Dairy farmers say groundwater is cheaper than surface water
Aquifer water quality is poor, but can be mixed with groundwater to cut costs
Goulburn-Murray Water has put a freeze on bore applications until it looks into groundwater sustainability
Temporary water prices nudged $1,000 a megalitre this season, a price that dairy farmers say is several times more than they can afford to pay to turn a profit.
So now, they are turning their attention to a previously untapped alternative — the region’s groundwater aquifer.
Once thought too deep and expensive to access, and too salty to irrigate with, two dairy farmers have taken the punt and installed bores, and 11 more have submitted applications to the local water authority.
The gamble pays off
Harry Rowlands milks around 400 cows on Gunbower Island, an area encircled by the Murray River and Gunbower Creek.
Disillusioned with water policy and the price of temporary water, last year he spent more than $10,000 on a test bore in the faint hope that he might find usable groundwater.
“January 2019 we were looking at pretty ordinary water allocations … not because of the drought but because of water policy,” he said.
“So we just thought we’d see if we had groundwater here.
“The drillers came out and they were pretty negative because there was no history of groundwater but, luckily enough, the first spot we drilled was the spot where we found water and quite a bit.”
Some water was found at 110 metres, but the drillers kept going and found a stronger source in the 115 to 138-metre range — enough water to provide 15 to 20 megalitres a day.
The numbers stack up
The bore cost around $300,000, a permanent water right was purchased for $180 a megalitre, and ongoing pumping costs are around $50 a megalitre.
Mr Rowlands said that made the water he used this season far cheaper than if he had purchased surface water.
“I pumped around 800 megalitres out of it this season,” he said.
“If I was buying water out of the creek at an average price of $600 a megalitre, there’s $480,000 just for the water, so I would think it nearly paid for itself in the first year.”
Salinity levels in the water are around 4,800EC, which means it cannot be used repeatedly, but Mr Rowlands said that could be managed.
“I wouldn’t like to use the water all year, every year, the idea would be to shandy it one to three or something like that with water from the creek,” he said.
Mr Rowlands said while the bore had saved him a lot of money this season, he did not believe groundwater was a “silver bullet”.
“If water does stay at the prices we saw this season, bore or no bore, I think the area is in a fair bit of trouble.”
Applications on hold
Applications by the other 11 dairy farmers in the Torrumbarry Irrigation Area are on hold, pending a review commissioned by water authority Goulburn-Murray Water.
Matthew Pethybridge, the authority’s manager of groundwater and streams, said a review was needed because little was known about the region’s aquifer.
“We had quite a large volume of applicants all at the same time so taking that into account and wanting to make sure we manage the groundwater sustainably, we’ve put a hold on licence applications until we have a greater understanding of what groundwater is there and how sustainable it is,” he said.
The final report is due by the end of this month.