Farmers in parts of Western Australia are warning of a “diabolical” water problem, with concerns emergency supplies will fail to meet demand during the impending lambing and calving season amid an extended period of very low rainfall.
Farms along a coastal strip between Albany and Hopetoun in the state’s south-east, and inland through the Lakes District have had well-below average rainfall for the last 12 months.
Many farmers have been forced to destock and cart water to sustain remaining sheep and cattle.
Some have resorted to water desalination to get livestock through the dry conditions.
Destocking has been underway at Arizona Farm, about 40 kilometres east of Lake Grace.
Noel Bairstow has had to agist or sell almost 450 of his cattle.
The remaining cattle are a week away from calving, and he fears more will have to go to preserve his core herd.
“[The State Government] will get a very big shock how big the area is that’s very deficient in water.
“If we don’t start to do something now, if we don’t start shifting water into some of these government dams and make sure every area, say of a radius of 20km, has got a strategic point, I think we’re going to run into a huge problem.”
The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) has set up a strategic network of more than 120 emergency water supply points to help manage the impact of dry conditions.
In the Lake Grace Shire, a recent survey of 17 strategic water supply points found four were near empty or undetermined, four were half full, four were three-quarters full, and five were near full capacity.
Mr Bairstow said he is concerned those emergency supplies will fail to meet demand during the upcoming calving and lambing period.
“I know the government dams are coming down, some are dried up south of me and things are starting to tighten,” he said.
‘More mud than water’
Damaging wind events last year and floods in 2017 have filled many of the region’s dams with silt.
“Once we got a bit of evaporation, we could see there was more mud in these dams than water, and it has caught a fair few people on the hop,” Mr Bairstow said.
State Agriculture Minister, Alannah MacTiernan, said her department has been providing data and support to assist on-farm decision-making.
“We have not had any submissions come to us saying, ‘there is something more we need’,” she said.
Ms MacTiernan said the Farm Management Deposit Scheme was also there to help farmers ride out bad seasons.
“We can’t go in and run the farms. It’s not within the scope or the capacity of government to do that.”
Ms MacTiernan said DWER was committed to providing free water within a 40-kilometre radius of affected farms.
In a statement, a DWER spokesperson said staff had been monitoring strategic community water supply levels each week through January and February.
“The Government is working on creating new emergency water sources including a new bore (currently under development), and is also repairing damaged infrastructure,” the spokesperson said.
“DWER considers there to be adequate emergency water resources in these areas for stock supplies, although there may be longer carting distances in some instances.”
Dams days from drying up
An increasing number of the region’s livestock producers have been carting water, putting pressure on public water resources.
Last month state-owned water supplier, Water Corporation, locked half of its standpipes in the Lake Grace area because intense demand from farmers was compromising drinking water supply to the townsite.
About 150km south of Lake Grace, the main dam supplying the town of Jerramungup is days from being dry.
To sustain supply, the Water Corporation will soon truck water in from more than 100 kilometres away.
Joanne Iffler is the acting president of the Shire of Jerramungup and said she holds grave concerns for the region’s farmers who rely on emergency water supplies.
“I don’t think there is any way [emergency water supplies] will keep up.
“Farmers will end up helping each other in this situation.”
Jerramungup farmer Bill Bailey has been trucking water to his farm for the last month.
“It’s about a two-hour trip all round, so we do three to five loads a day until we’ve caught up again,” he said.
Mr Bailey has been carting an average of 350,000 litres of water a week to sustain the 13,000 sheep remaining on his farm.
While he was not able to recall a summer as harsh is this one, Mr Bailey said farmers would always face hard seasons.
“Really, we’ve got to factor it into our businesses,” he said.
Mr Bailey said early decision-making was crucial.
“We saw it coming early and we took out 10–15 per cent [of stock] because we thought it would be too tough of a year to get them through,” he said.
Mr Bailey said nearby farmers had also managed to find alternative on-farm water sources.
Resorting to desalination
Doug Giles has been running several mixed farming enterprises and cattle studs near Newdegate, about 400km south-east of Perth.
In 2017, Mr Giles’ farms were devastated by floods but they have not had running rain since.
“We’ve got two key dams and one of them is dry already, the other one isn’t far off,” Mr Giles said.
“Having a stud, we’ve put a lot of money into genetics that we can’t really afford to lose.”
To avoid destocking, Mr Giles spent $40,000 on a desalination unit to harvest salty ground water.
“Behind the desalination unit we’ve got a 200,000-litre tank and that’s full nearly all the time,” he said.
Mr Giles has been drawing water from a 26-metre-deep bore, and his unit processes up to 275L an hour and runs 12 hours a day.
He has now been looking to upgrade to a unit capable of filtering 800L an hour or 9,600L a day.
“Our plan is to have these things operating 12 hours, 365 days of the year,” Mr Giles said.
“[Dams and contours] have served us well, we still have them, we still maintain them, but for an emergency back up I reckon this is the way to go.”