The drought breaks | The Australian
The Millennium Drought is finally over, bringing regional communities back to life
THE sunburnt country has been recharged. The ravages of drought are replaced with the kind of fruitful abundance that many feared had been lost to history. Like the Federation Drought before it, the Millennium Drought has finally broken.
Along a great inland swath from Queensland through NSW, southwestern Victoria and into South Australia, the dams and rivers are lapping at their confines. Crops are bulging in the field and nature has grasped the opportunity to restock and recover from the decade-long dry.
Fourth-generation farmer Simon Chirnside, a direct descendent of one of Victoria's pioneering rural families, says the dry has been unprecedented in his memory and many farms have done it tough. Chirnside, 53, says he has been more fortunate than most. He is finishing off a canola crop on highly productive land at Carranballac, where Blacks Creek has finally started to run again.
"This year there has been 22 inches of rain so far to set us up for a good season," he says. "It has filled the profile of soil moisture and replenished the land."
From the air, mirror-like water courses snake the lower contours, and natural pools twinkle in a saturated landscape. On the ground, once-cracked red earth is blanketed with wildflowers in the spaces left by farmers, who have sown a bumper crop in a bid to cash in and pay off debt.
Kangaroos are suckling joeys that have lain dormant as embryos in survival-driven suspended animation throughout the dry in anticipation of the break.
Outback locals predict the mother kangaroos will soon have a youngster at foot, one in the pouch and another on the teat. Gaggles of young emus graze the new wild pastures like awkward, skittish teenagers.
Stressed river red gums that dropped limbs to survive without water are sprouting new life along the banks. The great inland lakes of western NSW, many times bigger than Sydney Harbour in both size and volume, are full. And like the flocks of birds that left their coastal sanctuary for the inland seas, tourists have returned to revitalise rural economies.
Throughout the nation's rural heart, communities are coming back to life around the bodies of water that have always provided a focal point for community interaction. Fishing, water skiiing, rowing, walking, jogging, getting married or simply having coffee with a view of the lake. All have been simple pleasures long denied.
The Millennium Drought started in 2001, coming on top of four dry years, and reached its peak in 2006-07. With this year's drenching rains, it is over for all but the southwest corner of Western Australia, where the classic La Nina weather pattern that follows the drought-inducing El Nino means conditions continue to deteriorate. NSW, 95 per cent in drought at the start of this year, was declared drought-free last month, for the first time since June 2001.
The first decent rains for almost a decade came on Christmas Day and have not let up. Over six months the floodwaters from the upper Darling have charged the system as they have wound their way south. To Wilcannia, Menindee, on to Mildura and the nation's Riverina food bowl before joining the Murray River system and out to the ocean in South Australia.
In Broken Hill, the town's water supply is secure again and business is brisk. The local Avis car rental has run out of four-wheel-drives. If there is a downside it is the makers of the blockbuster sequel Mad Max 4 have been forced to reconsider their eight-month shooting schedule next year because the post-apocalyptic landscape has been blanketed in an unexpected Avatar-esque cloak of green.
But for farmers everywhere the race is on to turn the rain into much-needed cashflow.
Put simply, for agriculture, the water drought has broken but the money drought has not yet.
Up north, where the floodwaters began, the first harvests of the new season are in and the complaint is of too much water.
Some of the northern wheat and chickpea crops were damaged by late rain, a situation that is expected to repeat itself as the harvest moves progressively south. The ever-present threat of plague locusts has also cast a shadow over the season, with major swarms still forecast for coming weeks.
But commodity prices are high, despite the surging Australian dollar, and the black depression that has dogged rural Australia for a decade is lifting with the rising waters.
Jammie Penn, chief commodity analyst with the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics, says it is too early to forecast whether unseasonal wet conditions reported in some regions will have a big impact on the national harvest.
The bigger wild card is the continuing drought in Western Australia, which may offset gains in the eastern states, where conditions have been very favourable.
"For the eastern states we can confidently say that winter crop production will be much higher than last season," Penn says.
"But in Western Australia conditions have not been supportive and there will be room for downward revisions in production."
In its September update, the bureau forecasts a 12 per cent rise in total farm production to $46 billion this financial year -- the first increase in three years. Export earnings for farm commodities are tipped to rise 10 per cent to $31.4bn, led by wheat, barley, oilseeds, rice, cotton, beef, lamb and dairy products.
The bureau is finalising its December update, taking account of production, the Australian dollar value and movements in world commodity prices.
From August 2001 to September this year, more than $4.5bn has been provided in drought support to farmers and small businesses. But the number of areas receiving exceptional circumstances assistance from the federal government in NSW, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia has more than halved since May 2008. And if rains continue, the rest will be phased out over eight months.
Irrigators finally have water after years of paying a licence fee but going without.
Cubbie Station in southern Queensland has launched a military-scale operation to plant cotton in a bid to recoup the hundreds of millions of dollars it has slumped into debt through the drought. If there has been distress it has been watching the raging floodwaters surge past like a pipeline of money that was out of bounds until environmental flows were satisfied. That and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which many fear will lock in a state of permanent drought.
And, despite the rains, Wilcannia in eastern NSW will not recapture any sense of its former river port glory.
It is difficult to believe this used to be Australia's third-largest port, the inland's biggest, taking precious wool to textile factories far away.
It had 13 hotels, and was named the Queen City of the West, the place from which pastoralist Sid Kidman fulfilled his ambition to become the greatest pastoral landholder in modern history.
But it has been a decade-long dry for Wilcannia during which the local service station owner says you "could ride a motorcycle up the centre of the once-mighty Darling River".
He blames the upstream irrigators as much as nature.
The windows of Wilcannia's majestic 19th-century sandstone buildings are boarded up with corrugated iron.
The local museum has been shut, with the exception of a small portion turned over to deliver welfare and government-funded social services.
The death blow came when the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority closed its local depot several years ago, taking what few jobs there were with it. This is not to say the rains have not had an impact on the landscape and community psyche.
According to Wilcannia locals, the Pardoo River flowed into the Darling for only the second time in white man's history, an event so unexpected and delivered with such conviction it knocked two travelling canoeists from their craft into the merging waters.
The drought-breaking rains have increased the sheep-carrying capacity of land to between nine and 12 sheep a hectare. In summer this will drop to four or five sheep to six hectares. But for the past eight years it had been none.
Like many rural towns, Wilcannia has seen its former family-run sheep stations consolidated by superannuation funds and big agriculture. Mustering is done by helicopter and motorbike. Farm hands are not in demand.
It took about six months for the Christmas rains in the upper Murray catchment to charge past Wilcannia on their way to fill the Menindee lakes about 100km downstream.
In Menindee, the transformative power of water is more obvious and its economic impact more stark. The Menindee lake system, including the Pamamaroo, Menindee, Eurobilli and Cawndilla, holds three times as much water as Sydney Harbour and covers eight times the area.
The Menindee system was emptied in 2002 and has remained dry until this year, when it was again called upon to perform its natural function of evening out the impact of northern floodwaters as they careered south to charge the lower reaches of the Darling and augment the mighty Murray.
Today the system is full. Even the reservoir lake that holds the water supplies for Broken Hill is being released into the lower lakes to make room for more water that is on its way.
Tourism is up threefold, apricots are being picked and the table grapes are lush green and coming to fruit behind timber shelter-belts.
Grapes used to be a $35 million industry in Menindee but that has been cut by more than half to between $12m and $15m after growers were forced to dig vines out because of a lack of water.
Hundreds of hectares of empty grape trellis with wire and tension poles sit ******* like a thorny briar patch over vast swaths of the now blooming outback.
Tony Dettorre, 41, took over his father's grape business and has stuck with it. He says the sweet quality of fresh water is a blessing for the 40ha of vines that he will start to harvest in the middle of next month.
For Menindee electrician turned apricot grower Dick Arnold, the flooding rains have been a boon. This has been an excellent season, the best he can remember. "The water quality down the river certainly helps," Arnold says. "At the height of the dry the water quality was so bad we lost 100 trees through salt."
Water allocations remain a hot topic in Menindee and there is still controversy over how much water should be released from the lake to satisfy the environmental and domestic needs along the Murray system. South in the Riverina the river peaked at Hay in southern NSW this week and every storage is full to overflowing. In what is considered the nation's food bowl, citrus growers are taking on new contracts, and bigger rice crops are being planted to take full advantage of the wet.
Teresa Bird, whose family has several farm properties between Narrandera and Wagga Wagga, says wet conditions have delayed the grain harvest. But people are not complaining. "Even if we lose some of the harvest to late rains this year, we know that the ground is good for the next couple of years," she says.
Further south, in the Victorian Mallee, Luke Fay is hopeful his decision to expand his land holdings during the eight-year drought by buying out those farmers who had had enough is about to pay off.
"This is just magic," he says. "Even for a good year through the Mallee this would be double. Wool is up 40 per cent; this time last year grain prices were very low but they have virtually doubled because of the dry in Russia." The sheep flock that was allowed to run down over the dry is being restocked with lambs from Western Australia, where drought persists and farmers are desperate to sell.
Fay's neighbour, Chris Rickard, whose family has worked the area for 100 years, took a chance and replanted canola this year and is celebrating his good fortune. A 100ha paddock has been cut into wind rows ready for final harvest, canola is fetching $545 a tonne and the yield is about 2.4 tonnes per hectare. This is only a single paddock of the Rickards' extensive holding and mixed crop.
A new swimming pool has already been installed at the modest family farm house and there is an end in sight to the past 10 years of trying times. "It has weeded out the farmers who were not particularly strong," he says. "The ones still left are the ones who have been strong enough to hold on. We stuck to our plans and we will make heaps of money out of this."
Underscoring the renewed confidence is the fact that sales of $700,000-a-pop harvesters are booming. Gareth Webb, the local manager at O'Connors, the nation's largest supplier of Case heavy equipment, says this year promises to be the best harvest season since 1983. "Because we have had such a bad run, the fleet of machinery is so run down," he says. "People would have turned over two or three years ago but they just couldn't do it. Now they have to. In harvester sales, this will be our best year since 2001. We expect the next two years to be very strong for us."
Webb's biggest problem is getting staff. "Anyone who walks in and looks any good we just hire them," he says.
Webb says the rain has certainly lifted the spirits of the rural communities. "At the moment there is a lot of happy people around but there were some dark days," he says. "A lot of my job was going out to farms and 18 months ago I had farmers crying in front of me; it was really tough."
Alexandra Gartmann, chief executive of Birchip Cropping Group, worked with stressed communities during the hard times. She says this has been the first year of widespread rain and, while the crops look great, they are not in yet. "There is a certain amount of anxiety around," Gartmann says. "More rain is predicted and the forecast is for a challenging moisture period come harvest.
"The fact it is a good year creates that extra anxiety because there is something to take away.
"The concern about what we might lose is huge. Knowing what you can lose sometimes hurts more than not having anything to lose in the first place."
Gartmann will not be surprised if a good season only accelerates the exodus from the bush.
"Some of the feedback we got was that people were waiting for a good year to make the call to leave," she says. "They needed a certain season to put in place their exit plans. The potential is if there is a good year, that may be the catalyst for a large departure and reshuffling of ownership."
Consultant Harm van Rees from Crop Facts says it is a myth that only one good year is needed to recover from a prolonged period of drought. For the millennium drought it will probably take three good seasons.
For Victoria there simply is no comparison with what has been experienced in the most recent drought. Over 120 years of records, there have been three periods where there have been three years of rainfall in decile three or lower -- the Federation drought (1895-1903), World War II (1939-45) and the latest millennium drought, which went for nine years. Van Rees says the drought was much worse than the Federation drought and the WWII drought because higher temperatures meant evaporation levels were much higher.
Crop yields in the Mallee area fell from six tonnes a hectare pre-drought to 2.8 tonnes a hectare, which was not enough to cover costs of production.
Monica Coleman whose company Auswalk runs tours around the country, says the end of the drought has been a blessing for her business. From Victoria's northern outback to the Grampians in the state's west, Coleman says this has been the best spring wildflower season for decades.
And at Ballarat's Lake Wendouree, the site of the rowing for the 1956 Olympics, boats are back on the water for the first time since the lake dried out in 2006.
Club historian and secretary Kate Elliott says people still came for weddings and to jog around the park out of habit but the area suffered economically from the lack of water and loss of sailing and rowing regattas. "Last summer you could walk underneath the boatshed," she says. "Now there is 2m of water. It happened within a month in September, from nothing to full in two rain events."
A new deck is being built at Gills Restaurant, the prime lake-front cafe. Like the Rickard's new swimming pool, it's a vote of confidence that more rain is on the way.