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World News

Australia's wet summer does little for drought

CANBERRA (Reuters) - A wet Australian summer, with floods in the tropical north and drenching rains down the east coast, has done little to ease drought conditions in Australia’s food bowl along the Murray River, officials said on Monday.

Despite the damp summer, inflows into the Murray and Darling rivers remain near record lows, making it unlikely irrigators will receive any increase in water allocations next season, Murray-Darling Basin chief executive Wendy Craik said.

“For the northern part of the Murray-Darling basin, it’s meant good rain and flooding. It’s set them up well for the coming year,” Craik told reporters at a drought update on Monday.

“But in the Southern Murray-Darling basin ... we are still in a very severe drought. The drought is a long way from over.”

Australia’s Murray and Darling river system is the country’s food bowl, accounting for 41 percent of the value of Australia’s agricultural produce.

Craik’s warning came a day ahead of a first official forecast by the Australian government of the country’s next wheat crop, which is expected to show a major improvement from drought-affected years to produce well over 25 million tonnes.

Unlike rice, wine grapes, citrus and horticulture irrigators along the Murray-Darling Basin, wheat growers rely on rainfall, rather than waters drawn from the river basin.

IRRIGATION

Craik said total inflows in 2007-08 were double inflows from a year earlier, but were still only 25 percent of the long-term average, with storage near record lows of about 20 percent compared to an average 65 percent at the end of summer.

“It is going to take an incredible amount of rain, and incredible amount of inflow into the system, before we’ll be back to what we’ve come to expect in the past.”

In a joint briefing with the Bureau of Meteorology to mark the end of the Australian summer, forecasters said eastern Australia was likely to experience cooler autumn days, with a strong chance of higher-than-average rainfall.

Australia’s national and state agriculture ministers last week said despite the floods in parts of the northern Queensland state, 69 percent of Australia remained in drought.

Craik said the water supply problems were most significant in the lower lakes towards the end of the Murray River in the South Australia state, and along the Coorong, a narrow strip of water which runs parallel to the sea near the Murray mouth.

“The (water) level is falling in the lower lakes, down to 30 to 40 centimetres below sea level, salinity is rising, and acid-sulphate soils are becoming a significant risk,” she said.

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