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A river runs through it

… yet drought and rising temperatures make water an ever-scarcer commodity in Australia, meaning producers face a challenge to survive, says MARGARET RAND

Flying over Australia is a telling experience. If you’re heading to, say, Melbourne, you fly for hours over empty red desert. It’s a prehistoric, eroded landscape, with nothing but rock, scrub and more rock. Then you’re at the coast, and everything is lit up, built up. Australia makes its point clearly: most of this country is barely habitable unless you belong to an indigenous tribe. Much of the rest is only habitable because of modern technology. Trying to grow grapes in a desert is not something that would look good in the average business plan. And yet that is what Australia has been doing, with great success – except when it stops raining. And it has stopped raining. Not completely, since most places have had some now and again. But in most places, it’s been too little for too long. Driving through stretches of Victoria last October, there were sheep paddocks without a blade of green grass, and dams either dangerously low, or dry – and that was the beginning of summer. Livestock was being sold off and farmers were giving up. Dairy farmers, their herds sent for slaughter, were living off the sales of water rights. Citrus trees were being chopped down as if they were Chekhovian cherry orchards. Yet in theHunter Valley the dams were overflowing with water – and it was still raining: the region was having its wettest year in a decade. There were also floods in Victoria’s Gippsland region.

At the heart of it

For a big country, Australia relies heavily on a single (albeit huge) river system. The Lachlan flows into the Murrumbidgee; the Murrumbidgee flows into the Murray. The Macquarie and the Barwon flow into the Darling; the Darling flows into the Murray. And the Murray, which rises in the southern end of the Great Dividing Range, meanders through Victoria, New South Wales (NSW) and South Australia, collecting various other tributaries on the way, and enters the sea near Adelaide. Riverina, Murray-Darling and Riverland, all heavily irrigated areas, depend on it, as does Adelaide. Up to 65% of Australia’s wine, and half of Australia’s food, comes from the Murray-Darling system. If the Murray basin sneezes, a lot of Australia catches a cold. Last November, it was said that you could walk across the Murray in places. Most winegrowers’ water allocation was down to 16% to 18% of what they could usually expect (growers in King Valley had 100% because the local water body didn’t want other people to have it). The price of buying water (from, say, ex-dairy farmers) had risen from A$60/ML (per megalitre, equivalent to a million litres) to around $1,200/ML (£29 to £583).

All as a result, not of no rain at all, but of eight years or more of below-average

rainfall, culminating in a real droughtin 2006. ‘Dams need filling every two to

three years,’ says Viv Thompson of Best’s winery. ‘We normally have 24-25 inches (610mm–630mm) of rain a year; but since 1999, we’ve only had 9–10 inches (230mm–250mm).’ He points to some vines that were hit hard by frost in 2006 and produced no grapes. ‘Normally, after a severe frost like that, the next year is very good. But not this year. There’s been no rain.’

Share and share alike

We’ve all seen the scare stories: the 2008 harvest in Australia is expected to be

down by about 50%, meaning an end to high-volume, cheap wines. Put like that, it seems rather a good thing: better wines on the shelves. But when you go to Best’s and see old vines with hardly any growth on them, or to Angove’s in Riverland and walk round vineyards where the water has been turned off and the vines left to live or die, it looks a bit different, even if those vines are Ruby Cabernet and Sylvaner. There’s a human cost here. It’s not faceless multinationals that are suffering, it’s individuals. A little less individuality in the way Australia runs its water might help. At the moment, there are 60 to 70 bodies involved in water management, and they are dominated by local issues: that’s why King Valley has been grabbing every drop it can and using it to irrigate lowvalue crops such as lucerne. King Valley is also fortunate because farmers there can put boreholes down to the alluvial beds which are fed by the Ovens and King rivers. Take water out of the alluvial beds and the rivers will replenish it. The trouble is that 38% of the Murray’s flow comes from the Ovens and King rivers, so the water taken from boreholes there is water that would otherwise feed the Murray. Victoria and NSW might face each other across the Murray, but if you happened to be on the Victoria side last spring, you had 18% of your allocation; if you were on the NSW side, you could take as much as you wanted. The federal government tried to take over the management of Murray-Darling water, but the individual states weren’t having it. Some have now agreed to central control, but Victoria is holding out. But if Victoria is blamed for causing

the deadlock, NSW is blamed for taking more than its fair share of water. Victoria Angove of Angove’s says: ‘South Australia takes 5% to 6% and NSW takes more than 50%. We’re at the end of the line. We get what they leave.’ However, don’t imagine that it’s just a matter of state against state; it’s industry against industry, too, and city against country. (City dwellers last summer were still able to water their gardens for three hours, one evening a week which, not surprisingly, irritated farmers.) ‘The wine industry is the shiny one,’ says John Graham Brown of Brown Brothers. ‘We use water economically. It’s cotton and rice that are the problems.’ Bruce Tyrrell, of Tyrrells in the Hunter Valley, agrees. He can fix the Murray-Darling, he says, ‘but I’ll need a platoon of SAS for protection, some plastic explosive and ‘immunity from prosecution.’ Supplied with all that, it would be a simple matter of blowing up one in four cotton dams, after which, he says, the Murray-Darling would run beautifully. ‘When the cotton growers have got their pumps on, the river can flow backwards.’ Crops like rice, lucerne and even dried milk, for the Asian market, are also seen as being part of the problem: lots of water being

expended on low-value products. Vines on drip irrigation need 5ML/ha (hectare), says Angove; they’ve taken it down to 3.5ML, ‘which may not be sustainable. Citrus trees need 11ML, and almonds need 15ML’. Inevitably, the picture is changing. Heavy rain in January in NSW and Queensland eased flow in the rivers and brought relief to irrigators in Victoria and NSW, and the cost of buying water

dropped dramatically from the spring high, to between A$220 and A$400/ML (£105–£195). Dams in the Murray system began to look a bit healthier, too. But even if this continues, growers are not likely to forget the lesson it has learned: Australia is, ultimately, an arid continent. McLaren Vale hopes that, by 2012, it will be the first major wine region in the world to be drought-proof. Already, say

the growers, they use very little water: they save water, they reclaim it efficiently, they protect their underground water

and they take mains water from the Myponga catchment rather than from

the Murray. Coonawarra, too, has underground water. Wineries everywhere

are recycling waste water and reducing the use of chemicals in the winery to make waste water usable on vineyards. It’s called grey water, probably for very good reasons. Some growers raise the issue of salinity, but vines can tolerate up to 1,200ppm (parts per million) of salt in water, and grey water doesn’t usually top 1,000. But bore water can be salty, too: water from Clare Valley bores has between 700ppm and 4,000ppm salt, says Mitchell Taylor at Wakefield. ‘And 1,500pm will kill a vine,’ he adds. Brown Bros is trying to reduce its water use per litre of wine by 10% everyyear, while Yalumba’s newest winery uses just one litre of water to make one litre of wine. At its older Angaston winery, 1.8l is

used per bottle. ‘Fifteen years ago,’ says Brenton Fry, director of Negociants International, Yalumba’s export arm, ‘it would have been 3l and 4l’ – if anybody had counted. Mulch and compost are used to retain soil humidity and rootstocks that best withstand water stress are used. Many producers are moving towards organic and biodynamic viticulture, increasingly seen as the way to cope with

little water. Lower crops will be the norm: irrigating to a particular crop level is likely to be a no-no. But, says Bruce Tyrrell: ‘We will always need irrigated vines. Vines under real stress don’t perform as well. Everybody now is looking to plant where there is secure water.’ But all these efforts can’t disguise the fact that the Australian wine industry is built on growing vines where no vine would normally grow. And they were planted there in the damp decades of the second half of the 20th century. The 1950s, the first half of the 1960s, the

1970s, part of the 1980s and the 1990s all had average or above-average rainfall. The bursts of planting in the 1970s and 1990s were driven mostly by tax breaks, but made possible by plentiful water. By contrast, the first half of the 20thcentury had mostly below-average rainfall. The difference between the drought now and the drought of 1939–1945 is that now it’s about 1˚C hotter, meaning more evaporation. While rainfall is down byabout 11%, inflow into the river systems is down by 57% because of evaporation. And, of course, there are more people now.

Rain or shine?

Can the growers survive? Many seem to have had enough rain in the summer of 2007-2008 to keep their vines going – ‘three inches (75mm) in early November and an inch (25mm) in early January’, says Greg Clayfield, winemaker at Zema in Coonawarra. Most states had substantial rain in early February – most of Queensland had floods – but it usually stopped at the South Australian border and crucially doesn’t seem to have done much for the Murray. Many producers are buying water – Brown Bros spent A$1.5m (£730,000) on water last summer. If it rains enough, this winter for bulk water costs to settle at around $200/ML (£97), the wine industry will be all right. But if it doesn’t

rain enough, and the first half of the 21st century is as dry as the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, what then? If that does happen, then vines will die and towns will become ghost towns. Or will the endlessly adaptable Australian wine industry adapt? Growers in the Barossa, for example, are returning to their traditional strengths – droughtfriendly vines such as Shiraz and Grenache, and also Tempranillo, Zinfandel and even Durif. But these are mediumto

long-term moves and there are producers who are on a financial knife-edge right now. Even if the next few months bring copious downpours, it will take a couple of years for the vines to recover, and individuals will go to the wall. These are individuals who have put their lives into their vineyards. Let’s hope it rains!

Written by Margaret Rand

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