Full dams an ‘opportunity’ for WA farmers to prepare for next drought

Headshot of Shannon Verhagen
Shannon VerhagenThe West Australian
A drying dam, near Ravensthorpe.
Camera IconA drying dam, near Ravensthorpe. Credit: Zach Relph

This year’s widespread rainfall is a “great opportunity” for the State’s farmers to prepare for and prevent destocking the next time a drought hits, according to a leading water scientist.

It may be the last thing on their minds as record-breaking falls continue to dump double and triple digits on Wheatbelt and Great Southern growers — who spent the past three years in the grips of drought — leaving them with overflowing dams and waterlogged paddocks.

But it has been dubbed an opportunity for new research and projects to investigate sustainable water supplies to drought and future proof the regions.

Speaking in Katanning today, Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development land and water scientist Dr Richard George said it gave industry and farmers time to prepare for the next time a dry year — or three — came around.

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“I see it as a positive opportunity — we’ve got time to plan for the next drought,” he said.

“You can’t plan for drought when you’re in drought.”

Part of that planning included the $1.5 million, three-year State Government-funded WaterSmart Farms research project, he said.

The project involves three components — adopting existing desalinisation plants to process brackish water into a suitable resource for livestock and crops, optimising the technology in the Great Southern and Wheatbelt and a groundwater exploration program to determine locations for desalination trials.

Dr George said between that program and the new Federal Drought Hub, which will be based in Merredin and led by Grower Group Alliance, a lot of work would be done in the coming years to increase on-farm resilience and water storage capabilities.

“You need to be able to manage water variability on farm yourself,” he said.

“You can do so much more to get yourself and old technology up to speed — dams, catchments, conventional farm water supplies - to ensure you’re not losing water.

“Relying on the way you used to fill up your dam doesn’t work with drier climates.”

Dams across much of WA’s grainbelt are currently are at their highest levels in years, giving farmers security for the next two-three years.

There has been so much water in some areas along the south coast - and in the recent weeks Wagin, Dumbleyung and Lake Grace and Pingrup - that farmers have even used dinghies to check fences and rescue sheep from flooded paddocks.

It is a stark contrast from the past three years, during which 12 localities were declared water deficient by the State Government, which spent almost $4 million carting emergency livestock water between March 2019 end earlier this year when they were revoked.

Dr George said the past three years had “hit hard” for many farming communities, resulting in hoards of sheep being sent over east as growers could no longer afford to keep them.

If farms were more prepared to manage climate variability, he said it would better prepare them for drier years, saving them time - and money - spent carting water, as well as avoiding having to get rid of their stock.

Dr George encouraged farmers to not only upgrade their old technologies, but participate in new technologies to ensure their preparedness.

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