, Volume 24, Issue 9, pp 1791-1817
Date: 17 Nov 2009

A Continental Scale Assessment of Australia’s Potential for Irrigation

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Debate about irrigation development of water resources in northern Australia has been hampered by a lack of quantitative information to enable accurate assessment of the volume of water that could potentially be regulated in the ‘North’ (north of the tropic of Capricorn). Too often the debate focuses solely on streamflow volumes and quantities of runoff. In this paper we present simple calculations to estimate a representative irrigation requirement and the potential exploitable yield in each of the 12 drainage divisions of Australia in order to more fully inform this on-going debate. Environmental, social, cultural and economic considerations are not examined. The results indicate that, despite northern Australia generating approximately 64% of the continent’s runoff, only 45% of Australia’s potentially exploitable yield is located in that portion of Australia, due to unfavourable streamflow characteristics, storage constraints and large evaporation losses. If exploitable yield and irrigation requirement were the sole factors constraining sustainable irrigation, under a full development scenario, southern Australia could hypothetically support an area of irrigation about 60% greater than that of northern Australia (based on only 36% of the country’s runoff). Using ‘best estimates’ of rainfall and evapotranspiration projected under changes in climate resulting from a moderate emissions scenario, the percentage of Australia’s exploitable yield located in northern Australia is estimated to increase from 45% to 47% by the year 2050, which equates to a 2% increase to the percentage of Australia’s hypothetical area of irrigation that could be located in northern Australia. These results suggest that efforts towards achieving and developing sustainable irrigation practices in the South will remain most important in achieving Australia’s long term irrigation potential. This study also highlights the need for better regional scale information on the potential to regulate streamflow in Australia, under current and future climates. Such information is essential to guide policy and planning, future Government and private investment, and to manage community expectations of Australia’s water resources.