levels of the dam in her 27 years as a member of the chamber of commerce.
She said the drought could devalue properties by $10,000.
“Sellers are finding their properties whilst they’re in water restrictions are not being looked after as much as they should be and therefore the appeal for the buyer [diminishes],” she said.
While there is no forecast of high rainfall on the horizon, Nigel Burnett remained hopeful for an improved season.
“There will still be cotton, wheat, and chickpeas grown on irrigation in Emerald,” he said.