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Unlocking the potential of northern Australia

Australia's national science agency, CSIRO, has conducted the most integrated, multidisplinary investigation of opportunities for water and agricultural development in northern Australia.

The Northern Australia Water Resource Assessment was commissioned as an initiative of the Australian Government’s White Paper on Developing Northern Australia and the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper.

Learn about the Assessment

More than 100 scientists investigated three priority river catchment areas across three states in 2.5 years:

  • the Fitzroy catchment in Western Australia
  • the Finniss, Adelaide, Mary and Wildman river catchments in the Northern Territory
  • the Mitchell catchment in Queensland.

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Narrator: Water is one of our most important resources,

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we don’t just need it for drinking,

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 we need it for farming, industry and to keep our countries ecosystems healthy.

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But we’ve got some big challenges with how we manage our water, from meeting competing demands from the agriculture, environmental and urban sectors,

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to the uncertainty of water resource availability and the impact of climate change.

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To meet the challenges we need reliable and timely data and information.

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[Image shows pink background as text appears: DATA & INFORMATION]

[Image changes to show yellow background with text: The Bureau of Meteorology]

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In 2008 the Bureau of Metrology and CSIRO established the Water Information Research and Development Alliance,

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or WIRADA to deliver critical and accurate water information for Australia.

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 This eight year, 65 million dollar research partnership combines CSIRO’s leading expertise

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in water and information sciences and the Bureaus operational role in hydrological analyses and prediction, to deliver high quality water information and tools to government, industry and all Australians.

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The science and technology breakthroughs have surpassed all expectations,

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they’ve changed the way Australia’s water managers and users operate,

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by integrating weather and hydrological observations,

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with climate, catchment and river flow modeling, along with new statistical methods and super computer.

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WIRADA created two products that accurately predicts stream flows,

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days, months and seasons ahead for major rivers across Australia.

[Image shows animated water with an animated image of a person on a boat floating in the water, with numbers in the corners and lines on the side representing real time stimulations of landscape water fluxes and stores]

There are real time stimulations of landscape water fluxes and stores across Australia,

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developed by innovatively combining in situ climate and stream flow measurements, satellite observations and hydrological modelling.

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Australians now have high resolution digital elevation and river network products, while data providers have adopted data exchange standards to share, interrogate, reuse and present water data.

[Image changes to show animated images surrounding text highlighted in a pink box: STANDARDS, SHARE, INTERROGATE, RE-USE, PRESENT, WATER DATA]

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The water information products and services delivered through WIRADA

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help everyone work toward a strong and sustainable future for Australia’s water.

[Image changes to show logo: CSIRO and text appears: Australia’s innovation catalyst]

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Western Australia

The Assessment investigated the Fitzroy River catchment in Western Australia, a river 700 km long and a catchment 94,000 km2. The largest of the three study areas included in the Assessment.

The Fitzroy catchment

With major aquifer systems in the Fitzroy catchment, groundwater is likely to provide the initial development pathway to enable expansion of irrigated agriculture.

[Music plays and the camera pans over an aerial view of irrigated and dry landscape and the CSIRO logo appears]

[Images move through of an aerial view of a river, a tractor raking hay, a watering pivot, a male looking at a control board, and a male writing notes and working on a computer and text appears: Northern Australia Water Resource Assessment]

Narrator: Australia’s National Science Agency has conducted the most extensive study of the potential for agricultural development in northern Australia.

[Image changes to show a world globe featuring Australia and highlighting the Fitzroy, Darwin and Mitchell Catchments]

The assessment covered river catchments in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.

[Images move through to show an aerial view of a river, men in a helicopter collecting water samples in bottles, men taking soil samples, and a close-up shot of the soil being assessed at different depths]

We investigated soil and water resources, water storage options and the commercial viability of irrigated agriculture.

[Images move through to show birds flying in a V formation, an egret standing in a riverbed, pink lily pad flowers on a river, a crocodile in a river and an aerial view of a riverbed]

We also looked at potential environmental and social impacts and engaged with indigenous people to understand their values, rights and interests in development.

[Image changes to show a map of Australia and the camera zooms in on the Fitzroy Catchment area and text appears: Fitzroy Catchment, Western Australia, Length 700 km, Catchment 94000 km², Annual rainfall 552mm]

The Fitzroy River in Western Australia is the largest of the three catchments assessed.

[Image changes to show an aerial view of riverbed and then the image shows an aerial view of a car driving across a bridge over the river]

Ninety percent of the region’s annual rainfall is in the wet season and it’s difficult to store with potential evaporation nearly three times the annual rainfall.

[Image changes to show an aerial view of a tractor raking hay and the camera zooms in on the front of the tractor, the side of tractor and the raking wheels]

Even so, we found there’s enough suitable land and available water to develop 1.7% of the total catchment.

[Images move through to show an aerial view of irrigated and dry landscape, an aerial view of a pivot, a side view of the pivot moving, and a side view of the pivot spraying, and text appears: 170 GL from groundwater could support 30000 ha of agriculture]

The lowest cost and risk comes from groundwater, most likely supporting small to medium scale forage development to supplement the existing cattle industry.

[Images move through to show a side view of water spraying from a pivot, the moving pivot wheel, the pivot nozzle spraying, an aerial view of a tractor baling hay, and the baler and text appears: 1700GL from the river or floods could support 160000 ha of irrigated agriculture]

Higher cost surface water harvested in on farm dams pumped from the river or collected from floods could support large scale irrigated agriculture.

[Images move through to show a bale rolling out of the baler, a male walking to the rear of baler, the male adjusting the bale net and then a row of bales and text appears: About $900m annually in gross value of production and about 5000 jobs]

We found the economic value of the region’s irrigated agriculture could potentially increase more than ten-fold, generating jobs and growing communities.

[Images move through to show aerial view of river from a helicopter, an underwater view of a sawfish and a hawk on a branch]

But future developments will have to take into account impacts on ecosystems downstream and diverse views on development.

[Image changes to show an aerial view of irrigated and dry landscape and text appears: www.csiro.au/NAWRA]

To find out more about these assessments and the opportunities in northern Australia, visit the website.

[Music plays and CSIRO logo and text appears on a blue screen: CSIRO Australia’s innovation catalyst]

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Northern Territory

The Assessment investigated the Finniss, Adelaide, Mary and Wildman catchments in the Northern Territory, a combined area of 30,000 km2 with rivers flowing through extensive coastal and marine flood plains.

The Finniss, Adelaide, Mary and Wildman

In the Finniss, Adelaide, Mary and Wildman catchments, the Assessment found a combination of major dams, farm-scale offstream storages and groundwater could support expansion of agriculture.

Music plays and the camera pans down a river and the CSIRO logo appears]

[Images move through of an aerial view of a river, aquaculture areas, a tractor loading hay bales onto a truck, an orchard, and grasses poking through the surface of water and text appears: Northern Australia Water Resource Assessment]

Narrator: Australia’s National Science Agency has led the most extensive, integrated study of the potential for agricultural development in northern Australia.

[Image changes to show a world globe showing the Fitzroy, Darwin and Mitchell Catchments highlighted on the map of Australia on the globe]

The assessment covered river catchments in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.

[Images move through of a view of an irrigation channel from a helicopter, a male taking a water sample, a male working in a lab and a large water catchment area]

We investigated soil and water resources, water storage options and the commercial viability of irrigated agriculture.

[Images move through of a male holding a fish, a male looking at cucumber, a cucumber on the vine, an orchard of fruit trees, a waterbird with wings spread, a crocodile, and a hawk taking off to fly]

We also looked at potential environmental and social impacts and engaged with indigenous people to understand their values, rights and interests in development.

[Images move through of a map of Australia with the Darwin Catchment highlighted and the camera zooms in on the area and text appears: Combined catchments area 30000 km²]  

Around Darwin, we investigated the four small catchments of the Finniss, Adelaide, Mary and Wildman Rivers.

[Image changes to show a boat moving along a river and then the image changes to show a car travelling along a road past a sign “Welcome to the Wetlands Region” and text appears: Averaged annual rainfall 1423 mm]

Rainfall here is more reliable than other parts of northern Australia.

[Image changes to show water lilies on a water surface and then the image changes to show mangroves on the banks of a body of water]

However, the challenge is how to store water above ground for irrigation in the dry season.

[Images move through of a view looking down a river and the camera pans along the river, a flat swampy area, and then a river, and text appears: 436 GL from new dams could support:]

We found there’s potential for dams at Mount Bennett on the Finniss River and on the upper Adelaide River.

[Images move through of a person looking at mangoes growing on a tree and then the camera zooms in on a ripening mango and text appears: 40000 ha of mangoes or 60000 ha of vegetables]

Together these dams could irrigate up to 2% of the combined catchments area.

[Music plays and images flash through of a fruit orchard, water storage areas, hay bales in a field, a tractor loading the bales, cucumbers on a vine, and an Asian vegetable on a vine and text appears: 600 GL from offstream storage could support 50000 ha of agriculture, 35 GL from groundwater could support 7800 ha of Asian vegetables]

Off stream storages in the Mary and Adelaide catchments could support further agricultural development and new groundwater resources could support additional trickle irrigated vegetable production.

[Images move through of aerial views of aquaculture ponds, a turbine moving water around, and fish moving along a conveyer belt and into a tank and text appears: 420000 ha available for lined ponds for aquaculture]

There’s also opportunity to expand the aquaculture industry.

[Music plays and images flash through of employees loading fish into large boxes, the fish in the boxes, Asian vegetables in an orange tub, and an employee stacking boxes and text appears: About $2.3 bn annually in gross value of production and about 3000 jobs]

Darwin has the community infrastructure to support irrigated agriculture development which would bring increased economic value for the region and jobs.

[Images move through of a flock of galahs on a dead tree, an egret wading in water, a crocodile in the water, and a wetland area]

But future developments will have to take into account impacts on ecosystems and diverse views on development.

[Music plays and image changes to show aquaculture ponds and text appears: www.csiro.au/NAWRA]

To find out more about these assessments and the opportunities in northern Australia, visit the website.

[CSIRO logo and text appears on a blue screen: CSIRO Australia’s innovation catalyst]

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Queensland

The Mitchell River catchment in Queensland covers 72,000 km2 and flows into the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The Mitchell River

In the Mitchell River catchment, the Assessment found large instream dams could provide the best development opportunity in the catchment.

[Music plays and the camera pans over a wetland and the CSIRO logo appears]

[Image changes to show an aerial view of a river bed and then the camera pans along the river bed and text appears: Northern Australia Water Resource Assessment]

Narrator: Australia’s National Science Agency has led the most extensive, integrated study of the potential for agricultural development in northern Australia.

[Image changes to show a world globe showing the Fitzroy, Darwin and Mitchell Catchments on the map of Australia]

The assessment covered river catchments in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.

[Images move through of a flooded road, a 4WD travelling over the flooded road, an aerial view of a scrubby landscape, a male taking notes in a notebook and a male removing a camera from a tree]

We investigated soil and water resources, water storage options and the commercial viability of irrigated agriculture.

[Images move through of an aerial view of a scrubby landscape, water birds on a wetland and a hawk on the branch of a tree]

We also looked at potential environmental and social impacts and engaged with indigenous people to understand their values, rights and interests in development.

[Music plays and images move through of the Mitchell Catchment highlighted on a map and the Catchment counting up to 72000 km² and an aerial view of the Mitchell River and text appears: Mean annual rainfall averaged across catchment 996mm]

The Mitchell River has the largest annual stream flow of any river in northern Australia.

[Images move through of the Mitchell River and then the camera zooms in on a rushing torrent in the river]

However, about 95% of run off occurs during the wet season.

[Image changes to show a view of the Mitchell River and the camera pans along the river and then the image changes to show irrigated crops and text appears: Potential dams could release 2800 GL, which could support:]

Without suitable ground water, irrigation during the dry season will require surface water storage.

[Image changes to show water rushing and then the camera zooms out to show an open weir across an irrigation channel allowing the water to rush through and then the image changes to show a river]

Four of the more commercially favourable dams we’ve identified could support 140,000 hectares of year-round irrigation.

[Image changes to show water running into irrigation channels from a pipe and then the image changes to show a sugar cane crop growing and text appears: 140000 ha of irrigated agriculture]

Combined, these dams could irrigate up to 2% of the total catchment, including broadacre crops like sugar cane.

[Music plays and images move through of a crop irrigated with sprinklers, rows of trees, and hay bales in a freshly mown field and text appears: Water harvesting could support up to 200000 ha of agriculture]

Water harvesting could potentially irrigate one dry season crop per year and irrigated forage crops could supplement the existing cattle industry.

[Images move through of stockman moving cattle, a harvester and a chaser bin moving through a field, a car moving along a road, and a sign “Walsh River Ferguson Crossing” and text appears: About $720m annually in gross value of production about 7250 jobs]

We found the economic value of irrigated agriculture in the Mitchell catchment could increase three to four times, generating jobs and growing communities.

[Images move through of a road train moving along a road, an aerial view of the Mitchell River, shrubs at the river’s edge, a butterfly resting on a plant and a hawk sitting on a dead tree branch]

But future developments will have to take into account impacts on ecosystems downstream and diverse views on development.

[Image changes to show an aerial view looking down on sheds and irrigated crops and text appears: www.csiro.au/NAWRA]

To find out more about these assessments and the opportunities in northern Australia, visit the website.

[CSIRO logo and text appears on a blue screen: CSIRO Australia’s innovation catalyst]

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NAWRA reports

Want to find out more about CSIRO’s work in northern Australia?

Contact Dr Chris Chilcott, Research leader Northern Australia via email or phone to discuss how we can help you develop opportunities in the north.

Phone: +61 8 8944 8422
Email: Chris.Chilcott@csiro.au