Water or the lack of it.

Water, or the lack of it.

Every farmer's dream

On 5 April, 1878 The Advertiser published this article.

The difficulty of trying to wash the black man white is at times scarcely more serious than that of endeavouring to rouse some classes of the community to the true estimation of their own interests. All kinds of cries are raised concerning the farmer and his wants, and we are obliged to record with great regret the continual losses which stockholders experience from drought.

The fact is recognised by both the classes mentioned that periodical drought is a characteristic of the climate of the colony, and it ought to be fixed upon their minds by the financial deficits, which inevitably follow upon short crops and wasted flocks and herds. The general public is quite as much interested in a good season as a farmer or a squatter, because short crops and diminished flocks mean small export and dear meat. A dry season is seldom soon forgotten, and the common instinct of self-preservation might be relied upon in most communities as an incentive to exertion, in order to in some degree mitigate the mischief it does.

In our columns we have over and over again urged upon landholders and pastoral lessees, not only the prudence, but the sheer necessity that exists for them to do something to save the enormous quantity of water which falls over the country even in the worst years. Up to the present time we have in vain endeavoured to make them recognise the fact, that an increased command of water must swell the value of agricultural and pastoral land to an enormous extent, and that in many cases the occupiers of such kind may by a moderate outlay increase the producing powers of their tenure two or three fold.

Our arguments have had no effect, and the breaking up of the drought which has done so much injury to the resources of the colony during the past two or three years finds those who are most interested in a good supply of water as little prepared to avail themselves of the blessings of rain as heretofore. We hear of three, four, five, and even six inches of rainfall in various parts of the colony in a day or two; indeed, twelve hours' downpour in some cases has given a greater quantity than had fallen in almost as many months before.

The expected result, of course is a fine season for sheep, with, a crop of grass that will last for a year, or two; an excellent ploughing and seeding time; and when that is over all parties leave the rest to the chapter of accidents for what may come next. The rainfall of a single inch gives 22,640 gallons per acre. How much of this runs away to waste during a heavy rainfall? If one-third only were saved the result would give a storage of 7,649 gallons, or the enormous quantity of 4,831,369 gallons per square mile.

Now it appears to us, speaking from some acquaintance with the physical features of the colony, that there are comparatively few sheep runs where this amount of rainfall could not be arrested and turned to good account in the course of each year. Where rain is most scarce, when it does come it is most violent. The soil has not time to absorb it, so the bulk of it runs to waste, swelling the creeks, where there are creeks, to a dangerous extent, and flooding the country upon which it falls in all directions.

With a very moderate amount of outlay and foresight all the good the rain can do would still be done, and all the immense advantage which an abundant store of water could confer might be secured. The value of rain in the North at least may be pretty well gauged by the charge of 10s. per 1,000 gallons for water delivered at Port Augusta. What was it worth at the Blinman or Waukaringa two months ago?

In Italy, Spain, Portugal, Egypt, and Algiers, where the climate is not very dissimilar to that of South Australia, but where the water supply is more abundant than it is here, no water is allowed to run to waste. In Italy, Spain, and Portugal irrigation works are undertaken by the State, or official organizations subordinate to the State. There is a regular tariff for the supply of water, and a charge for the construction of necessary works, which form together an important source of revenue, for no occupier of land will allow a good supply of water to pass his tenure unused.

We hear of the luxuriousness of Italian and Spanish fruits, and many think that ours suffer in comparison with them. Where the soil is neglected such may be the case, but where water is used in their cultivation, as it ought to be, ours are incomparably better, because after all we have more settled seasons and a fresher soil. The preservation of water is not so difficult or expensive as may be generally imagined.

Large quantities of stiff clay are not everywhere obtainable, but in most places argillaceous soils sufficiently tenacious to keep in water may be found. Hollows sunk in the corners of sections and roughly puddled with clay can be made at the mere price of excavation and the cost of leading drains to carry the standing or wasting waters into them at an insignificant price per rod.

At an outlay of £20 in average cases a tank capable of holding 30,000 gallons could be constructed, and if in dry seasons a wheat grower could restore to the soil only four of the inches of rain per acre (90,584 gallons) which now run to waste uncared for and unregarded, the yield of our wheat crops might be increased from an average raging from 5 to 14 bushels to one running between 20 and 25. In the agricultural districts which lie in or near to hilly country the process of water preservation is quite as easy, and certainly would be more reproductive in its results.

In Spain and Italy they dam up the gullies which open on to plains. The dams are fitted with overflow drains and with sluices—the former to guard against the washing away of the dams by the floods which rise in the ravines from sudden storms; the latter to regulate the supply of water to the lands which border the hills during those times when irrigation is needful. Such simple expedients as these are systematically neglected in South Australia.

The Government, which should look for the best price possible for the rent of pastoral lands, neither enforces nor encourages the preservation of water on the runs. They have not considered the conservation of a large water supply as an improvement of lands under the credit system, and they have never considered the question of irrigation as a policy or a part of a policy.

Beyond ail doubt such an enterprise, or rather such a means of increasing the producing powers of lands still under the control of the Crown, is as much a necessity as railways. Indeed it would help to make traffic in places where at present a large transport business is somewhat problematical. At all events it would help in some degree to equalise the effects of the seasons, which do in one year as much damage as the colony can recover in three or four.

Although the author of this article made some valid points, there was a lot more to this problem than he was aware of. Among them was that most people still believed that ‘rain would follow the plough’. Almost all pastoral land was on leasehold. Overstocking was often used to make up for previous losses. Farmers bought their land on credit and had to clear it first before they could put in a crop. Most didn’t have the money or manpower to build these kinds of structures after a very poor or moderate harvest. It was also at this time that Goyder’s Line of rainfall was considered as nonsense and the government more than willing to sell land.


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