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What is the Flinders and Gilbert Agriculture Resource Assessment (FGARA)?

The Flinders and Gilbert Agricultural Resource Assessment (the Assessment) was a two-year (2012-2103) $6.8 million study, funded by the Australian Government Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, that investigated the opportunities for water and agricultural development in two large catchments in north Queensland; the catchments of the Flinders and Gilbert Rivers.  

What was the objective of FGARA?

Thousands of hectares of soil have previously been identified as potentially suitable for agriculture in northern Australia however an extreme climate and access to water has limited agriculture development in the north. FGARA aimed to provide, for the first time, an integrated view of all factors that impact agricultural development, and provide a greater level of certainty for communities and governments when they consider future developments. FGARA has:

  • Identified and evaluated water capture and storage options
  • Identified and tested the commercial viability of irrigated agricultural opportunities, and
  • Assessed potential environmental, social and economic impacts and risks.

Who was involved in FGARA?

FGARA was led and conducted primarily by CSIRO. Important aspects of the study were undertaken by the Queensland Government and TropWATER (James Cook University). In all about 100 scientists were involved over a two year period.

What did the Assessment consider?

For each of the two catchments the assessment considered:

  • The physical environment: aspects such as geology, soil type and agricultural suitability, climate and weather patterns (rainfall, temperature and evaporation) and hydrology (water amounts and flow patterns).
  • The living and built environment: ecology, infrastructure, indigenous and colonial histories, Indigenous and broader community values.
  • Opportunities for irrigation in each catchment
  • Economic opportunities and constraints – farm and irrigation scheme scale
  • How  to maximise the sustainability of irrigation developments – considering aspects such as salinity and ecological impacts of changed flow regimes.

What were the key findings of the Assessment?

The Flinders and Gilbert catchments differ significantly in their physical characteristics and, as a consequence, the extent to and methods by which agricultural development might occur.

In the Flinders catchment, farm dams could support 10,000 to 20,000 ha of irrigation in 70 to 80% of years; irrigation may not be possible in very dry years. The precise area under irrigation will, in any year, vary depending on factors such as irrigation efficiency, water availability, crop choice and risk appetite.

In the Gilbert catchment, large instream dams could support 20,000 to 30,000 ha of irrigation in 85% of years. Again, the precise area under irrigation will, in any year, vary depending on factors such as irrigation efficiency, water availability, crop choice and risk appetite.

Instream dams enable more reliable irrigated production than farm dams, because they can more easily carry water from one year to the next.

Significant water use would, in the downstream environment, amplify the environmental and social challenges associated with dry years and would have impacts on commercial and recreational fishing catches that have not been quantified in this study. CSIRO anticipate finalising a comprehensive analysis of the risk of possible impacts to fisheries in the Gulf of Carpentaria from agricultural development scenarios possible for the Flinders and Gilbert River catchments.

Was there much difference between the catchments?

Yes. The Key Findings leaflet details some of the key physical differences between the Flinders and Gilbert catchments. In short, despite their close proximity, each catchment differs markedly in total rainfall, topography (and thus capacity to capture and store water) and soils. There are also significant differences in population and infrastructure in each catchment.

While there were important differences, there were also similarities between the catchments. Many of the opportunities and challenges associated with development in remote areas, such as transport distances and access to soft and hard infrastructure, were shared.

Did CSIRO look for dam sites?

Yes. We were asked to identify the location and size of potential water storages. We examined over 100,000 sites for off-stream water storage (e.g. on-farm dams) in each catchment. We also reviewed about 100 existing proposals for in-stream dams and examined the potential for a number of new dam sites.

Did CSIRO identify where dams could be located to support agricultural expansion?

For each of the two catchments – ‘prospective’ dam sites were identified, based on a range of factors, including geology (what the earth is made of), soils, topography (shape of the land surface), rainfall and water yield (the amount of water that dams could deliver reliably), and location in relation to arable land.

The prospective dam sites identified by CSIRO are not the only ones possible. We have developed tools to assess the prospectivity of alternative dam locations and configurations.

Where are the most viable dam sites?

In the Flinders catchment development of irrigated agriculture, based on relatively shallow, on-farm dams (with a total water storage potential of approximately 350 GL) would be possible at an estimated cost of approximately $10,000 per ha of irrigated land. No large, cost-effective in-stream dam sites were identified.

In the Gilbert catchment sites at Dagworth and Green Hills have the potential for large instream dams with a combined storage capacity of 725 GL.  If developed, these dams would be capable of delivering approximately 250 GL to crops. An existing dam site at Copperfield Gorge has potential for expansion.

Who should be responsible for paying for these dams?

We have provided an analysis of where dams might be sited, an estimate of the potential costs of dam construction and the potential value of crops that could be grown, under ideal conditions. We do not suggest how any eventual dam construction could, or should, be funded. Such decisions are for others to make not CSIRO.

Were environmental considerations included in this study?  

A wide range of potential environmental impacts was considered in detail. Potential impacts of irrigation development on water quality (sediment, pollutants, blue-green algae, etc) and quantity (e.g. peak, average and low flows), nourishment of waterholes and wetlands, and impacts of clearing and inundation on terrestrial environmental assets are addressed.

It has not been possible to quantify impacts of development on specific environmental assets because these cannot be determined in the absence of specific development proposals. This would normally occur as part of an environmental impact assessment. FGARA provides some of the tools required to make such as assessment, and further site-specific and development-specific work would be required to deploy those tools.

What impacts will the building of dams, and irrigation development from these dams, have on the local environment?

On rivers: Rivers are characterised by their patterns of flow - how much flow, when and for how long. This flow affects water quality, biodiversity, aquatic productivity, water temperature, oxygen levels and even the shape of a river. Changes to stream flow and connectivity, such as those potentially brought about by dam construction, could have considerable consequences on the health of the rivers concerned.  Well established, effective adaptive management approaches will need to be deployed if such development does occur.

River Pollutants:  Irrigation and land clearing for cropping also raises the likelihood of erosion and thus the risk of sediment and pollutants (fertiliser and herbicides) reaching streams. Adaptive management approaches, such as those employed successfully in parts of the Great Barrier Reef catchments, will need to be employed to avoid this potential impact.  The Gilbert catchment in particular, with its predominantly clear water holes, would be visibly impacted by increased sediment flows if these were to occur.

Land impacts: Inundation (flooding) for dam sites, and/or the removal of trees for agricultural development could reduce regional plant diversity and potentially displace other species relying on these plants, thus detailed biodiversity studies would need to be conducted to ensure mitigation actions can be taken early. Agriculture increases the risk of invasive plant and animal incursions and agropollutants. Biosecurity monitoring and management protocols can reduce this risk. Particular areas pose a salinisation risk that will require careful management in the event that development proceeds. For most of these potential risks, there are well established and effective adaptive management approaches designed to reduce negative impacts.

How will agricultural development affect fisheries in the Gulf?

There is a strong positive relationship between streamflow into the Gulf and fishery catches, especially for species of commercial and recreational importance. Prawn landings in the Gulf of Carpentaria prawn fishery are strongly related to wet season flows from the Gulf rivers.

FGARA did not quantify these relationships further, but we are currently planning work that links the insights developed in FGARA with knowledge of fisheries. This will enable impacts of changed water regimes in the Flinders and Gilbert catchments on Gulf fisheries to be quantified.

Northern Australia has an extreme climate. Does the CSIRO study suggest climate impacts are going to get worse in the areas of north Queensland where this study has been undertaken?

The Flinders and Gilbert catchments have a hot, semi-arid climate that is highly variable, even by global standards.

This extreme variability increases both the potential value and risks associated with water storage and irrigated agriculture.

While drought is no more common in the Flinders or Gilbert catchments than in most of Australia’s agricultural areas, drought is generally more intense because evaporation rates are high.

Based on this study projected climate change is not expected to impact on average annual rainfall in the region over the next 40 years.

Have the values of the community been considered in this assessment? What are their major concerns?

Communities that reside and have interests in the Flinders and Gilbert catchments were essential to the completion of FGARA, both in shaping its enquiries and in providing critical data and insights.

Local knowledge and aspirations helped to identify the three case studies undertaken in each catchment, detailed in the FGARA reports.

Community concerns around development were also gathered and reported. These included:

  • downstream effects of dams, inundation of important habitats, impact on fish passage, potential for dam failure, and cumulative impacts of water extraction and intensified land use and mining on existing and potential future water users
  • Indigenous communities were interested in ensuring that known and yet to be known cultural sites were not adversely affected by development. They also sought opportunities for enhancing employment and resettlement in the region.

How is FGARA different to previous studies of water availability or irrigation development potential in northern Australia?

Previous studies, such as CSIRO’s Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Study (NASY) and Northern Australia Land and Water Science Review, both completed in 2009, examined potential resource availability and use across all of northern Australia (120 million hectares). As a result, they were necessarily less detailed than FGARA, which focused on two catchments (about 16 million hectares).

There is still a lot that is not known about northern Australia, so the closer you look the more you find. The detailed examination undertaken by FGARA has provided a raft of completely new information, such as the first soils maps for the area.

Why were the Flinders and Gilbert catchments chosen?   

The Flinders and Gilbert catchments each had a history of pioneering irrigation developments, local capacity and desire to explore further development, and the potential for expanded water use.

The enthusiastic involvement of local communities was critical to establishing and completing FGARA.

Why weren’t other catchments included in this assessment?

This is a massive body of research requiring the involvement of more than 100 scientists during the two-year study. If we’d examined a larger area there’s a risk that we’d have had to look in less detail, which would have provided less useful information. A key message from the study is that even catchments in close proximity can be quite different and we need to look at each region in detail to understand it.

A goal of the FGARA project was to develop methods for more rapidly and economically identifying the potential of irrigated agriculture in northern Australia. Having developed and tested those methods in the Flinders and Gilbert catchments, they are now ready to be applied elsewhere.

Has this research been independently reviewed and by whom?

Yes. The research has been peer reviewed by scientists not associated with the research within CSIRO and by external scientists within the University and public sector.

CSIRO’s role is to provide independent scientific advice to inform decision making. CSIRO places great importance on the trust placed in the organisation by governments and the Australian community. It is not CSIRO’s role to advocate particular policy positions. CSIRO research is quality controlled and peer reviewed to ensure that its results can be repeated and verified.

Who will use the results of the Assessment?

The results of the Assessment provide a framework that may be used by governments, industry, communities and individual land holders and developers to inform resource planning, management and investment decisions.  Importantly, the approaches developed in the Flinders and Gilbert catchments can be applied to other catchments, enabling similar Assessments to be carried out in other regions of Australia.  More specifically the results inform:

  • local development needs and aspirations, such as those identified by Gulf Savannah Development and the Mount Isa to Townsville Economic Development Zone planning group, to grow irrigated agriculture and intensify beef production in north Queensland.
  • governments as they assess sustainable and equitable management of public resources with due consideration of environmental and cultural issues.
  • the due diligence requirements of private investors, by addressing questions of profitability and income reliability of agricultural and other developments.

Have the Queensland or Federal government been involved in this research?

The Commonwealth Government, through the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development funded the Assessment. Parts of the Assessment were undertaken in collaboration with the Queensland Government and James Cook University.

What is CSIRO’s position on the expansion of agricultural development in northern Queensland?

It is not CSIRO’s role to advocate specific policy positions or development decisions. We provide science to underpin decision making and help evaluate the likely outcomes from different policy or management decisions.

Will the results of this research be used to develop irrigated agriculture in north Queensland?

This research has been undertaken to improve the knowledge base for decision making by governments, industry and the community.  CSIRO does not make these decisions, nor does it participate in the decision-making process.

CSIRO’s role is to provide independent scientific advice to inform decision making. CSIRO places great importance on the trust placed in the organisation by governments and the Australian community. It is not CSIRO’s role to advocate particular policy positions or management decisions.

Did government (Australian or Queensland) direct CSIRO’s research in any way?

Funding for the Assessment was provided by the Australian Government (via the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development - DIRD) as part of the North Queensland Irrigation Strategy (a joint Australian and Queensland Government Strategy). Identification of the catchments to be included in the Assessment was a joint decision by CSIRO and the Office of Northern Australia. The scientific approaches used and data collection and analyses were carried out independent of Australian, state or local governments and in full compliance with CSIRO’s Ethics standards.

Were the results of this Assessment made available to private interests ahead of formal release?

No. In line with common practice, FGARA reports have been embargoed by government until their public release. Apart from government, everyone gets to look at the same material at the same time.

Why was there a gap between CSIRO producing the reports and their public availability?

The FGARA reports total a couple of thousand pages, so it took a few weeks for the relevant government departments to digest the findings. It is common practice for governments to read and understand reports before publicly releasing them.

What data sources were used in the Assessment?

FGARA developed and discovered a range of new data, as well using a wide range of existing data. New data included:

  • Analysis of climate data to provide new insights into the past, current and potential future environments in each catchment
  • Creation of the region’s first soils maps, based on thousands of hours of field work and soil sampling
  • Creation of highly detailed hydrological models, to understand how the river systems work, how they would respond to change, and the impacts of that change
  • Estimates of agricultural production potential, using sophisticated models that combine information about soils, climate and water to forecast growth and yield of a wide range of crops.

We were careful not to reinvent to wheel, so where possible drew on existing data available from sources such as:

  • State of Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines; Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts; and  Queensland Herbarium
  • Geoscience Australia
  • SILO climate data provided by the Bureau of Meteorology.

Now that the Assessment has concluded does this open the way for development of irrigated agriculture in the north?  

The Assessment has shown the potential for agricultural development under a range of conditions, in two specific catchments. It has identified potential locations and costs of building water storages that would be required for irrigation development. The Assessment has also identified challenges that will need to be addressed to maximize the success of development, should it occur.

The Assessment provides comprehensive information to inform decisions about irrigation development proposals by existing and potential future landholders, local, state and Australian government, and public and private investors.

FGARA is designed to inform but not influence or replace decision making by regulators and public and private investors.

How will the Assessment influence water management in northern Australia?

FGARA is a resource assessment, the results of which can be used to inform planning decisions by citizens, councils, and state and federal governments. The project does not replace any planning processes, and it does not recommend changes to existing plans or planning processes.

FGARA does not advocate irrigation development. The project assesses the resources that could be deployed in support of irrigation enterprises, and the scale of the opportunity that might present.

FGARA does not provide explicit recommendations for water management in the catchments; rather it provides a comprehensive, integrated knowledge base about the opportunities for water and agricultural development in the catchments that can be used by planners and decision makers.

Is northern Australia really a potential ‘food bowl’?

Northern Australia is already a food bowl. Australia is the world’s second largest beef exporter, and about half of our beef (12.5 million head) is grown in northern Australia (north of the Tropic of Capricorn).

Cultivated agriculture is less established, and offers opportunities for further expansion. Previous studies have shown that groundwater could be used to sustainably increase the area of irrigated agriculture in northern Australia by around 60,000 ha.FGARA has shown that access to surface water in just two catchments could grow this by up to 50,000 ha. Together, these would almost double the area of irrigated agriculture in northern Australia, and would add 4% to the irrigated area of Australia.

By how much could agricultural production be increased from current levels?

Australia is already a significant agricultural producer, so additional agricultural production is by definition incremental. Irrigated food production on the scale possible in the Flinders and Gilbert catchments could increase the area available for irrigated agriculture in northern Australia by 30%. Every bit helps towards meeting growing global food demand.

How do the regions you have assessed compare to other irrigation areas in Australia, in particular the Murray-Darling Basin?

There’s many ways to compare northern and southern Australia; one of the simplest is to compare the amounts of rainfall and evaporation.

The Flinders catchment receives about the same amount of rainfall as Narromine in NSW or Shepparton in Victoria, but evaporation in the Flinders catchment is 50% higher than in Narromine and 70% higher than in Shepparton.

The Gilbert catchment receives about the same amount of rainfall as Warrnambool in Victoria or Orange in NSW, but evaporation in the Gilbert catchment is 70% higher than either.

The Flinders and Gilbert catchments experience drought about as often and for about as long as other agricultural areas of Australia but the higher rates of evaporation mean that drought occurring in the Flinders and Gilbert catchments is much more intense. This increases both the opportunity and risk associated with irrigation development.

What products have come out of the Assessment?

We have produced several thousand pages of reports comprising: two catchment reports with detailed case studies; 16 technical reports and several short summary documents. We’ve created the first soil maps for the region and developed hydrological models for both catchments; we have then integrated this information to produce estimates of the agricultural production potential of a wide range of crops.

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