The price of water is forcing irrigators to make big decisions during this extended drought and it doesn’t help when consumers fail to understand that cotton uses less water per hectare than their bag of wholefood almonds.
Dick Estens, Moree, says he is tired of cotton getting a bad rap for an apparent thirst for precious water when in fact the annual crop can take advantage of seasonal restrictions by moving in, an out, of production.
His comments come ahead of the closing date for nominations of representatives to sit on Water NSW's customer advisory group, with March 29 the deadline.
On Mr Estens’ farm cotton uses 10.5 mega litres of water per hectare, with the last four irrigations more important than the first six because a grower by that point has invested in the plant frame and is locked in to getting that crop off the ground.
In seasons such as this one when their is a shortage of water, there is buyer competition eager to fulfill those final waterings. In these cases, as always under the system, those willing to pay most will get a drink, but that doesn't mean cotton is bad for the environment.
Tree crops are different, with almonds demanding 14ml/ha, while pecans under drip irrigation use 8.5ml/ha. Mr Estens’ orange grove accounts for 5-7ml/ha.
Then there's the return per mega litre which in the case of cotton is $250 to $300, compared to citrus at $1500/ml.
Meanwhile in the Riverina, some mandarin orchards are returning $5000/ml and Mr Estens reckons there’s no reason why something like lettuce, drip irrigated and grown under poly tunnels, couldn’t return $100,000/ml.
Of course the pull of city voters eager to give more water to the environment has pushed some producers to the wall. A cherry grower in Victoria ripped out 3500 trees because the cost of general security at $520/ml was sending him broke. Elsewhere companies have sold water back to the government and will turn to trading livestock.
Further reading: Have we left the start line on water reform?
“People want more and more water,” Mr Estens says. "With licences re-negotiated every five years it is clear future contracts will let more downstream for the environment."
So who should get what's left? Mr Estens says it remains important to keep a diversity of players on the field.
While almond growers in the south can purchase general security water from season to season, as many do, that alternative is not allowed in the north, where permanent crops require high security licencing or bore water.
Mr Estens said it might have been better for a greater percentage to be allocated to high-security licences, a move that would encourage permanent cropping and more efficient use.
“Copeton dam on the Gwyder, for instance is 1.5 million mega litres yet only 16 to 17ml of that are allocated high security, when 50ml would have been more practical."