In this, the United Nations Year of Fresh Water, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meets on 29 August to consider the National Water Policy initiated in 1994. An alternative agenda has been set by the Wentworth Group. Those urban nabobs know everything about water conservation except how to survive as dirt farmers without irrigation.

That lesson had been gained the hard way on the road to Gundagai, five miles past Wagga Wagga before 1951 when the water came to the 42 farming families of Gumly Gumly. The State government funded a spray irrigation system from what a reporter on the Women’s Weekly called “the swiftly flowing Murrumbidgee”.

Hopes ran high at Gumly Gumly in that year after myxo had wiped out the rabbits. One small-holder looked forward to sowing vegetables all year round, putting lucerne in the paddock, maintaining a flower patch and a corner for onions. At last, their farm would become a paying proposition. The fight to get the water connected was their latest battle for survival. Some of their wells had already run dry so that water had to be carried from neighbouring properties in a “Furphy” tank on a horse and cart.

The Wentworth scientists would tut-tut that drying up as the first sign of what was dumb about both closer settlement and its irrigation. Such attitudes cannot solve the social and economic disasters that the those schemes were supposed to relieve.

In 1934, the original settlers at Gumly Gumly had won ballots among the unemployed for blocks of 2 to 7 hectares. Bringing little beyond dole tickets and a few pots, they pitched their tents on Gumly Common, began to clear the land by hand and to help build each other’s houses. They formed a Progress Association which brought them a local school, erected a community hall and maintained two football teams. When the water came, they overcame the post-war shortage of pipes by pooling whatever lay about their blocks. No accolade was more valued than to be known as “a wonderful worker” for the community.

Mrs Argus, J. P., with ten surviving children, marked all the moments of her life in verse. After the first year in a tin and timber hut, she had tempered pride in their efforts with a recognition that

Money is our great drawback

But with hard work and care

We hope that in the future

Real comfort we will share.

Tapping into the co-operative spirit that brought the water to Gumly Gumly in 1951 will be necessary if the Murrumbidgee is again to flow swiftly.