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Traditional owners use AI and aerial imaging to help restore wetlands in south-west 


A man stands knee deep in water, standing among wetlands at sunset with a smile on his face.

Mark Brettschneider from the Nari Nari Tribal Council says the technology will be crucial for restoring wetlands.(Supplied: Annette Ruzicka)

Traditional management techniques are being combined with modern technology to aid the restoration of vitally important wetlands near Balranald, in south-west New South Wales.

Key points:

  • Traditional owners are using data from aerial images to make land management decisions at precious wetlands in south-west NSW
  • The Nearmap technology allows land managers to see how water is moving and changing the landscape
  • They hope the technology will assist them in returning cultural burning to the land

Indigenous traditional owners, the Nari Nari Tribal Council and their partners have started using artificial intelligence and aerial imaging to more effectively target their work at the Gayini Nimmie Caira property.

Data from high-resolution aerial images of the property is being fed into mapping and artificial intelligence tools to map water and show how environmental watering, allocated from the Murrumbidgee River, has been used.

The environmental water is spread across the property to add life to the wetlands and the animals and plants that rely on that precious ecosystem.

Since the Nari Nari began managing the old cattle stations in 2000, native birds and plants have begun returning in large numbers and it's hoped the new technology could help guide the work into the future.

A group of pelicans sit next to a body of water, with black birds flying overhead.
Pelicans have been returning to Gayini Nimmie Caira in large numbers after successful wetland management.(Supplied: Annette Ruzicka)

Showing change over time

Through busting old irrigation channels and banks, and targeting areas with environmental water, the 88,000-hectare property has been transformed in 22 years from a dust bowl into a thriving wetland ecosystem.

To date, the Nari Nari and their partners The Nature Conservancy, which led a consortium to purchase Gayini Nimmie Caira in 2019, have relied on sight, as well as hydrological monitoring and drones to plan and monitor the work.

"Now the water is spreading to new places we never thought it had in the past, and one of the critical elements is how do we monitor that and show change over time?" said James Fitzsimons of The Nature Conservancy.

A man smiles at the camera, in front of bushland
Dr James Fitzsimons says the Nearmap technology offers sophisticated monitoring of the land.(Supplied: The Nature Conservancy)

Technology company Nearmap is providing the new technology, which will allow land managers to see exactly where water is on the property and how its distribution is changing over time.

The changes can then be interpreted into data, which feeds into artificial intelligence tools that allow for sophisticated monitoring and management of water at Gayini Nimmie Caira.

Nearmap aerial images of Gayini Nimmie Caira, with AI modelling mapped across.

New methods to care for country

Nari Nari Tribal Council vice chair Mark Brettschneider said more complex data and images could help the group target their environmental water, conduct land restoration and pest management, and where to build infrastructure.

An overhead picture of waterways snaking through a brightly coloured landscape.
As water returns to Gayini Nimmie Caira, some parts of the property are hard for land managers to access.(Supplied: Annette Ruzicka)

"It's hard out here because once the wetland areas are wet, it can be really hard to access a lot of areas," the land manager said.

"Simply by looking at these maps, we can find an area where water is being held up, we need to get over there and have a look at that area, which gives us much better use of water across the country.

"It's hard to think there's over 80,000 hectares of country, a lot of which is floodplains that are inaccessible, so this imagery will help us look and find those areas and help with management."

The blue AI mapping will feed into data to give managers a more advanced understanding of the water on Gayini Nimmie Caira.

Mr Brettschneider said the group were also hoping the technology could aid their ambition to return cultural burning to the land.

"Using the imagery, we can look at areas without having to go there, and see there are areas where our threatened species are growing," he said.

"But they're stymied because of winter weeds or something else, and we can go in and say, 'Righto, we need to do a burn in this country here."

"That'll bring back stuff like our nadu, our old man weed, saltbush, and things we can use for traditional purposes."

A grower stands in a field of cotton
Andrew French said despite some grey skies, optimism is high among cotton growers in central Queensland. 

While beef prices are reaching record heights, some farmers in central Queensland are converting from cattle to cotton. 

Key points:

  • With high yields and high prices, there is optimism about the central Queensland cotton industry
  • Off the back of a unique SWIR water release, several growers in the Dawson Valley have started growing cotton for the first time
  • These licences are due to end in September, leaving growers in limbo

Greg Hutchinson of Hutchinson Ag said the cattle on his property in the Dawson Valley were slowly being pushed to the back corner as he developed more cropping country. 

"The returns we've been able to get from the irrigated cotton far surpass anything that we've been able to achieve with cattle," he said.

"It's fivefold probably what the gross returns, you can actually get off an irrigated cotton crop and even better when cotton prices are at a thousand dollars.

It seems other growers in the region have also sensed the opportunity.

Ian Becker lives at Passchendale near Moura and has planted cotton for the first time.

Close-up of a cotton plant with cotton buds blooming in sunlight.
Cotton prices reached $1000 a bale in recent months and some central Queensland yields have reported over 20 bales per hectare.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

He said with input prices on the rise, the decision was all about the bottom line. 

"We're a young family, taking on debt, so we have to be growing those high-value crops," he said. 

"Gross margin was probably top of the list as to why we made the decision to grow cotton."

Just down the road at Paranui, Scott Becker has moved into cotton as well. 

"We were driven to get irrigation going and cotton is a really good fit when you look at the return per megalitre per hectare," he said.

"It's a bit of a learning curve ... but we're all still smiling and happy ... I think it's a good feeling in the industry and a good industry to be in."

Why cotton? Why now?

Greg Hutchinson said the climate has always been a major drawcard for growers in central Queensland.

"We get a lot of get-out-of-jail-free cards here in central Queensland in that we've got a long planting window," he said. 

"You run out of water [then] you get out of jail. You get too much water [then] you get out of jail.

"The thing that has held this region back is a lack of water."

That all changed in 2019 when a Strategic Water Infrastructure Reserve (SWIR) was released into the Dawson Valley Management Area on a three-year trial basis.

This water reserve is allocated to future infrastructure developments in the region and means licences include conditions to meet environmental flow objectives and protect existing users' access to water.

Andrew French grows cotton at Nandina near Theodore. 

He said grower access to the SWIR water has transformed the region.

"It's really boosted productivity in the Dawson Valley," he said.

"It's created a lot of new developments and it's really increasing the viability of the valley."

A man wearing a blue long-sleeved shirt stands in front of a dam
Greg Hutchinson has built two new dams in the past three years to store water he can now access as part of the SWIR.

Greg Hutchinson said growers have invested heavily off the back of this SWIR water release. 

"Irrigators have spent millions of dollars building off stream storage, putting pump stations in, developing irrigation fields," he said.

Time ticking on trial decision

The water licences granted for the SWIR water are due to expire in September and there has been no talk of future water access. 

Ian Becker said although the water was released on a trial basis, many growers had invested heavily off the back of the water release and could be left in limbo.

"Everyone was very upfront and they said that this is only a three-year option, but to go and release such a thing and not expect people to develop off the back of it, it just wouldn't have been utilised."

Two large pumping pipes going into the Dawson River
Many growers have invested heavily in water storage and infrastructure as a result of access to the SWIR water.(ABC Rural: Meg Bolton )

Scott Becker agreed and said it would be a waste to let water that meets all environmental flow conditions run out into the ocean and be wasted. 

"The teaspoon that we're taking out of the river can help produce the local economy and a whole heap of the things that come along with the crops we're growing," he said.

"I think it's a great thing."

Greg Hutchinson said although many growers have taken a gamble by investing so heavily off the back of a trial project, the results of the trial had been overwhelmingly positive. 

"We've taken a big gamble that the government is going to renew the SWIR and make it available again but there's been very limited information coming from the department," he said.

"It's been disappointing because the project has been so successful.

"This year alone there's probably been an extra 20,000 bales of cotton produced on the back of that SWIR water.

"If you put that in dollar terms at $1000 per bale that's an extra $20 million dollars production that's gone into farmers' pockets and into community businesses around the town and just the local economy."

Bales of cotton the back of a large truck
Despite being one of the smaller cotton regions in the nation, the SWIR water has helped the Dawson Valley cotton crop grow in recent years.(Lisa Herbert)

Andrew French said it was important the department made contact with growers because a decision was critical for planning future seasons and further expansions. 

"A decision is crucial," he said. 

"I think it's important the department comes out to these areas and they talk about it," he said. 

"There are just a lot of unknowns."

A spokesperson for the Department of Regional Development, Manufacturing and Water said the trial was for a period of three years concluding in September 2022.

"The department is undertaking a review of the pilot program," the spokesperson said.

"Stakeholders have been consulted and initial feedback has been provided.

"This review is currently being finalised.

"Once complete, the Department will be in a position to make recommendations in relation to any continuation of the temporary release of the SWIR."