Smart Design Aids Non-Urban Water Metering Compliance, as Irrigators Act to Meet Rollout Deadlines

Irrigation is a critical input for agricultural production, and plays an important role in food security in Australia and abroad.

Grape irrigation and irrigation of other fruits and nuts is essential to productivity. Image Credit: Water Dynamics

The World Bank says irrigated agriculture represents 20 percent of the planet’s total cultivated land and contributes 40 percent of the total food produced worldwide.

And, it notes, irrigated agriculture is, on average, at least twice as productive per unit of land as rainfed agriculture, thereby allowing for more production intensification and crop diversity.

“Given population growth and the need for food export growth in Australia, it is widely expected that the agricultural sector here will have to expand the use of irrigation over the years ahead. This will become even more important as we have now entered the El Nino phase of our climate patterns which is predicted to ultimately result in drier conditions in the years ahead,” says irrigation and water resources authority, Andrew Heslin.

“We are very fortunate on a world scale that Australia produces much more food than it consumes, exporting around 70 per cent of agricultural production. But competition for water resources is growing in many regions and, in response, planning bodies are focussed on improving water productivity in agriculture so there is enough to satisfy expanding demand in all areas. This was one of the reasons the Federal government is working with States to establish common standards of accurate non-urban water metering compliance,” says Heslin, who is Branch Manager of the national Water Dynamics operation in Yarrawonga, north-east Victoria,

Yarrawonga is situated on the Murray River, a location at the heart of Australia’s irrigation industry, an industry which includes swathes of Queensland, Northwest NSW, South Australia, Tasmania and with expanding operations in the Northern Territory.

New Irrigation Legislation

National legislation requires water meters to be both supplied and installed within strict guidelines encompassed in Australian pattern approval NMI-M10.

The common standards compliance legislation applies to all Australian states, and requires all non-urban water that is measured by State governments to comply with the National Measurement Institute (NMI) installation regulations.

The NSW Government, for example, is committed to implementing a robust metering framework and is rolling out non-urban metering rules in stages to give water users and installers of metering equipment enough time to prepare to become compliant with the rules. At the beginning of 2024, NSW is carrying out a thorough review of the non-urban water metering rules to assess the progress that has been made since the rules came into effect for different regions. The next scheduled rollout date in this programme applies to water users in Coastal regions, who must have compliant equipment installed by December 1 2024. Source: NSW government non-urban water metering.

Non-urban water metering refers to water taken from regulated rivers, unregulated rivers, and groundwater systems under a water access licence, where the take can be measured by a meter. The reasoning is, if you can't measure and monitor it, you can't manage it and optimise use,” says Heslin.

Simple enough in principle, for sure – but the devil is in the detail, says Heslin, whose 30 years of water management and environmental management experience includes senior roles with one of the country’s irrigation specifying authorities, Goulburn Murray Water.

“Not only is there a diversity of pattern-approved water metering types possible over particular areas – and the specs for one district may be very different from another – but the metering needs may be very different for different types of farming and crop production. Consider the fact that, over the whole country, more than 3.4 million megalitres of irrigation water was applied in recent years to*:

  • 495,800 hectares of pastures and cereals used for grazing or fed-off
  • 320,100 hectares of cereal crops excluding rice
  • 210,400 hectares of pastures and cereals used for hay and silage
  • 197,400 hectares of cotton
  • 197,000 hectares of fruit and nuts”

*Source: ABS, for the latest year for which figures are available, 2021

Compliance Deadlines

“As deadlines roll out for compliance with non-urban water metering obligations in different areas, there are tens of thousands of farmers and food producers affected.

“Not only must their water metering obligations apply to new installations, but ongoing it must also apply to replacement technology, for which there are 16 pattern approved meters that NSW farmers can use.

Over the border, in Victoria, meter preferences and tolerances can be much tighter, so suppliers and installers of meter technology need to be able to draw from a range of compliant meters that deliver the best and most cost-efficient solutions for particular regions, such as the areas of Goulburn Murray Water.

Different Pumps Meet Different Needs

“It isn’t one size or type fits all. Where the excellent Bermad range might be the ideal choice in one area, for example, other types such as ABB Siemens or Aquamonics might be right for different water authorities in a different area. And given that conduit and in-channel metering testing is a laboratory accreditation process, with different types subsequently approved by different regional water authorities, you couldn’t blame farmers for needing guidance to arrive at the best solution to fit their particular situation and location.”

“Your average irrigation farmer wants to do the right thing and to make best use of the water they get, whether they are fruit growers, turf growers, vintners, croppers, or pastoralists. After all, being able to closely and accurately monitor water use and adapt to the environment is even more important now, as an El Niño appears to be building up.

“But farmers also often see compliance as another complicated obligation they have to fulfil. They understand the reasons for it, but may not be so fond of the process towards achieving it. They want answers, not problems. That’s where they do need clear direction and smart planning to achieve compliance without disrupting their operations.

“There are plenty of ways compliance can be compromised or delayed by poor planning or inappropriate choices early in the process, or by installing technology that sounds great on paper, but is outside of the specs of the local approval authority – and can fall at that hurdle. What farmers may have selected might be the perfect solution, but for the wrong area. Then it can be back to the drawing board to solve an issue they didn’t know about or want in the first place.”

Avoid Problems by Planning

Andrew Helsin says basic steps to avoid problems should include:

  1. Accept that compliance is an obligation that won’t go away, and becomes more fraught the longer a plan to deal with it is delayed. Avoid haste and one-size-fits-all solutions, because they don’t.
  2. Check your irrigation licence and approval details – consult State water websites to see what conditions are listed, as well as online metering guidance tools. That way you can approach your duly qualified person (DQP) or certified meter installer (CMI) with prior knowledge to help avoid delays
  3. Where compliance is required, contact a DQP or CMI who can discuss your often unique situation and advise what equipment is best. It is best when such DQPs have access to a broad range of technologies, so they are fitting the best technology for your needs, not fitting your needs to their technologies.

“Selection of a locally experienced DQP is a critical stage of the process because they can take a load off your shoulders, and off your mind, by ordering, installing, and validating the equipment you need to ensure ongoing compliance.

“Make sure that not only does the DQP possess good local and theoretical knowledge, but that they have strong skills on the ground, to handle the practical side of the business. I personally wouldn’t want to function without a strong team around me, including key people such as our Yarrawonga Service Co-Ordinator, David McIntyre, who has decades of knowledge to make jobs go smoothly and get them right first time.

“Because, at the end of the day, you are not only buying a technology, but you are also investing in the knowledge of people to back it up. You need such people there through installation and commissioning, through service, and through replacement as this becomes optimal in the years ahead. Good technology needs good people to make it work best for you.

“Online information sources, such as the Irrigation Australia website can be very helpful – as can a chat with your local diversions inspector or water bailiff specifier, such as Goulburn Murray Water, in our area. I know from my experience within specifying authorities that these experts are keen to help farmers avoid making mistakes, if only they had asked first.

“Also, have a chat with other irrigators in your area of business, because farmers and landholders have a common interest in ensuring compliance for the greater good. They may have gems of information and referrals they can pass on to you after they have successfully achieved compliance. Learn from their experience.

“Above all, know the compliance needs of your local area and your particular type of business. It is so much better for everyone – the farmer, the local compliance authority, and the industry – if problems are avoided in the first place with an informed plan and knowledgeable execution of it. This compliance business is definitely not one size fits all.”

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