In May 2016, photographer Andrew Peacock photographed Australia’s Murray River from the back of a houseboat near Mildura. On this part of the river, it’s not uncommon for locals to live on the water, but downriver near where Peacock grew up, the Murray was nearly dry. “There’s all this water way, way upriver,” he says. “Somehow it doesn’t make it to the ocean.” A broad partnership to buy water rights is attempting to change that. Photo © Andrew Peacock

Outtakes: Meeting the Farmers and Billabongs Along Two of Australia’s Great Rivers

After 14 years of drought, water users on Australia’s longest river joined forces, and a photographer traveled inland to meet them.

Summer 2017

In May 2016, photographer Andrew Peacock traveled inland from his home in Queensland, Australia, to photograph the landscape and industry around the country’s Murray-Darling River system for a story in Nature Conservancy magazine. After southern Australia emerged from its worst drought in recent history, a water market was established for those who draw from the basin. The Nature Conservancy recently helped create an investment fund that buys water rights, and splits the water between agricultural users and conservation projects.

Peacock was no stranger to the Murray and its struggles. “Its mouth is in southern Australia not too far from where I grew up in Adelaide,” he says. “For a significant period of time, the mouth of the river was silted over. It never actually met the ocean.”

Peacock traveled to where the Murray, the country’s longest river, meets the Darling, its third longest. Their confluence in southeastern Australia has created one of the country’s most important agricultural areas. But that industry and other water users, combined with a historic drought, helped create a situation similar to what the American Colorado River has faced.

“The Murray looms large in the consciousness of people who know anything about the environment in Australia,” he says. “It meant a bit as an Australian to see the intersection of these two great rivers.”

Below are some of Peacock’s photos that did not make it into the magazine.

Ben Carr, formerly the conservation projects manager for The Nature Conservancy in Australia, surveys Backwater Lagoon, a natural lagoon in the Murray-Darling watershed. In dry areas, these sorts of lagoons support a variety of animals including some of Australia’s most iconic wildlife: emus and kangaroos. Photo © Andrew Peacock
Five miles north of Wentworth, Australia, and just south of the Murray-Darling river system, scrubby grazing lands like these are common. Peacock saw multiple sheep farms like this one, where merino ewes and lambs graze on unirrigated land. “Farming land [there] is large in scope but low in yield,” Peacock says. “If you’re going to graze animals, you’re going to need a lot of land to do it.” Photo © Andrew Peacock
Throughout his trip, Peacock saw wildlife like this great egret, which was flying near Kings Billabong Wildlife Reserve in Mildura, Australia. Rivers form “billabongs” when a river reroutes and leaves behind an oxbow lake. Over time the billabong will fill with water when the river floods, making seasonal river flows crucial to the existence of reserves like this one. Photo © Andrew Peacock
Here red-rumped parrots gather on the branches of a dead red gum tree in a wetland system that’s part of the Murray-Darling river basin. Photo © Andrew Peacock
“I’ve never been on assignment where I’ve needed to photograph Australia’s natural fauna,” Peacock says. “It was fun for me to have that as part of the deal.” Kangaroos and wallaroos, like this Eastern Wallaroo in the same wetland system as the parrots above, are shy creatures outside of the cities and tend to graze in small groups with their heads down. As soon as this one noticed Peacock, “within a second, it would’ve been gone.” Photo © Andrew Peacock
“That was on the very first morning that we were there,” says Peacock of this image of Kings Billabong Wildlife Reserve in Mildura, Australia, taken at dawn. “It was mostly quiet apart from the birds.” The reserve, more than 5,300 acres big, is home to water birds like whistling kites and swamp harriers. Photo © Andrew Peacock
“If you don’t have water, you can’t have an orchard that looks like this,” says Peacock. Irrigation from the Murray-Darling River system has made possible citrus orchards like this one in Irymple near Mildura, Australia. “While being quite close [to the river], you wouldn’t describe the land as anything other than dry.” Photo © Andrew Peacock
Throughout much of the Mildura area, fruit and vegetable stands operate on an honor system for those passing through. “It was interesting to see some of the end results of where water rights and irrigation meet,” Peacock says. (He also notes that these oranges were “super juicy and sweet.”) Photo © Andrew Peacock
Twenty miles from Mildura, Sam Cross and Justin Kassulke (left to right) grow cabernet sauvignon grape vines, ruby red grapefruit and oranges at Cross Farm in Curlwaa, Australia. “They have allocated water that gets pumped from the river to their citrus trees and grapevines,” Peacock says. The two men were preparing to leave the next morning to compete for the national title in the Australian rowing masters competition. Near the Murray and Darling Rivers, rowing has become a popular sport. Photo © Andrew Peacock
On a much more commercial farm than the Cross Farm, Thomson seedless raisins grow at Murray River Organics, which has more than 4,000 acres of farms in the Sunraysia district of southeastern Australia. The company leases water from The Nature Conservancy in Australia. Photo © Andrew Peacock
“As a photographer going in May [the beginning of Australia’s winter], I made an effort to get out there at dawn and see the mist rising off the billabongs,” Peacock says. But on his way chasing the mist, Peacock stumbled upon this view on the edge of Rufus River Road near Mildura. He captured this image at dawn on his last morning in the area. Photo © Andrew Peacock

You can find more of Andrew Peacock’s images here. — NCM

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