Separated by 8,000 miles and 14 to 18 hours' worth of time difference, you might not think there's much in common between Australia and Nebraska. When it comes to irrigation, you'd mostly be right in that assumption.
A group of stakeholders from Nebraska, including irrigators and representatives from natural resources districts, irrigation districts and the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, recently found out just how different the two are during an irrigation tour in eastern Australia — mostly in the Murray-Darling Basin in New South Wales and Queensland.
One of the biggest differences is most irrigators in Australia rely on surface water, and the entire continent is home to world's largest-scale water market system. Starting in the mid-1990s, on the verge of a 10-year drought, Australia began to reform its water management. This reform involved establishing water markets, separating the value of water from the value of the land, and using automating surface water canals.
However, Jeremy Gehle, Water Administration Division manager at the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, notes the process didn't happen overnight.
"When they instituted policy reforms, they had to take the message out to irrigators. They called them ‘shed meetings.’ They would get local farmers together and meet in someone's shed to discuss the policy changes, and how they could benefit farmers," Gehle says. "Everyone wants to save water, but everyone has to make a living, too, which is true of the people in Australia, as well as Nebraska."
Tracy Zink, who farms near Indianola in southwest Nebraska and serves on the board of directors for the Middle Republican Natural Resources District, notes Australia's water market system helps accomplish both of these goals by breaking down water users, or entitlement holders, by priority.
Allocations are granted to entitlement holders each year based on the available water supply, and when water supplies run low, high-security priorities receive more water in annual allocations than general security priorities.
Municipalities and environmental purposes are considered high security, while agriculture typically falls under the general security category. While municipalities are largely guaranteed a given water supply each year, they do have to buy additional water to meet the increasing water demand that occurs with population growth. With the ability to trade and buy water, farmers have shifted their water use to higher-value crops, like vineyards and orchards, rather than row crops. Farmers that don't have enough water to raise a profitable crop can simply sell their water for a higher profit.
Keeping the value of land and water separate lends itself to a more flexible, open water market. So, just like buying and selling grain, stakeholders can buy and sell water on an open market, which is just as volatile as any commodity. Of course, in Australia, water is traded in metric units — megaliters, or "megs" for short.
"One megaliter might be $6,000 for high-security levels. But if they get 6 inches of rain, it can fall down to $600. It's that volatile based on when you're buying and selling water," Zink says. "If you're in a drought, you're out there trying to buy the water you need for your crop, and the price goes up."
At the foundation of this water market system is Rubicon's automated surface irrigation systems, including Rubicon's FlumeGates for canal systems, as well as telemetry units, water level sensors, and SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems, which work together to automate surface canal management based on the needs of different water users.
"Rubicon created not just the hardware and gate system, but the software that goes with it that operates the gate system," explains Bruce Curtis, assistant manager of the Upper Republican Natural Resources District. "It can operate almost in real time and is constantly fluctuating, so when a farmer says, 'I need this much water in this much time,' they only have to give them about an hour's notice and they can get the water to them."
At work in Nebraska
These automated systems and FlumeGates have been put to work in Nebraska, in places like the Frenchman Cambridge Irrigation District in southwest Nebraska, which has also had a surface water market in place for over a decade. Brad Edgerton, manager of the Frenchman Cambridge Irrigation District, has participated in several irrigation tours of Australia, and brought the idea back with him.
AUTOMATED CONTROL: This FlumeGate is installed in the Goulburn Weir in Victoria, Australia. At the heart of Australia's water market is Rubicon's automated surface irrigation systems. These systems include Rubicon's FlumeGates, telemetry units, water level sensors, systems, and Total Channel Control software, which work together to automate surface canal management based on the needs of different water users.
"We've got a lot of center pivots on our canals," Edgerton says. "If a center pivot shuts off or breaks down, historically, the water it was using would stay in the canal and end up running out the bottom of the canal. That's a spill that we don't want."
Using these automated systems, Edgerton notes they can operate gates with Total Channel Control (TCC) software. This way, upstream gates are automated to control downstream water levels — with gates integrated into the canal's check structures (the check structures create a series of small reservoirs throughout the canal). When a pivot shuts off and the water level rises, an upstream gate closes a certain amount, reducing the flow going downstream.
In addition, Nebraska's Bostwick Irrigation District has recently automated Franklin Canal in south-central Nebraska, with funding from the Lower Republican NRD. Edgerton notes both of these systems can help provide irrigators the water they need, while also helping Nebraska meet its requirements for complying with the Republican River Compact.
"What we've seen in the Republican River is there isn't a lot of water in the river in the summer. If we spill water, that doesn't necessarily mean it goes downstream for use elsewhere. We've found it's better to use less out of our reservoirs, and they will fill a lot quicker in the winter months," he adds. "You don't realize the value of water until you're short. That's why we're investing in canal automation. If we can save water, it's money well-spent."