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Volumetric conversion in SE South Australia – changing perceptions, mindsets and knowledge barriers before changing water licences

Ross Carruthers, Brian Latcham and Shannon Pudney

Department of Water, Land and Biodiversity Conservation, PO Box 1246, Mount Gambier, Email


The Volumetric Conversion Project is a 4-year project aimed at the conversion of 2500 area based water licences in the South East region of South Australia to licences with volumetric allocations, by 2006. The conversion approach has had to take into account a range of variables that impact on the volume of water extracted by the irrigator to meet on-farm irrigation needs including crop type, irrigation system, soil type, water quality and climatic zone. The Project has faced the task of developing a conversion process that is fair and equitable to all yet does not compromise the sustainability of the resource. This has occurred despite an initial atmosphere of community apprehension and mistrust.

This paper will outline the participative programs that have been used to implement volumetric conversion. The use of these participative processes has resulted in measurable changes in irrigator perceptions, mindsets and knowledge barriers in relation to attitudes to contemporary water management arrangements and efficient irrigation practices. The partnership between water managers and irrigators has resulted in a conversion methodology that is transparent, agreed to and generally accepted.

Three key learnings: (1) Extension skills can assist in developing solutions to complex water resource management problems (2) broad community involvement in data collection and decision making promotes shared ownership of outcomes; and; (3) spending time to build relationships and trust with the broader community assists in enabling broad community attitude change.

Key Words

Water Management, Water Allocation, Volumetric Conversion, Community Engagement, Participative Processes


To date irrigators in the South East have only had to manage their water allocations in relation to the areas of crop irrigated with no limitations on, or measurement of, the volume of water pumped. The Volumetric Conversion Project was initiated in 2002 to develop the methodology and process to convert some 2500 area-based water licences across the South East of South Australia to licences with a volumetric allocation by July 2006. Drivers for this major change in management arrangements included recommendations from two parliamentary select committees, South Australia’s State Water Plan targets and the need to meet the requirements of Australia’s broader water reform agenda. There was also a growing awareness in the stakeholder community of the need for a more accountable system of water allocation that would contribute to a sustainable groundwater resource.

Historically, Australian water management agencies have had a mixed record when it comes to involving and including landholders in developing solutions to water resources management problems. Community consultation on such issues has ranged from tokenism to genuine dialogue (Stewart 2003).

The importance of involving the community and managing community expectations was recognised early in the project as being critical to the success of the conversion process, especially in minimising negative feelings towards volumetric conversion, the installation of water meters and in managing the potential for controversy. Water licence holders in the South East are knowledgeable in relation to water management issues and are prepared to defend their existing ‘rights’. It was recognised that by encouraging community involvement and understanding of the processes involved in volumetric conversion, general acceptance of the outcomes would be much more likely.

To facilitate the conversion process the Volumetric Conversion Project Team developed and implemented a range of participative data collection and consultative programs aimed at enabling irrigators to:-

  • understand the concepts behind volumetric allocations and methodologies for conversion;
  • participate in a data collection process that results in the conversion being based on real data that is ‘owned’ by irrigators; and
  • have the opportunity to be involved in and provide input to the conversion methodology.

This paper describes the participative processes and community involvement programs that are believed to have contributed to the irrigation community’s acceptance of the proposed volumetric conversion. Bennett’s Hierarchy (1995) is used to help understand why these participative programs were successful.

General Methodology for Conversion

The methodology developed to enable a fair and equitable conversion approach has been based on active community participation in the collection of on-farm water use data and in the development of the volumetric conversion approach. Implementation has been via a three phase approach:-

Phase 1 – Use of global standard Food and Agriculture Organisation methodology to calculate the net irrigation requirements of all crops grown with input from irrigators on the crop management practices used in the area.

Phase 2 – Development of a detailed dataset of information of ‘real life’ volume pumped and irrigation management data with irrigator participation and action learning the major focus. Use the field data collected to refine and enhance the outcomes from phase 1.

Phase 3 – Develop and implement a volumetric conversion approach in consultation with irrigators that meets a range of sustainability, social and economic performance criteria.

Community members were involved in each of the three phases; the participative processes are described in detail below.

Participative Processes

Communication Strategy

Community involvement has been encouraged at all levels with different processes used to target different subsections of the irrigator community including individual licensees, commodity/irrigator groups and industry leaders. Communication processes used included workshops, interaction with existing irrigator and community groups, an irrigator based project advisory committee, and a general media presence.


A regular series of irrigator workshops at venues across the region has provided every individual licensee with the opportunity to attend and make a real contribution to the development and review of the conversion approach.

An active input – feedback protocol (Figure 1) was established early in the project. This involved a consistent project culture of listening, assessing, making changes where appropriate, then reporting back on changes to stakeholders. We believe that this has assisted greatly in the development of a trusting relationship with irrigators based on consistency of experience. By being seen to listen, understand issues and change our thinking we have been able to influence the perceptions and mindsets of irrigators.

In August 2002 the Project ran the first series of 18 workshops to explain to irrigators the proposed project methodology and to seek irrigator comment and input to the process. Whilst the irrigators actively participated in the workshops, it was obvious that many were apprehensive and mistrustful of the proposed process and outwardly cynical of the South Australian Governments motives for instigating the project. There was some strong opposition to the proposal to move to volumetric allocations and metering, particularly from flood irrigators who were at times openly hostile.

Figure 1. Input feedback protocol used at all times during the project

In November 2005, the project held its 5th series of volumetric conversion workshops with irrigators. At this workshop series irrigators were led through the proposed model and conversion factors and using worksheets were assisted in calculating individual volumetric allocations for their property. Aside from a few boundary related issues, irrigators broadly supported the proposals. This was despite the proposed allocations being substantially less than volumes currently being pumped by some of the irrigators.

The workshops were structured to create an atmosphere of joint problem solving rather than confrontation. This was achieved by the use of small group processes rather than public meeting type seating arrangements, agreed ground rules and an issues sheet to record issues important to the irrigator but not associated with conversion. ‘Working in Partnership with the Community’, the title slide for all presentations by project staff, continually reinforced the joint problem solving message.

The licensees appreciated the opportunity to have their individual issues and concerns heard and recorded. The comment ‘best water meeting I’ve ever attended’ was often heard. Outcomes from the small group processes at each workshop were communicated back to licensees through a newsletter that was mailed to all licensees. The concept of regular workshop series has provided irrigators with the chance to learn and to have real input to the process. As recognised through Roberts work (2004), the more people are engaged in determining their own destiny, the more the outcomes are likely to produce improved situations that last.

The workshops also provided an opportunity to assess changes in irrigator attitudes and areas of concern over time. Table 1 describes the changes in key irrigator issues over time. It is apparent that there has been an enormous change in broad community attitude in the period between the first and fifth workshop series. The overwhelming attitude now is of positive acceptance rather than negative resistance.

Table 1 – Comparison of key issues as identified during the workshop series

2002 Workshop Series

2003 Workshop Series

2005 Workshop Series

  • Purchase, installation & maintenance of water meters
  • Why is volumetric conversion happening?
  • Being able to continue irrigating existing enterprises
  • Resource condition & land use change
  • Providing time for adjustment
  • Incentives to change
  • Education & training
  • System efficiency
  • The conversion approach
  • Irrigator equity
  • Administration
  • General acceptance of the proposed model and conversion rates
  • Boundary Issues
  • Dealing with Seasonal Variability
  • Investigating ways to fit within allocations
  • Resource sustainability
  • Future change processes

In all, five workshop series have been held over four years with 1400 irrigators attending a total of 83 workshops. It is estimated that over 40% of active irrigators have participated in at least one workshop.

After the third series of workshops we began to hear the comment ‘you lot are going alright but what are the bureaucrats going to do with this?’ As we were ‘bureaucrats’ ourselves this type of comment typified the attitude change that had occurred since the first workshop series.

Interaction with existing irrigator and community groups

At present there is no one body that represents all licensees in the area. Regular interaction with the range of active irrigator and commodity groups in the area was recognised as being essential. These groups were made aware of the availability of project staff to attend all meetings if necessary. This has enabled the early identification and resolution of issues concerning particular groups ensuring that these issues didn’t fester and breed discontent. It has also enabled the project to develop relationships with each group that now enables full and frank discussions on any issue.

Irrigator based Project Advisory Committee

This Committee is made up of industry leaders from major commodity groups. The Advisory Committee is recognised as being a key consultative mechanism for the conversion process and a two-way communication conduit between the Department and the irrigator community. The Advisory Committee participated in the initial development of a ‘possible volumetric conversion model’ as a way of commencing community dialog on the actual conversion process.

General media presence

Other communication processes including regular newsletters and media contact, a website, information kits and attendance at field days etc. have been utililised to ensure that the conversion process is transparent to all stakeholders.

Field Data Collection Programs

Metered Extraction Trials

The Metered Extraction Trials (MET) program provided incentive payments towards the purchase and installation of water meters, in return for irrigators supplying irrigation and crop management information to the Project over a three-year period. This program has been highly successful, with 160 meters installed and over 90% of participants providing data as required over the three years of the program.

Field Irrigation System Trials

The Field Irrigation Systems Trials (FIST) program involves collecting detailed information on the on-farm water balance from a current network of 36 representative irrigated sites. Data collected on a continuous basis using radio telemetry technology includes volume pumped, soil moisture, water table fluctuations and weather data. This program aims to quantify the irrigation water balance at each site to provide a scientific basis for conversion methodology and to promote irrigation efficiency and resource sustainability.

Annual Water use Returns

The Annual Water Use Return (AWUR) program obtains data from all irrigators on their irrigation activities annually. Historically the Department has used an Annual Water Use Return process to collect information from individual irrigators on the areas of crop irrigated within their existing area based water licence entitlements. It was recognised that the AWUR process provided the project with an excellent opportunity to collect data on volumes pumped in addition to areas irrigated. As many irrigators conceptually had little understanding of the volumes they were pumping for irrigation an Information Sheet ‘Calculating Your Annual Volume Pumped’ was developed. The AWUR has provided statistically reliable data to complement the data on volumes pumped obtained from the MET and FIST programs.

The involvement of irrigators in the collection and reporting of field data has provided multiple benefits. Trial participants have been great advocates for the conversion process and are helping ‘sell’ our message. They also have ‘ownership’ of the data that will be used as the basis for conversion so the data is ‘ours’ rather than being ‘their’ (Government) data. Trial participants are using the data collected to assess irrigation system efficiency and amend their systems. An evaluation conducted at the completion of the program indicated that the majority of participants intended to continue keeping detailed irrigation records and were keen to be involved in future research programs.

Irrigators generally now have a far greater understanding of the volumes of water they are pumping and this will assist them when the change in allocation systems from area to volume occurs. The requirement for irrigators to calculate their volumes pumped has also brought about a recognition in the irrigation community that volumetric conversion will happen and has helped prepare irrigators for the big change from area based on-farm water management to volumetric management.

Understanding the Project’s Success

Bennett’s Hierarchy (Bennett 1995) provides a series of stages that can be used as a planning or evaluation framework for extension programs. It is possible to use Bennett’s Hierarchy to help understand the success of the project to date (Figure 2). By providing funding, on-farm data collection programs and interactive workshops, licensees have become actively involved in the volumetric conversion process. By being involved, the perceptions and mindsets of irrigators have changed and knowledge barriers have been broken through. The end result is a more progressive irrigator community who are accepting and knowledgeable about the new arrangements and who are now in a position to benefit from the water management changes that will undoubtedly occur in the future.

Figure 2. Use of Bennett’ Hierarchy to understand the project’s success


The participative programs that have been used to implement volumetric conversion in the South East have contributed substantially to the progress achieved in changing irrigator attitudes to irrigation practices and contemporary water management arrangements. It is considered that much of this change can be attributed to the Project’s comprehensive communication and consultation strategies and to the efforts made to involve irrigators in data collection and consideration of conversion models. These concepts and processes have applicability in many irrigation areas across Australia as the water reform agenda moves forward.

Past experiences (Free et al. 1995) have shown that ‘good science’ and a ‘perfect plan’ is not enough when dealing with complex resource management problems, and it is essential that all parties have input to and ownership of shared solutions.


Bennett C. and Rockwell K. (1995) Targeting Outcomes of Programs (TOP): An Integrated Approach to Planning and Evaluation. Draft.

Free D., Carruthers R. and Stanfield D. (1995) Community Involvement in Developing a Management Strategy for an Overdeveloped Groundwater System. Proceedings of the Murray Darling Basin 1995 Workshop – Groundwater and the Community, Murray Darling Basin Commission

Stewart J. and Jones G. (2003) Renegotiating the Environment, The Federation Press, Leichhardt

Roberts G. (2004) Six Principles of Good Extension. National Extension Policy Forum. Accessed (15/11/05)

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