Water Conservation on Acreage

The following letter was published in the Bellingen Courier Sun in January 2017.

Recent Courier Sun articles have covered the very low Bellinger river flows and vandalism of a pump used to water cattle pasture. Wars over water are predicted and in our own small way, it has started. It is alarming that while spring was very dry according to recorded history, it did not occur during a strong El Nino.  If the world became carbon neutral today, the delayed greenhouse effect would still bring global warming of at least double what we’ve had. Unfortunately, so far the world has only managed to talk about fixing the problem – we’re not doing it.  Previous culture and management of the Bellinger River assumed there would always be enough for everyone. That is now untrue and the climate trend is worsening. If we don’t change our culture of water, we’ll run dry.


We can learn from people around the world who have learnt to live with more irregular rainfall in hotter climates. Most strategies use “Farmers Trees”. Farmers trees are leguminous and/or have leaves or pods edible to stock. Locally they include many wattles, kurrajong, clumping bamboo. Trees survive drought where grass doesn’t. Trees increase rainfall, condensation and soil moisture conservation. People think of farm soil moisture as a pot of limited size – so they don’t want grass and trees to share the pot because they’ll get less grass. They don’t realise that trees can greatly increase the size of the pot. Look around – there’s plenty of dead grass in the open next to green grass under trees. Cattle also need shade or they grow slower.


Apart from the obvious (but neglected) destocking, strategies include: 1. Strips of farmers trees in pasture or on double fenced edges (electric fencing makes this convenient). 2. Forested blocks of browse trees & understorey which are only used in drought, either foraged by cattle or cut & fed to penned stock, which are kept cool and quiet. 3. Swales – long trenches on contour which catch storm water & slowly release it to trees planted on the swale bank. 4. Drought proofing using “Keyline” – a network of interconnected dams.


These measures can only be developed during the good times, when our memories are often too short. Further information can be found in permaculture books by Bill Mollison or Mark Sheppard, or Zaytuna demonstration farm. Cattle use the most land for the least yield of any farm product, so you may be inspired to diversify. Whatever the case, ideally council sustainability section would provide advice and co ordination of local trials. Farmers who reduce water consumption could sell unused water to council during drought. Use & recycling of town water requires a change in culture & strategies too – another story for another day, another dollar.