The Goulburn-Murray Water Connections Project is currently underway to bring a more effective and efficient means of transporting water to Victoria’s Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District. The three-stage project is Australia’s largest irrigation upgrade and involves the replacement of the major supply channels to the region, the strategic connection of properties, and an array of other projects and efficiency incentives.

The food bowl of Victoria

Stretching from Swan Hill to Cobram in northern Victoria, the Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District (GMID) covers 68,000 square kilometres and is home to Australia’s most extensive irrigation network. The GMID encompasses four irrigation areas in the Goulburn system (Central Goulburn, Shepparton, Rochester-Campaspe and Pyramid-Boort) and two in the Murray system (Murray Valley and Torrumbarry). The Goulburn system is primarily supplied from Lake Eildon, while the Murray system is supplied from the Murray River with diversions from Yarrawonga and Torrumbarry weirs.

The region supports $1.94 billion worth of Victoria’s $8.3 billion agricultural commodities, accounting for 24 per cent of the total Victorian value. It produces approximately 22 per cent of the nation’s milk, 96 per cent of Victoria’s tomatoes by weight, 90 per cent of Victoria’s stone fruit by weight and 12 per cent of Victoria’s grapes.

Bringing irrigation infrastructure into the 21st century

Prior to the Connections Project, the region had been serviced by an irrigation system first developed in the late 1800s to early 1900s, relying primarily on flood irrigation via open channels. The channel network comprises 6,300km of open earthen channels, 800km of natural waterways, and approximately 23,000km of water supply outlets (irrigation and domestic and stock), serving an area of approximately 9,900 square kilometres over the six irrigation areas. The network is managed and operated by Victorian Government statutory water corporation, Goulburn-Murray Water (G-MW).

It was estimated that around 28 per cent of the water (or up to 900GL long term cap equivalent) diverted into the district was through leakage, seepage, evaporation and system inefficiencies every year. The channel network, much of which must be manually operated, also involved a time-consuming and labour intensive process, essentially unchanged in 100 years of operations.

The Federal and Victorian Governments have invested over $2 billion to upgrade the outdated network to a world-class, best-practice system which will recover much of this lost water and enable automation of various processes to detect discrepancies in water delivery, identify where maintenance is required, and provide a more consistent and reliable water supply to irrigators.

The body created to undertake the connections project, Northern Victoria Irrigation Renewal Project (NVIRP), was incorporated into G-MW in 2012, and the project continues to progress.

The Connections Project involves three key programs:

Upgrading the backbone channels – extensive upgrades are underway on the major supply channels. The backbone channel upgrade will reshape the backbone and reduce its length from 6300km to 3500km.

Strategic connection plans – each system will be reconnected to the upgraded backbone channel. 160 individual strategic connections for different areas will take place over an eight-year period. Individual properties will also be connected, involving an individual connection such as a pipeline from the backbone channel to the property. The projects will also involve the removal of the old channels so the land can be put to more efficient use.

Special projects – around $150 million of funding has been allocated for special projects to realise further water savings, including the East Loddon Pipeline, Kerang Lakes, Gunbower Lagoons, Swan Hill and Shepparton East projects.

“The majority of modernisation works undertaken on the channel network are undertaken by our main contractor,” said G-MW spokesperson Fiona Lloyd. “Through a competitive tendering process, TransCom Connect (a consortium of Transfield Services Australia and Comdain Infrastructure) were appointed to undertake this role. TransCom then tender out packages of works to other contractors.

“In addition, the project has established a panel of contractors to undertake on-farm designs and on-farm project management.”

Irrigation improvements

Goulburn-Murray Water says that the Connections Project is progressing on target and already making great improvement to irrigation in the district.

“Each year, the Connections Project has to achieve milestones and targets in order to meet the funding requirements from State and Federal partners,” said Ms Lloyd. “The project management processes reflect these targets, by developing a schedule of works for streamlining and delivering projects in the available timeframe. When the Connections Project is complete in 2018, G-MW will operate about 3500km of channels supplying water to over 12,000 irrigation outlets.”

The main issues with the old, manually operated irrigation system from an asset owner’s perspective related to the fact that it required a large team of water service officers working up and down channels manually controlling the flow rates and level of the channels.

This created three main issues:

• Manual operation of the regulating structures resulted in a high incidence of musculoskeletal injuries

• Channel levels were difficult to control and outfalls at the end of channel systems were high

• Water orders needed to be placed up to four days in advance of requirement.

“Where in place, the new system is reducing the ordering time to 24 hours, allowing better application of water and optimising crop growth. The higher flow outlets are also remotely controlled with the control gate,” said Ms Lloyd.

Water savings have already been realised from the upgrades so far. These have come about as a result of a number of key improvements:

• Automation of the backbone channel network (thus reducing channel outfalls)

• Replacement of inaccurate Dethridge outlets

• Rationalisation of redundant channels and outlets

• Channel remediation of high loss pools.

An independent audit carried out by Cardno (Qld) found that for the water year 2012/2013, 119,440ML of water was saved by modernisations undertaken as part of the Connections Project Stages 1 and 2.

The benefits of automation

“The new channel regulators are all managed under the SCADA canopy – this allows immediate changes to structures to maintain required levels and flows. The larger meters are remotely operated and the medium ones remotely read, thus allowing continuous control or monitoring of the vast majority of the network,” said Ms Lloyd.

The many advantages and benefits of automation include:

• Improved services to irrigation customers with shorter ordering times and accurately measured water supply

• Consistent flow rates available more quickly

• New online ordering facilities

• Time saving for automated outlets.

“In many cases, the water and labour efficiency of the new irrigation system is changing the way landowners or farmers traditionally farm.”

The modernised system is also having a large impact on the utility’s job and asset management strategies.

“The operation and maintenance requirements are completely different for the new modernised system compared to the old manual system. This has resulted in changed skills and strategies to manage the modernised fleet.”

Managing an effective upgrade project 

An extensive project like the Goulburn-Murray Water Connections Project involves dealing with countless landowners and other stakeholders. According to G-MW, this makes an effective community engagement strategy essential.

“The project has already dealt with thousands of customers on the automation and metering of the backbone network. In addition there are over 7,000 customers on the non-backbone network that we are working with to either connect to the backbone or find a solution,” said Ms Lloyd.

“The project has a Communication and Engagement Strategy that is designed to enhance and support the implementation of the Connections Project.

“This strategy is designed to be updated regularly to reflect feedback from irrigators on how the process can be improved.

“A recent G-MW customer satisfaction survey found that customers who had modernised systems were more satisfied than those still using Dethridge wheels.”

The Goulburn-Murray Water Connections Project is an example of a successful, large-scale irrigation upgrade. The project is well on its way to securing the water supply of Victoria’s food bowl and the future of the region’s valuable irrigation-reliant industries.

Michelle is a freelance journalist and editor who, as well as covering all the latest and breaking industry news, is a gun proofreader and editor who never misses a trick.

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