Australian Rancher Mick Callanan sells about 300 head of cattle due to low rainfall on his ranch. Photo: Mark Lambie / El Paso Times

By Marty Schladen
17 November 2014

KILMORE, VICTORIA, AUSTRALIA (El Paso Times) – The "ranges" north of Melbourne can be deceptive in springtime, which starts in September here in the Southern Hemisphere.

The hills, which curve gently like the bullnose verandas on older Australian homes, are a lush green. So are the gum trees from which kookaburras and other birds sing songs unfamiliar to northern ears.

Mobs of kangaroos munch the grass. In the ponds, Aussie frogs keep up a weird, rhythmic thrumming.

People are glad to have them back.

Starting in 2003, the entire country was locked in the grip of the worst drought on record. At its height in 2006 and 2007, Melbourne — a city of 4 million — saw its reservoirs drop to just 27 percent of capacity.

In 2007, 2008 and 2009, sections of the Murray River — Australia's Mississippi River — simply ceased to flow. Some farmers, dependent on the river for irrigation, didn't bother putting in a crop.

In 2010, the rains came back to the state of Victoria in torrents and floods. And with water in the ponds, so did the frogs.

"When I first heard them, I just stood at the window and cried," said Phil Tripp, an otherwise unsentimental college administrator who owns a small farm outside of Kilmore.

Seared by the "Big Dry," Australian policymakers vowed never again. They are implementing a sweeping series of measures intended to drought-proof the continent-nation and protect it from the degradation that's proven so disastrous in the past.

Many of the measures were already underway, but the drought kicked them into overdrive, farmers and water managers say. Their apparent success so far might offer lessons for residents of the Southwest, who face a similar future of scarcity. […]

Combined with livestock production, irrigation agriculture is by far the biggest water consumer in southeastern Australia — as it is in the southwestern United States.

Ironically, the more water you put on plants that need it, the more likely you are to make the soil so salty that it will kill them.

It can happen by drawing up salt that's already in the ground, evaporating excess water and leaving the salt behind or by bringing in salty water from upriver. Salt can accumulate in irrigated fields because, unlike naturally wet environments, they lack the regular floods that flush the salts into nearby rivers and then pulse them out into the ocean.

Before the Big Dry struck, some Australian farmers were killing — or flogging — their land with too much water. They were, in effect, destroying two vital resources at the same time. [more]

Quenching Our Future: Southwest can learn from Australia's drought

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