Renmark Irrigation Trust setting the standard for 125 years

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By Christine Webster

The Renmark Irrigation Trust (RIT) in South Australia’s Riverland has been leading the way since 1893 in ensuring horticulturalists receive water as efficiently as possible.

The organisation oversees the management of River Murray irrigation water in Renmark and its infrastructure serves more than 600 irrigators throughout the area.

This month the RIT will celebrate its 125th anniversary, using the milestone to reflect back on more than a century of Riverland history.

RIT presiding member Peter Duggin, a wine grapegrower and third generation irrigator, says Renmark’s permanent plantings of citrus, almonds, avocados, persimmons and wine grapes depend on a reliable source of irrigation water.

Renmark irrigators were the first in Australia to replace their water channels with pipes in the 1970s.

Peter says during the early days of settlement, water as it still is today, was an important resource for the town’s growers.

RIT presiding member Peter Duggin.

By WWI, Renmark had two big wineries, a dried fruit packing co-operative and a cannery. Riverland towns were a major supplier of produce during the two world wars.

“For a soldier in a trench in France or Gallipoli it would have been like Christmas to receive a can of sweet peaches or some dried fruit, instead of just bully beef or biscuits,” Peter says.

Members of the RIT pay rates to access River Murray water in the Renmark irrigation settlement, which was established by Canadian born brothers William and George Chaffey in 1887.

The RIT was initially operated by the two brothers, but the collapse of Australia’s banks in 1893 made the organisation unviable.

On December 23, 1893, the RIT became Renmark’s first local government authority after the SA Parliament passed a statute giving it the authority to manage the irrigation settlement for its members.

The RIT has been leading the way in managing the resource of River Murray water since then.

In April, Renmark became the world’s first irrigation operator to receive global ‘gold’ certification against the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) International Water Stewardship Standard.

The RIT has led the way in modernising irrigation in Australia with irrigation channels like this one, pictured in 1893, being replaced by pipes as early as the 1970s. Photo: RIT McIntosh Collection.

The award recognises world best practice in delivery efficiency, water quality, management of environmental water and water governance.

The RIT has almost completed two years of a five-year Memorandum of Understanding with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to deliver environmental water to rejuvenate flood plains around Renmark, which had been cleared of their native trees and vegetation.

“Bird life is unbelievable in a couple of spots, we even have black swans breeding, lots of birds have been spotted, and the frogs are unbelievable,” Peter says.

The environmental watering is a Murray Darling Basin Plan initiative, which was legislated by the Federal Parliament in 2012.

Unlike some irrigators in the eastern states, the RIT sees the Basin Plan’s implementation by 2024 as an opportunity and a chance to work more closely with governments at a state and federal level.

Black swans are breeding and floodplains have been rejuvenated due to the RIT’s environmental watering program.

Peter says the organisation instigated the development of the SEE (Social, Economic Environmental) Renmark 2024 Alliance in 2013 to respond to the challenges of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

The alliance also has representatives from Renmark Paringa Council, Destination Riverland and Regional Development Australia.

Projects such as irrigation modernisation and a scoping study of the Renmark airport have been proposed.

“We have so far attracted $18.5 million into Renmark,” Peter says.

The 125th birthday celebrations begin later this month with guided walking tours of the Renmark Irrigation Trust’s historic building and pumping station.

Chief of the Australian Army, Lieutenant General Rick Burr who grew up in Renmark, will also be the guest speaker at an event in the town on December 23 to mark the RIT’s milestone.

More information can be found here.

Header image: SATC/Adam Bruzzone.

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