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Member, Yatco Wetland Landcare Group, Landowner at Moorook

Interview: 15th July 2011

 

Peter George’s father Kingsley started farming opposite Yatco lagoon in 1963 where he grew vegetables, tomatoes and stonefruit and expanded the plantings from 6 acres to 25 acres. Peter’s family home overlooks a magnificent panorama of Yatco Lagoon and its shorelines with red gums lining the banks of the Murray evident in the distance.

 

Peter and Sadie George took on the property in 1987 and have four almost independent children. Prior to this Peter was working as an irrigation management advisor with the Department of Primary Industries in Loxton. Peter has expanded the planted area to 100 acres which now includes almonds and citrus.

 

Peter has converted the irrigation systems on his property from overhead sprinklers to low throw irrigation systems. He uses tensiometers and a shovel to monitor soil moisture levels and determine the irrigation schedules for the property.

He is a firm believer in diverse plantings enabling the spreading of risk and always ensuring one reliable and strong source of income. He believes that resilience in farming comes from experiencing good and tough times, flexibility, resourcefulness and the ability to review your practices. In recent times, participation in the water market has also helped to generate cash flow.

 

The irrigation water source

 

On reflection, the supply channel is a bad option for locating irrigation pumps, and the threat of dropping river levels during the 2007-2009 low-flow years created enormous risk for the channel pumpers due to very high salinity levels in the channel. Salinity in the channel has been recorded at 8,500 EC. In the past, some of the old channel pools below the Solente property reached 20,000 EC. The groundwater salinity levels on the floodplain near the point where the channel enters the south lagoon have been recorded as high as 60,000 EC.

 

High salinity levels in the channel have been more frequent in the last decade due to low flows through the channel. Low flows have been caused by siltation resulting from excessive plant growth in the channel which is a self-perpetuating situation. Low flows enable more plant growth which traps more silt which enables more plant growth which continues to slow the flow, and in this cycle the salinity levels increase.

 

In the past the salinity problem in the channel was overcome by placing flood pumps on a tractor to increase flow through the channel. More recently an electric pump was used. Peter also recalls many efforts by the channel irrigators to remove silt and deepen the channel using a backhoe. Peter recalled digging being carried out in 1982, 1991 and 1998.

 

Community action

 

The turning point for becoming active on the Yatco Wetland Landcare Group was the Government forecast of a potential 18 inch drop in river level in 2007 caused by the extremely low flows into South Australia and the threat of very high channel salinity levels. This posed further threats of local viability and impacts on all of the channel irrigators. Therefore “community led” pump relocation became a priority and through the efforts of the Yatco Wetland Landcare Group the Government had the confidence to back the plan for an integrated wetland management plan.

 

The plan included infrastructure that delivered biodiversity benefits for the wetland, water savings needed by the State Government, and a fresher source of water for irrigators.

 

Peter believes that the State and Federal Governments had the confidence to support the community because:

Research and planning demonstrated the costs and benefits;

The community had a plan with an integrated solution that generated environmental, social and economic benefits;

The community was unified by a common problem and acted as one, always addressing the
 solution and not “blaming” the Government.

 

Peter and his irrigation business adopted a “caretaker” mode during the drought
 and periods of low commodity prices.  The news of funding support from the Federal Government for pump relocation has generated new confidence in the community and irrigators are more willing to re-invest in their properties.

 

Now that a reliable fresh water source has been secured, sustainability of irrigators will depend on future allocations and commodity prices as well as other investments that provide the flexibility to earn off-farm income. Peter regards horticultural diversification as vital.

 

Environmental change

 

Peter recalls several events that indicate changes in the conditions of the wetland since he has lived opposite Yatco Lagoon.

He recalls 10 years ago the lagoons were dominated by shags whereas today the south lagoon is dominated by breeding swans.

The lagoons have always held many ducks and he recalled the importance of duck hunting in the community where the favoured hunting spot was known as “gun alley” along the narrow passage between the south and the north lagoons. Gun alley is still used by recreational duck hunters today and should be recorded in the history of the lagoons — and signposted.

 

Concerns and solutions

 

In Peter’s view, once the irrigation pumps are removed from the channel to the river, each of the flow control points in the wetland (the embankment, the causeway, and the channel) will require large non-return valves with hinged metal flaps to create flow in one direction from the south lagoon to the north lagoon. He is concerned that by only opening the valves within the embankment (while the valves on the causeway and channel remain closed) that the lagoons will continue to accumulate salt because there is no flow through the whole system.

 

Peter also noted that a second channel referred to as Schulz Creek was a natural inflow channel that has become silted up due to goats, and this should be remedied to enable it to flow. Peter recalls Murray Crayfish being caught in the entrance to Schulz’s Creek many years ago. The natural channel through Stasinowski’s floodplain should also be kept open to increase flow through the main lagoons.

Peter identified three natural inflow channels to Yatco Lagoon, each of which is subject to siltation under low flow conditions and other impacts such as goat grazing and flow barriers. The 3 channels are:

The headwaters of the current irrigation supply channel (“the channel”);

Schulz Creek; and

The creek (Middle Creek) that enters the lagoons at the causeway.

 

Each of these three creeks should be reinstated as creeks that flow at their historical “commence to flow” levels to increase connectivity with the river and improve flushing through Yatco Lagoon.

 

Community leadership

 

On reflecting on the Yatco Community Wetland Group, Peter felt that the achievements of the group were due to:

Recognition that some hardship now will achieve a better outcome later;

-  The philosophy has been shared by the whole community who have been patient and realistic about their chances of financial support from Government;

Recognition that the group can achieve more than the individual;

Willingness to work with Government;

Unification by the same problem — a highly saline water supply—caused by low flow
through the man made channel and saline seepage into the channel caused by poor irrigation practices of the past and heavy winter rains displacing salt into the channel.

 

The future

 

Peter sees several opportunities arising from the crisis and the actions involving the Yatco Wetland Landcare Group – including a healthier wetland and a secure and fresher irrigation source.

 

His vision for the region includes clean food production, proud primary producers, confidence to pursue new opportunities including ventures into organic production systems and ecotourism and tourist accommodation on the lagoons.