Smart design meets strong water metering compliance, as irrigators plan to meet statutory obligations

Water Dynamics

Irrigation is a critical input for agricultural production, and plays an important role in food security in Australia and abroad.

The World Bank says irrigated agriculture represents 20 percent of the planet’s total cultivated land and contributes 40 percent of the total food produced worldwide.

And, it notes, irrigated agriculture is, on average, at least twice as productive per unit of land as rainfed agriculture, thereby allowing for more production intensification and crop diversity.

“Given population growth and the need for food export growth in Australia, it is widely expected that the agricultural sector here will have to expand the use of irrigation over the years ahead. This will become even more important as we have now declared the first El Nino drier phase of our climate patterns since 2018, ” says irrigation and water resources authority, Andrew Heslin.

“We are very fortunate on a world scale that Australia produces much more food than it consumes, exporting around 70 per cent of agricultural production. But competition for water resources is growing in many regions and, in response, planning bodies are focussed on improving water productivity in agriculture so there is enough to satisfy expanding demand in all areas. This was one of the reasons the Federal government is working with States to establish common standards of accurate non-urban water metering compliance,” says Heslin, who is Branch Manager of the national Water Dynamics operation in Yarrawonga, north-east Victoria,

Yarrawonga is situated on the Murray River, a location at the heart of Australia’s irrigation industry, an industry which includes swathes of Queensland, Northwest NSW, South Australia, Tasmania and with expanding operations in the Northern Territory.

New irrigation legislation

The common standards compliance legislation applies to all Australian states, and requires all non-urban water that is measured by state governments to comply with the National Measurement Institute (NMI) installation regulations.

“Non-urban water metering refers to water taken from regulated rivers, unregulated rivers, and groundwater systems under a water access licence, where the take can be measured by a meter. The reasoning is, if you can’t measure and monitor it, you can’t manage it and optimise use,” says Heslin.

“Simple enough in principle, for sure – but the devil is in the detail, says Heslin, whose 30 years of water management and environmental management experience includes senior roles with one of the country’s irrigation specifying authorities, Goulburn Murray Water.

“Not only is there a diversity of pattern-approved water metering types possible over particular areas – and the specs for one district may be very different from another – but the metering needs may be very different for different types of farming and crop production. Consider the fact that, over the whole country, more than 3.4 million megalitres of irrigation water was applied in recent years to*:

  • 495,800 hectares of pastures and cereals used for grazing or fed-off
  • 320,100 hectares of cereal crops excluding rice
  • 210,400 hectares of pastures and cereals used for hay and silage
  • 197,400 hectares of cotton
  • 197,000 hectares of fruit and nuts”

*Source: ABS, for the latest year for which figures are available, 2021

“As deadlines approach for compliance with non-urban water metering obligations in different areas (NSW deadlines are this year and next year for inland and coastal areas respectively) there are tens of thousands of farmers and food producers affected.

Not only must their water metering obligations apply to new installations, but ongoing it must also apply to replacement technology, for which there are 16 pattern approved meters that NSW farmers can use. Over the border, in Victoria, meter preferences and tolerances can be much tighter, so suppliers and installers of meter technology need to be able to draw from a range of compliant meters that deliver the best and most cost-efficient solutions for particular regions, such as the areas of Goulburn Murray Water.

Different pumps meet different needs

“It isn’t one size or type fits all. Where the excellent Bermad range might be the ideal choice in one area, for example, other types such as ABB Siemens or Aquamonics might be right for different water authorities in a different area. And given that conduit and in-channel metering testing is a laboratory accreditation process, with different types subsequently approved by different regional water authorities, you couldn’t blame farmers for needing guidance to arrive at the best solution to fit their particular situation and location.”

“Your average irrigation farmer wants to do the right thing and to make best use of the water they get, whether they are fruit growers, turf growers, vintners, croppers, or pastoralists. After all, being able to closely and accurately monitor water use and adapt to the environment is even more important now, as an El Niño appears to be building up.

“But farmers also often see compliance as another complicated obligation they have to fulfil. They understand the reasons for it, but may not be so fond of the process towards achieving it. They want answers, not problems. That’s where they do need clear direction and smart planning to achieve compliance without disrupting their operations.

“There are plenty of ways compliance can be compromised or delayed by poor planning or inappropriate choices early in the process, or by installing technology that sounds great on paper, but is outside of the specs of the local approval authority – and can fall at that hurdle. What farmers may have selected might be the perfect solution, but for the wrong area. Then it can be back to the drawing board to solve an issue they didn’t know about or want in the first place.”

Avoid problems by planning

Andrew Helsin says basic steps to avoid problems should include:

  1. Accept that compliance is an obligation that won’t go away, and becomes more fraught the longer a plan to deal with it is delayed. Avoid haste and one-size-fits-all solutions, because they don’t.
  1. Check your irrigation licence and approval details – consult State water websites to see what conditions are listed, as well as online metering guidance tools. That way you can approach your duly qualified person (DQP) or certified meter installer (CMI) with prior knowledge to help avoid delays
  1. Where compliance is required

/Public Release.