Billionaire leads way to use water wisely

26 Mar, 2003 10:00 PM
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RICHARD Pratt's vision to improve Australia's rural infrastructure ‹ initially focused on water savings in the Murrumbidgee Valley in NSW ‹ is really about creating an environment in which country communities can prosper.

While the Melbourne billionaire businessman has already funded a study centred on the Murrumbidgee Valley which shows how a national water plan might be implemented, his views, for instance, extend to better preparing Australia for drought conditions and updating the content of agriculture courses taught in Australian universities.

Mr Pratt's national water plan, if implemented, would see Australia's open irrigation channels piped ‹ or lined and covered ‹ to help eliminate losses from evaporation and seepage.

And he's suggested such a project could be funded by billions of dollars raised through government-issued water bonds that superannuation funds could invest in.

The study funded by Mr Pratt, who heads Visy Industries (a huge privately-owned paper recycling and packaging company), found a staged investment of between $100 million and $200m a year, coupled with the use of new production techniques and site selection, could sustainably double the value of production in the Murrumbidgee Valley.

It also found a national annual investment in water infrastructure and technology of $1 billion for 10 years would produce an average annual gross domestic product benefit of about $2.8b.

That study, conducted by Pratt Water ‹ whose objectives include addressing the need to invest in water-saving measures, and developing technology for water recycling and water-use efficiency ‹ has led to the Federal and NSW Governments agreeing to jointly fund a further $5.3 million study into ways to save water in the valley.

The new study comprises 10 projects that could prove forerunners to water saving measures implemented in other parts of Australia.

Speaking at the launch of the new study, Mr Pratt said Australia distributed and utilised the available water poorly and his thrust was to identify how to use the "limited water we have, better".

He cited the introduction of trickle irrigation into grape-growing areas, which he said cut the amount of water previously used through flood irrigation to 10pc.

Mr Pratt wanted to cut the amount of water lost from the "river head or the weir head" to the farm by at least 50pc.

"That will make a substantial difference to our waterways because whatever we don't use then can go back into the rivers and the rivers will have a lot more water than they've got now," he said.

Mr Pratt said Australia endured droughts on a cyclical basis.

"It's not the first time we've had a drought and it won't be the last," he said.

"We must be better prepared than we are. We must put capital into it. It's infrastructure that Australia needs.

"And I'm particularly emphasising our education system.

"They teach agriculture in university. I believe it's outdated. I believe the professors themselves say that what we're teaching in our universities is not the latest technology ‹ and on water in particular.

"We have to change that. We have to make sure that we are teaching the best technologies. We must do a lot more research in this area."

He added it seemed governments in Europe and the United States subsidised rural industries to keep people living in country areas.

"We have got to maintain our rural populations, too. We don't want everyone coming in and overcrowding Melbourne and Sydney and Adelaide and Perth.

"We want people to live in Bendigo and Newcastle and Wagga and all those other places. And they'll only live there if they can make enough money and ... their quality of life is maintained."

The new study, conducted in partnership with Pratt Water, involves:

pOn-farm studies and data collection (estimated budget $500,000)

pAnalysis of Murrumbidgee Valley distribution systems and storages ($500,000)

pAnalysis of existing Murrumbidgee Valley system framework ($200,000)

pReview of existing state and federal funding programs ($100,000)

pRedevelopment of existing farms and new farms ($1,100,000)

pSpecification of efficient on-farm irrigation and drainage systems ($100,000)

pSpecification and engineer redevelopment of existing infrastructure ($300,000)

pSpecification and engineer aquifers (for storage and extraction) and upstream and downstream storages ($300,000)

pSpecification of new farm water transport and storage infrastructure ($750,000) and the

pEvaluation of environmental conditions and issues ($500,000).

Additionally, $200,000 was budgeted to establish the study and $750,000 to make recommendations and implement the plan.

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