I travelled a bit, still do. I like to wander and learn how different places work. It often challenges preconceptions you never knew you had. And people’s stories are interesting, as are the stories of the plants, the rocks, the water, the towns… what can I say. I’m a wanderer who can’t stop reading, and the world is my book. How this affected my thinking on irrigation and watering is complicated. Some of it is just becoming ten years older. But in those ten years, I saw a lot of things I’d never imagined.
I went to Victoria, and caught up with some friends, one of whom took me up to see his auntie in dairy country near the Murray River. They were amused that he’d finally brought up a girl who wasn’t at all afraid to put on wellies and help milk the cows, and I was happy that they were willing to show me their daily life and routines in a type of farming very different to that I knew. Tell you something, doing an early morning round with an inseminator is quite an education! The thing that lingered with me most from the visit, apart from the image of a man with his arm wedged up to the shoulder in a cow’s arse, was that they irrigated their grazing paddocks. By opening a gate in a canal and letting the water run in until they could see it reach the other side. The idea of just letting water run around like that was so alien to me. And it was just going onto grass! I understood it in the bigger picture of course, the picture that included having to ship hay in from South Australia because there hadn’t been enough fodder, the questions over how large a herd to keep, the drought that was just hitting at the time, the earliest hints of the supermarket milk price wars. But it was far enough outside my experience to start me questioning. I was paying attention to water anyway – that’s part of what I do when I’m learning a new area. You always ask where the water comes from, where it goes to and how. (It’s the third question, after “Am I going to need a jumper?” and “Where can I get lunch?”.) So I was starting to hear more directly about the issues of the Murray Darling Basin, find out how Melbourne Water had protected the city’s catchments, and hear Victoria’s versions of the pipeline arguments. But seeing this just had me shocked at how, while water overall was so incredibly precious, each individual litre went unnoticed and unmeasured in its passing. And it was labelled “entitlements”. A year later I took a tour bus of young scientists from around the country up to Shepparton, and laughed as the Perth rep had exactly the same reaction I first did to see fields so bizarrely green.
More happened while I was exploring Victoria and the south-eastern food bowl. I wandered the Riverlands and saw how the memories of old floods were literally engraved in the landscape with the power of a district’s tractors, to a point where residents couldn’t imagine life with less flooding. I talked to a river educator who showed me how the Murray-Darling system compared to other large rivers around the world, though I couldn’t then imagine what those rivers would be like. I planted trees for wildlife in the box-ironwood forests in a month you’d never plant in Perth, and paid attention to the explanations why. I learnt about hydro power. And I learnt that the hydro companies on the river were using coal power to pump water back up into the dams at night so they could supply peak power for a profit. I heard environmentalists and land-conscious farmers argue over whether enclosing the Wimmera pipeline would be better or worse, given that it would prevent transport water losses but wildlife had come to depend on those losses as a safe water source. I kept track of our growing scientific understanding of climate change, and how that was pointing to more variability and less security in terms of water availability. I heard statements that the northern pipeline would pay for itself with new irrigation efficiencies, such as giving laser sights to those same dairy farmers who’d first shown me the canals and talked about the price of hay. This all floated around in my head while I kept listening to people.
I travelled with my family back to California – my mother’s first trip home since she migrated here more than thirty years before. It was high summer when we came to the town where she went to highschool, and all of us stood gobsmacked to discover that they airconditioned their parks. Giant fans stood on high poles, and water sprayed into the fan blades as they turned to create drifts of cool air falling from above. We toured the nearby dam, where they talked of how their rainfall should be around the 40 inch mark but had dropped in the drought, and looked at each other in puzzlement trying to translate what that was in metric. We visited the Bay Model Visitor Center in Sausalito, where I began to understand the water issues in California, how agriculture, municipalities and environmental concerns all competed, and how the mountains of California provided a steady and delayed water source for the food bowl that the state had become. We met my aunt in Utah and rode rapids on the Colorado River. The river guide pointed out rock formations in cliff walls up to twenty metres above our heads and told us how in other seasons she might steer her boat this way or that so as not to get caught in the currents those rocks caused. I watched and watched the river’s flow, and learnt how to effortlessly float fast enough to race her boat and win – something I’d have never imagined possible from my experience of Australian rivers.
And then, I took a Melbourne job as a project manager in green technology – specifically, in alternative water systems. My job was to acquit a bunch of half-started grants. And I did. The first project was a carpark experiment to catch and filter stormwater. One section was pervious paving, one was a normal control surface, and the third had planted lawn. As I was being introduced to the system, they expressed sadness that all the lawn they’d planted in November had died the following January. Coming from Perth, I had trouble comprehending how this was a surprise to them. Doesn’t all lawn die back in summer? It took some time with climate data plus a Melbourne Water lecture on the effects of the 2006 drought for me to begin to understand how they could have expected lawn to just grow, and why it didn’t.
I spent a year and a half immersed in alternative water systems and came to know the Melbourne climate and rainfall as well as I had that of Perth. When I left the job in early 2009, I didn’t stop thinking. Or listening. But I still assumed irrigation as a basis to my thinking. How else are you going to keep things growing?