Almonds guzzle water from Murray Darling Basin

September 21, 2021
Bees being trucked in near Robinvale. Photo: Contributed

Almond plantations are guzzling so much water from the Murray Darling Basin that even the Almond Board of Australia (ABA) wants new orchards to be put on hold until the water supply can be assured.

Delivering water to orchards during peak irrigation periods pushes the Murray River beyond its capabilities, leaving banks heavily eroded.

In its 2019 submission to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) inquiry into water markets in the Murray Darling Basin, the ABA called for a moratorium on new water licences until water supply could be assured to existing plantations.

The Victorian government followed this advice and prohibited new water licences below the Barmah Choke (a narrow part of the Murray River running through the Barmah-Millewa Forest). By contrast, ABA chief Ross Skinner said the New South Wales government had failed to even acknowledge the request to stop new licences. “At least Victoria bit the bullet”, he told Green Left.

The Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning contracted economic consultant Aither in 2018 to assess water availability and permanent agriculture irrigation water demand in the lower Murray region.

Aither’s June 2019 report suggested that in future dry years no irrigation water would be available for any crop, other than permanent agriculture. It also said that only 40% of the surface water needed would be available for existing plantations as they reached maturity.

The Aither report estimated permanent plantation water demand at 1315 gigalitres annually, after existing plantations had reached maturity.

Meanwhile, in the northern Murray Darling Basin, cotton growers capture a similar volume of water for free, through unlicensed floodplain harvesting. Nearly all cotton grown in Australia is exported overseas to be spun, dyed, knitted and woven into fabrics.

The ACCC’s final report into Murray Darling water markets, delivered in May, said that “comprehensive” law reform is needed to stop market manipulation and insider trading. It said that any economic benefits derived from water trading needs to be based on fair and efficient water markets, underpinned by an environmentally healthy river system.

But the Murray Darling Basin is not healthy. Millions of fish were killed in the Lower Darling in 2019 because of water harvesting and the lack of flow in the river system. This crisis has continued, with more fish deaths and water becoming unfit for human use. The Darling-Baaka River stopped flowing last year because the cotton industry was allowed to extract too much water.

The Murray Darling Basin is deemed desirable for almond cultivation because of its Mediterranean climate, reliable water sources and appropriate soil.

But production of almond milk requires a large amount of water. A mature almond orchard takes about 10–14 megalitres of water for each hectare; it is predominantly fed by drip irrigation, depending on the season.

Freedom Foods Australia’s Own almond milk lists the ingredients in order of quantity: filtered Australian water; organic almonds (3%); organic sunflower; oil; and salt. Woolworths sells the product for $2.80 a litre.

On conservative estimates, four litres of water are needed to grow one almond nut. This means a litre of almond milk requires around 10 nuts and 40 litres of water.

Almond cultivation also requires a huge number of honey bees. Each year in late July, commercial beekeepers transport billions of European honey bees to the Murray River region as the trees flower: it is the largest movement of livestock. Many of the bees die from the pesticides and fungicides used in large-scale almond cultivation.

Local farmers trying to buy water to grow food say the market is anything but fair and efficient.

Dried Fruits Australia chairperson Mark King, who grows sultanas, raisins and currants on about 100 hectares of land near Wentworth in NSW, told Green Left that during the summer the Darling-Baaka River could flow backwards “for months” as pumps start drawing water for crops situated in the north of the Murray Darling Basin.

He wants a basin-wide approach to be used in the issuing of water licences: “We need politicians with enough gumption to ask, ‘Where is the water coming from?’.”

King said that no-one knows just how much floodplain harvesters take from the river system because they have never been metered.

He said many people did not understand that when the Darling-Baaka River was dry, the Murray River had to deliver all of South Australia’s water and this put pressure on natural constraints such as the Barmah Choke.

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