A survey of groundwater users in the Namoi catchment in northern NSW by Charles Sturt University (CSU) researchers has found that more than 75 percent feel they are not able to adapt to further cuts in ground and surface water entitlements as suggested by the Murray Darling Basin Authority.
“Comments from survey respondents showed that regardless of what the Murray Darling Basin Plan finally looks like, they will not be able to adapt to having less water,” said Dr Emily Sharp from the University’s Institute for Land, Water and Society
“As well, around half of the groundwater users don’t trust the NSW Office of Water to manage groundwater in a sustainable manner.”
Dr Sharp and ILWS’s Professor Allan Curtis conducted the 2011 Namoi Groundwater Management Survey as part of a larger project funded by the Cotton Cooperative Research Centre and the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training. This project is assessing the social, environmental and economic impacts of reduced water availability as a result of climate change and water reform in the Namoi River catchment in northern NSW.
The survey was distributed in July 2011 to 447 groundwater licence holders in the Namoi catchment, which covers 42 000 square kilometres. More than half replied to the survey.
The survey asked a number of questions about the Guide to the Murray Darling Basin Plan which had come out in the October 2010. Two drafts of the Plan have been released since then.
The researchers identified two groups of licence holders through the survey. “One type was more concerned with having viable farm businesses,” Dr Sharp said. “Those respondents were more likely to have larger properties, larger areas under irrigation and cultivation, larger total dam capacity, worked more hours on-farm and were more concerned about economic threats.
“This group were more likely to undertake actions to maintain or expand their production by buying temporary and permanent water in the water market. They were also more likely to undertake measures to increase water use efficiency such as dividing their larger dams into cells, deepening their dams, and undertaking soil moisture mapping. These tended to be in cotton growing areas,” she said.
“The second type was more concerned with environmental sustainability. These landholders were typically on smaller properties, worked more hours off-farm, and had more pro-conservation values and beliefs. They were more likely to believe in climate change, that its impacts would be negative, and that they could adapt to the impacts of climate change. This could be because they worked off-farm and were less dependent on farm income.”
While the survey did not detail the number of licence holders in each category, Dr Sharp said the larger properties with greater investment in irrigation tended to be in cotton growing areas that are lower down the catchment.
“However, we found no significant relationship between the industry farmers belonged to and their views on the environment and business. Cotton farmers lower in the catchment were just as likely to be orientated towards business as farmers higher in the catchment. This was similar for those orientated towards the environment. Furthermore, we noted that 68 per cent of respondents are members of industry groups while only 30 per cent were members of Landcare groups. This has important implications for how we communicate with these groups,” she said.
The survey also found that respondents in the environmental sustainability group were more likely to trust the NSW Office of Water, the agency responsible for managing groundwater, and to trust the science that was used in the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
“However, about one third of respondents answered questions about trustworthiness as ‘unsure’, which means they don’t really have a formed opinion so there is the potential, with good engagement, to bring those people on board,” Professor Curtis said.
Professor Curtis hesitates applying the survey results to other regions around Australia. “For example, comparable work I completed in North east Victoria showed there were more climate change sceptics among licence holders in the Namoi catchment than in North East Victoria,” he said.
Dr Sharp believed that this work could be extended to South East Queensland where there were large areas of cotton that depend on groundwater for irrigation.