Interview: Michael Cutting, Principal Project Officer – Land and Water Management, Natural Resources, SA Murray-Darling Basin

With water availability continuing to be a key challenge for the industry, Michael talks to us about how advances in technology and new innovation will ensure the industry is well equipped to adapt to these challenges. Read on for some insights ahead of his presentation at Irrigation Australia International Conference and Exhibition.

Q&A with Michael Cutting, Principal Project Officer – Land and Water Management, Natural Resources, SA Murray-Darling Basin …

Topic: “Irrigation efficiency investment: what does the future hold?”

Your presentation will highlight the types of irrigation efficiency investment in the SA Murray-Darling Basin as part of water-recovery targets in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Can you mention one please, as an example of what attendees can look forward to hearing?

Interestingly, we have seen significant investment in replacing the existing drip-irrigation systems. With the early adoption of drip irrigation in SA, many existing systems are ageing, resulting in under-performance. The continued evolution of drip-irrigation technology is delivering real and lasting water savings generated through on-farm upgrades.

You’re also planning to detail progress on the SA pilot of the Commonwealth On-Farm Further Irrigation Efficiency (COFFIE) program. Conference delegates are likely to be very interested in this, can you please highlight one or two important achievements to date?

The COFFIE Pilot is still relatively new in terms of on-ground implementation but already we’ve seen significant interest and participation. One of the new design elements of the pilot that is quite different to previous irrigation-efficiency programs is the opportunity for participants to lease back transferred entitlements for one irrigation season following the transfer of the entitlement. We have recently completed the allocation leases for all water entitlements that were transferred under the COFFE Pilot in the 2016/17 water year, and this process has been very well received by participants. Streamlining the approval process to 10 working days has been a big improvement for applicants compared with previous irrigation-efficiency programs.

The 450GL “up water” is a hotly debated component of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Could you touch on a COFFIE participant experience regarding their motivations for participating and the impact the investment has had on their business?

To be honest, I think the primary motivation for participants is obtaining a long-term benefit for their business. The SA Murray irrigation industry is predominantly perennial horticulture, and therefore programs that offer the opportunity to improve the efficiency and productivity of on-farm water use will always be well received by the irrigation community – and this has held true for the COFFIE Pilot. In addition to water savings and farm productivity benefits we consistently see lifestyle benefits realised through the adoption of automation, control and monitoring systems, which enable irrigators to work smarter and not harder, translating to them being more active within their community.

What is your longer-term view of the irrigation industry and what will be its greatest challenge?

It’s an obvious response but water availability will continue to be a key challenge for the industry; however advances in technology and new innovation will ensure the industry is well equipped to adapt to these challenges.

Where do you think irrigation is headed in the next 5 to 10 years? What will influence and impact it?

It’s a good question, and I guess everyone would like to have a crystal ball. I certainly see the mix of irrigated crops changing, but much of this is commodity-price driven and a lot can change in 5 to 10 years.

What do you think “next-generation” irrigation efficiency will look like?

I see next-generation irrigation as having a strong focus on informed decision making through using precision-irrigation technology. Many decision-support tools that were previously the sole domain of researchers can now be readily adopted on-farm, and I think we will see more of this into the future.

Precision water and fertigation placement, remote sensing, drone monitoring and soil moisture monitoring with telemetry are just some of tools and management techniques that will help shape the future irrigation industry and influence the “next generation” of irrigation efficiency.

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