National ICT Centre of Excellence: improving water use efficiency
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National ICT Australia Limited218 219 (NICTA) has been established through the Australian Government's ICT Centre of Excellence program. NICTA undertakes ICT research at the highest international standard and associated research training, industry development and commercialisation.
NICTA is working in close collaboration with several universities, research institutes and water authorities to develop an integrated platform for basin-scale water resource management and control that aims to improve the efficiency of water supply chains from the reservoir to the crop.
Agriculture accounts for more than 70 per cent of total fresh water consumption across the globe. Water use efficiency in the industry is often less than 50 per cent. This means that for every litre of water taken from the reservoir only half is delivered to the crop. A changing climate and increasing competition for fresh water are stressing water supplies globally and limiting the scope for further expansion of agriculture to meet growing food production requirements. This situation is threatening the economic viability of many agricultural regions both in Australia and around the world. It is a national imperative to develop solutions that will sustain this vital industry in the future.
Water supply infrastructure has remained largely untouched over the last century. In many regions water allocations for irrigation need to be ordered one or more weeks in advance and with limited guarantee that orders will be fulfilled. Whilst waiting for the water to be delivered, farm requirements may change. But the water that has been ordered cannot be returned to storage and is often "lost" to production. It has been estimated that the total losses across the Goulburn-Murray220 Irrigation District due to system inefficiencies have typically been 900GL pre annum. It has also been shown that the average water application efficiency on farms in Australia, measured across a collection of irrigated industries, is close to 50 per cent, and as low as 30 per cent in flood/furrow irrigation.221
There is a growing awareness, at both state and federal levels, of the need to upgrade existing water distribution networks to ensure a reliable and timely water supply. As an example, the State Government of Victoria is investing $1 billion to modernise gravity-fed open canal networks in the Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District. A further $1 billion is to be invested in the modernisation of on-farm irrigation systems to improve water use efficiency and productivity in the field.
NICTA's Water Information Networks (WIN) project focuses on using innovations in ICT to improve the efficiency of water supply infrastructure. The project has developed methods for controlling and integrating canal networks with on-farm irrigation systems so that they themselves can become a water reserve and make available to the farmer an 'on-demand' water supply. This has the potential to greatly improve productivity on the farm.
Working in partnership with the University of Melbourne and Victorian water authorities, NICTA designed and built NICTOR™, a wireless sensing and control platform based on the ZigBee™ protocol - an international standard for wireless mesh networks. NICTOR devices are used to measure crop water requirements in real time and use this data to control canal gates and pumps and deliver the right volume of water to the plant when it requires it.
The value of the NICTOR platform has been demonstrated in farm trials across Northern Victoria, funded by the Victorian Government's Science and Technology Initiative. Trials were carried out at dairy farms employing flood irrigation and apple orchards employing drip irrigation. The experiments compared the gains in water savings and productivity achieved through the use of automation using NICTOR against standard farming practices. A summary of the outcomes include:
- Dairy trials employing flood irrigation for dairy pasture production
- 26 per cent less water used through an irrigation season measured in megalitres of irrigation water
- 27 per cent improvement in water productivity measured as an increase in tonnes of pasture produced per megalitre of irrigation water
- 38 per cent improvement in gross margin measured in dollars earned per hectare
- Horticulture trials employing drip irrigation for 'Pink Lady' apple orchard
- 73 per cent increase in gross returns measured in dollars earned per hectare
- 74 per cent increase in economic water productivity measured in dollars earned per megalitre of irrigation water.
These results demonstrate the potential of this technology to make a significant impact in national water management. With the completion of the first stage of the project, attention is now turning to a larger scale focus, the management and control of irrigation districts and river basins. This will expand the water efficiency gains from individual farms to include the basin-scale infrastructure used to deliver water, including reservoirs, dams, rivers, canal and pipe networks. NICTA is collaborating closely with industry and government stakeholders to address national and potential export markets for this water management technology.Back to top
 Reuse or distribution of this case study must include the following attribution: Australia's Digital Economy: Future Directions © National ICT Australia Limited and Commonwealth of Australia, 2009, www.dbcde.gov.au/digital_economy/final_report
 Modernising Victoria's Food Bowl: Irrigation Modernisation. Dept of Sustainability and Environment and Dept of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development. June 2007.
 Improving water-use efficiency in irrigation conveyance systems. Land & Water Australia, Department of Agriculture Fisheries & Forestry. October 2008