It’s not something that most people would ever think about – what happens when water is pulled out by irrigators all along the Murray Darling Basin? What else is getting caught when the pumps are turned on?

Dr Lee Baumgartner
Photo: Charles Sturt University

It’s something that Dr Lee Baumgartner has thought about. He believes millions of fish are sucked out of rivers by irrigation pumps every year.

“We’ve estimated as part of some work we’ve done that 87 million fish are sucked out every year across the whole Murray Darling Basin,” he said.

Dr Baumgartner is a researcher at the Institute for Land, Water and Society at Charles Sturt University in Albury and an avowed “fisho” who wants to save as much river wildlife as he can.

It’s not just fish and wildlife being sucked up by irrigation pumps.

Anything that is close to the intake when the pump is switched on will get pulled in and this includes gum nuts, sticks, bark, leaves and weeds – all of which have the potential to clog the intake and break the pump.

The solution seems obvious – screen the irrigation pump intakes.

Unfortunately Dr Baumgartner and his team met with high levels of doubt when they approached farmers.

“They said it’s going to be harder for us to clean the screens then to actually go and clean the jets on our irrigation system,” he said.

“They were bit worried they’d have to jump in the river and brush all these gum nuts and fish off the screen.”

After much scepticism and dismissal of their idea, Dr Baumgartner applied for a Global Connections Grant.

“We used the Global Connections funds to build a prototype that was going to help us demonstrate to the market that these actually have a practical application,” Dr Baumgartner said.

The prototype screen is been designed to have water constantly flowing over it, which doesn’t allow debris to settle on the screen. This ensures it’s self-cleaning – which means no jumping in the river for farmers.

“Every pump we can get a screen on, every diversion we get a screen on saves about 12 to 25 thousand fish per year which is a good outcome,” he said.

Dr Baumgartner and his team are currently in the process of proving the environmental and financial benefits of their screen and are seeing positive results.

Building the prototype and proving their screen will work has led to relationship with AWMA Solutions, one of the biggest irrigation supplies in Australia.

The relationship has flourished, with AWMA Solutions investing their own capital to build a huge outdoor lab for testing.

From small beginnings with a Global Connections grant, Dr Baumgartner and his team may have come up with way to protect river wildlife, save farmers money and potentially kick-start a new manufacturing sector in Australia.

Profile of Dr Baumgartner written for the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering as part of a review of their Global Connections Grant.