As the largest irrigator in the Northern Murray-Darling Basin, the cotton industry is often cast as the villain in the piece.
We're looking at the country's cotton industry as part of a journey to listen to people living along the Darling River in a four-part podcast special called Forgotten River.
One Northern Basin cotton grower approached for comment for this Forgotten River series declined to engage publicly, saying the industry had repeatedly been demonised and it had taken its toll, especially as many growers had endured the same crippling drought that threw the entire Murray-Darling Basin into crisis.
Several messages to Cotton Australia went unanswered.
According to Claire Miller, chief executive officer of the NSW Irrigators Council, cotton growing forms the economic backbone of the northern Murray-Darling Basin.
"It's a very important industry, a very important economic generator in those northern valleys," she says.
According to the Cotton Australia website, the industry employs 12,000 people and earns $2 billion per year in export earnings.
The major buyers of Australian cotton, primarily grown in NSW and Queensland, are China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Turkey and Thailand.
Lower Darling graziers are reluctant to point the finger of blame for the uncertain future of the river directly at cotton growers, preferring instead to refer to large-scale irrigators.
"I don't really mind what anyone grows," says Chrissy Ashby from Trevallyn Station near Wilcannia.
"A lot of them grow cotton because it's a strong commodity and they can make a lot of money out of it. So it's not necessarily cotton, it's just irrigation and the floodplain harvesting that's killing us and killing the whole river."
Miller says the situation is no different in the south.
"Irrigated agriculture is quite services intensive," she says. "That means there's a lot of services that hang off the farms themselves.
"So while you've got workers on the farms, you've also got service industries that support it. That's the people who do the transport, the people who do fertilisers and pesticides and assist with the harvest."
According to Cotton Australia, the average cotton farm grows 576 hectares of cotton, supplementing the crop with plantings of sorghum, wheat and chickpeas. It says many farms also graze sheep and cattle.
The big difference between the cotton farms and the southern irrigators, Miller says, is the way they take water from the system.
"They have on-farm storages. That's quite different to the way irrigation operates in the southern valleys," says Miller.
Topography and climate play a key role.
"It's very hot up there. It's a flat landscape and rainfall and flows are more variable than what you see elsewhere in the Murray-Darling Basin."
Listen to the full story on the Forgotten River podcast.
More from the Forgotten River team:
- Listen to Forgotten River above or find it on your favourite podcast player.
- Meet the team behind the Forgotten River.
- All you need to know about the Murray-Darling
- Learn about Wilcannia. Before it was a COVID hotspot.
- Find out what happened after the historic Menindee Lake fish kills
So when there is water flowing across the landscape, they need to catch it, she says.
"They can keep the water on the property for use that year and in following years as it dries up."
That, she says, reduces pressure on the river system when it's in low flow.
Cotton Australia maintains the industry is one of the most water efficient in the world, using 6-7 megalitres per hectare of cotton planted. It says water-use efficiency improved by 40 per cent between 2002 and 2012 and increased yields using less water have been ongoing since then.
It says in the last decade there has been a further 10 per cent reduction in the amount of water used to produce a 227-kilogram bale of cotton lint.
NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey defends the industry.
"A lot of people say if we stop growing rice, we stop growing cotton, that will solve all their problems. Well, I think Australia has some of the best environmental regulations and rules to operate under. And I would trust our country with the transparency of operations, with the processes we have, to grow rice and cotton," she says.
"I'm more confident there is a better respect of environmental values here than in developing countries like China and India, who are also very big players on the international market."