Last week I attended the opening of the new pipeline for the Hay Private Irrigation District, just north of Hay in the Riverina. In doing so, I was able to recognise a substantial Commonwealth investment of $10 million under the Private Irrigation Infrastructure Operators Program in New South Wales. PIIOP, as it is known, aims to improve the efficiency and productivity of water use and the management of private irrigation networks to deliver water savings for the environment. In essence, investment in water efficiency can provide a win for the environment and a win for farmers. What has been created is a $10 million pipeline of works incorporating a state-of-the-art fully automated delivery system to over 150 outlets in the region. Another important benefit has been to the wider local economy, with two-thirds of this funding spent on contracts won by local service providers.

The origins of the Hay scheme lie 126 years ago, when Mr JL Thompson, principal of Hawkesbury Agricultural College, visited the Hay area and believed that, with suitable irrigation, the land could be ideal for the production of olives, figs, vines, citrus, peaches and apricots and that the climate was also perfect for drying fruit. At the time, the Hay Irrigation Trust pumped water in open channels with a steam-driven pump, but there wasn’t enough water and the timing wasn’t right to realise the early visions of Mr Thompson. But now it is. By utilising modern irrigation methods, we can actually deliver capacity through the pipeline and the system, which means farmers can pretty much get the water they want at the time they want it to suit their farming program, whether it be for lucerne, fat lambs, horticulture or any other uses.

This is now state-of-the-art technology which has the capability of receiving an order via mobile phone from anywhere in the country or, indeed, the world and then delivering the right amount of water at precisely the right time. As Ross Headon from Aroona, whose farm we visited, said, ‘The best part is it’s water on demand.’ Ross admitted he’d once been the biggest knocker of the project, but told us last week, ‘This is my third watering for the autumn, and it’s the first time I’ve been able to water three times, and with no rain that’s an absolute necessity. Being at the end of the line, it used to take 24 hours for the water to get here. Now, with the outlet in my channel, I can pump 10 megalitres a day—water on demand—which gives me a saving of 25 per cent.’ Ross has a sheep-fattening enterprise, and he can now water a second block while he grazes sheep on the first, meaning the lambs are on green pasture permanently. Previously, that stock would have lost condition while they waited for the grass to grow. He runs 600 lambs on 500 hectares and mentioned to me that both the lamb price and the wool price were very good, so he was taking advantage of keeping the lambs a bit longer to shear them.

Ross Headon and the rest of the Hay Private Irrigation District will be the modern beneficiaries of a vision set out more than a century ago. Hay may be the oldest privately run irrigation district in New South Wales, but the needs now are pretty much the same as they were then. In a country like ours, the condition and flow within our great rivers has always been the lifeblood of our nation’s productive agriculture. By learning to work with less water we honour both our farmers and the environment to ensure we can continue to feed the nation. The Private Irrigation Infrastructure Operators Program includes not only the $10 million launch in Hay last week but also the Murray and Murrumbidgee irrigation areas, as well as Coleambally and Goodnight, all in my electorate of Farrer. Across New South Wales, the first two rounds of this program have funded about 455 kilometre of new or refurbished water delivery channels, more than 1,000 kilometre of stock and domestic pipeline for water supply to 225 farmers, 4,468 new meters and control points and water delivery infrastructure on 324 farms.

To sum up the impact, as chairman of the local Hay irrigators board of directors, Tom Jarratt, said last week, ‘This is indeed a historic moment. With water becoming more expensive and scarce, it is indeed the board’s hope that our customers will graduate to more high-value crops. This project does more than just deliver water in a timely and efficient manner. It also eliminates the public risk factor of open channels. It saves maintenance costs of maintaining earth channels and addresses metering compliance issues that the irrigators could not have afforded to do. In essence, it takes us into the future.’