Central Highlands Cotton Growers and Irrigators Association president Aaron Kiely.
Central Highlands Cotton Growers and Irrigators Association president Aaron Kiely. Kristen Booth

CQ cotton growers face dismal water allocations

FOR the first time in a decade, Central Queensland irrigators and growers are facing the prospect of grim water allocations.

SunWater released their water allocations for the 2018-19 season following final calculations across its 31 water supply schemes.

As of yesterday, Fairbairn Dam was sitting at 20 per cent capacity - and the allocations for the Nogoa-Mackenzie scheme reflect this dismal water amount.

An allocation of 6 per cent was given to medium priority customers and 100 per cent for high priority customers.

Water allocations indicate the percentage of an irrigation customer's purchased water entitlement expected to be made available for use within a water year.

The figures are calculated on the amount of water in storage combined with variable factors such as evaporation, seepage and use.

READ HERE: Council and AgForce gets behind Central Highlands growers as production is predicted to be down by 50 per cent 


Emeralds' Fairbairn Dam.
Emeralds' Fairbairn Dam. Jacob McLucas

SunWater chief executive officer Nicole Hollows said she was committed to working closely with irrigators in schemes with low allocations to ensure they remained well informed about available water supply, given more than half of Queensland was drought declared.

"We understand the significant pressure low allocations across some schemes are having on customers' business," Ms Hollows said.

"We will work diligently to determine rostering and scheduling systems for irrigators in these schemes to ensure water is delivered in a way that minimises loss and maximises availability.

"Announced allocations will also be recalculated at regular intervals throughout the water year to take into account any additional inflows."


Fairbairn Dam in flood 2011.
Photo Contributed
Fairbairn Dam in flood 2011. Photo Contributed Contributed

In Nogoa Mackenzie, SunWater will begin a major water efficiency project this year to help reduce water losses by up to 6000 megalitres per annum.

Ms Hollows said the works aimed at maximising available water volumes and they would work with customers to find innovative ways to improve water availability.

"The $11.7 million Nogoa Mackenzie project received a funding contribution of $3 million from the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund and will help minimise water losses through re-lining 34 kilometres of channel," she said.

The last time Fairbairn Dam was around this level was in December 2007.

Since construction of the dam was completed in 1974, the lowest volume the dam reached was 11.8 per cent (152,940ML) in December 2006.


Fairbairn Dam being constructed. 
Photo Contributed
Fairbairn Dam being constructed. Photo Contributed Contributed


  • Level as of August 2: 20 per cent capacity
  • The last time it was this low was in December 2007
  • Dam construction began in 1968 and was completed in 1974
  • Lowest volume ever recorded was 11.8 per cent in December 2006
  • The dam is located 25kms south-west of Emerald
  • Named after Sir David Eric Fairbairn who was Federal Minister for National Development from 1964-1969
  • It has a full capacity of 1,301,000 megalitres
  • Allocations:
  • Medium priority customers:
  • July 1, 2018: 6 per cent
  • September 5, 2017: 100 per cent
  • July 1, 2017: 94 per cent
  • There were no allocations provided on July 1, 2006 and July 1, 2007
  • Going back to 2002, the lowest allocation was 30 per cent on July 1, 2003


Irrigation cotton farmers Aaron Kiely and Cameron Geddes.
SOIL READY: Irrigation Central Highlands cotton farmers Aaron Kiely and Cameron Geddes. Kristen Booth


DESPITE extremely low water allocations for this season, Central Highland growers are remaining positive.

Central Highlands Cotton Growers and Irrigators Association President Aaron Kiely spoke on behalf of 40 growers and 50 associate members in the group, stating they were well prepared.

Membership is comprised of grower/irrigator members who grow crops that include cotton, mungbeans, soybeans, sunflowers, chickpeas, wheat, grapes, melons, and citrus.

Associate members include product resellers, bankers, agronomists, consultants, contractors, ginners, merchants and researchers.

"Growers remain optimistic about early rainfall to produce inflow into the dam which could lead to an increase in announced allocation," Mr Kiely said.

"There is no significant spring rainfall predicted at this stage."

The announced allocation from Fairbairn Dam has been "very reliable over a number of years" which irrigators are hopeful will continue, he said.

"SunWater had been providing projected allocation updates in the lead-up to the end of the water year," Mr Kiely said.

"Growers were expecting a reduced allocation and planned their production accordingly."


Cotton farmer Aaron Kiely.
Cotton farmer Aaron Kiely. Kristen Booth

Cotton is a main source grown in the region, along with citrus and macadamias which have recently expanded in the region.

Planting for cotton began this week, Mr Kiely said.

"Growers have the opportunity to plant cotton until the end of December," he said.

"While the cotton plant has begun, there is still plenty of field preparation happening for the upcoming season.

"There will be reduced cotton planting hectares in the region as a result of the lower announced allocation."

This year will be a stark comparison to successful previous seasons, Mr Kiely added.

"Last season saw some excellent yield and quality results across the area," he said.

"This was the result of favourable weather conditions and a pleasing cotton price."


Cotton crop irrigation system.
Aaron Kieley's cotton crop irrigation system. Kristen Booth

He said other growers are working out their plans on what they will do this year.

"Growers are making decisions to reflect the current allocation, however they arfe still preparing for opportunities throughout the coming season," Mr Kiely said.

"They will be making planting decisions based on their announced allocation and their carry over water from the previous season.

"Growers will still be prepared for planting opportunities later in the season should there be a local rainfall event or inflow into the Fairbairn Dam.

"There is no doubt that irrigators will be hoping for a wet start to the spring/summer season."


Harvested cotton being compacted to be taken to the gin.
Kelly Butterworth / CQ News
Harvested cotton being compacted to be taken to the gin. Kelly Butterworth


  • Average irrigation requirement for cotton is 7.8 mega litres per hectare.
  • The average cotton grower is 39-years-old.
  • There are more than 1200 cotton farms in Australia, 66 per cent in NSW and 33 per cent in Qld.
  • The industry directly employs 10,000 Australians in a non-drought year.
  • The cotton industry employs 15 times as many people as grazing and five times as any people as dry land cropping.
  • The Australian cotton industry produced a record crop in 2011/2012 with more than 583,000 hectares planted and five million bales.
  • The First Fleet brought cotton seed to Australia in 1788. The first exported shipment was three bags to England in 1830.
  • In an average year, Australia's cotton growers produce enough cotton to clothe 500 million people.



Page 13 Cotton industry A The dry weather allowed good defoliation of the cotton crop this year.
The average cotton crop grows to about 1.2 metres in height. Mary O'Brien


  • Aug - Sept: Farm and soil preparation
  • Oct - Nov: Planting
  • Dec - Feb: Growing season
  • March - June: Harvesting
  • July - Aug: off-season
  • New technology has allowed for cotton to still be planted in November and December.