Irrigators split on Basin plan changes

30 May, 2018 09:31 AM
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POSITIVE EFFECTS: Andrew Christian has argued there will be positive effects from more on-farm efficiency projects.
We are the water piggy bank for the Southern Connected basin.
POSITIVE EFFECTS: Andrew Christian has argued there will be positive effects from more on-farm efficiency projects.

A Shepparton, Vic, district farmer has accused a community lobby group of “driving a wedge” between irrigators, through continued calls to halt to further changes to the Murray Darling Basin plan.

Kotta, Vic, irrigator Andrew Christian, who has a cropping and dairy operation, says calls by groups such as the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District Water Leadership Group (GMIDWLG) to halt funding for on-farm projects could result in some farmers who were shut out of earlier programs again missing out.

But GMIDWL spokesman Sam Birrell said he was alarmed at calls for expressions of interest in projects to deliver a further 450 gigalitres of environmental water.

“Why is this EoI going ahead when the Ernst Young report repeatedly warns the data has not been collected to enable a proper evaluation of the value for money, socioeconomic and water market impacts?” Mr Birrell said.

The Federal Government said it would use $1.5 billion from the Water for the Environment Special Account for the projects.

Mr Birrell said the term ‘socio-economic neutrality’ meant no negative impact on the economy or the community.

“But the authors of the plan have attempted to define the socio-economic impact of water removal from a region as relating to the water licence holder only," he said.

“It is like showing a picture of an elephant and then setting out a number of qualifications and definitions as to why it is really a zebra."

The group has also launched the #Fair Flow social media campaign, with farmers, irrigators and community members taking to Twitter to push their message.

They are calling for more rigorous economic and water market tests before more water is taken from irrigators.

Ernst Young Report

But Mr Christian said the EY report suggested there would be positive outcomes from the recovery of between 25 to 52GL of water from on-farm works in the GMID.

“Irrigators are adjusting to a life with less water and embracing new technologies that facilitate the production of more produce with less water,” Mr Christian said.

“The disruptive voices emanating out of Shepparton are driving a wedge between irrigators, by continually calling for a halt to programs.

He said there was an overwhelming demand from irrigators who had been locked out of previous efficiency programs through no fault of their own as they were not connected to the modernised system.

Farmers had always assumed efficiency programs would run parallel with the Connections roll out, but “a very small minority is attempting to terminate this opportunity”.

Sunraysia backing

He was backed by Mildura, Vic, irrigator and Victorian Farmers Federation Sunraysia branch water spokesman Bill McClumpha.

Mr McClumpa said the EY report was an “exhaustive, evidence-based study”, which looked at pragmatic, consultative pathways to achieve water recovery.

“EY takes a lot of care to accommodate the perceived interests of GMID irrigators and industries, and points out that they stand to gain the lion's share of the $1.5 billion on offer,” Mr McClumpha said.

The report downplayed the benefits to be gained from the 450GL upwater recovery program.

“There will be works funding and related economic multipliers, but the massive direct subsidies on offer to GMID irrigators won't cause the loss of entitlement and economic activity objectors claim,” he said.

Mr McClumpha said irrigators incomes would increase, they would be better able to compete for water on the open market and bring economic activity back into the GMID.

Neutrality test

But the water leadership group said 2100GL had already been recovered and the community was paying the price, with reduced production, fewer jobs and less money circulating in regional economies.

“Essentially, hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers money stands to be spent based only on a theory of neutrality, without the evidence to substantiate it,” Mr Birrell said.

“Another 450GL from farmers means they will have one-third less water available from the irrigation pool to produce our food and fibre since the Basin Plan started 10 years ago.”

Under the current socio-economic neutrality test, States would be forced to accept on-farm efficiency projects they knew would cause further community hardship or be denied funding for supply measures.

“Farmers here have contributed more water than any other region (430GL), mostly through buybacks,” Mr Birrell said.

“On-farm water recovery programs are less damaging than buybacks, but the Commonwealth has invested much less here than in other regions, so our community has got the worst of both worlds.”

The production and economic impacts had been compounded by irrigators downstream “raiding” the GMID to buy back entitlements and allocations they traded to the Commonwealth for the environment.

Water purchases

GMID Water Leadership Forum co-chair David McKenzie said authorities had failed to address the continued purchase of high-reliability water from the NSW Murray and GMID.

“We are the water piggy bank for the Southern Connected basin,” he said.

Recent Murray Darling Basin Authority figures showed a net reduction to water availability in the southern Basin of 810GL, when water savings retained on-farm of 67GL were taken into account.

“We are having trouble getting the MDBA to accept the effects of on-farm efficiencies in the Murrumbidgee and Sunraysia,” Mr McKenzie said.

“Irrigators from those areas inevitably go to the NSW Murray or the GMID to get high-reliability water to sustain their enterprises.

“If people weren’t giving up water for on-farm efficiency projects, they wouldn’t have to top up their water portfolios with Victorian high-reliability water.”

This ‘back trade’ had further reduced GMID water use and therefore production by an estimated 70-130GL a year.

Mr Birrell said if Federal Water Minister David Littleproud represented his regional and rural constituents, he needed to clarify – and – if necessary – amend the socio-economic test.

“Industries', and the community’s, future is riding on that definition,” he said.

Reject the 450

Independent Shepparton MP Suzanna Sheed said it was concerning there were strong signs the 450GL was firmly back on the table.

She urged Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville to continue to reject plans to introduce the 450GL at the next Ministerial Council meeting in early June.

“We have to hold the line,” Ms Sheed said.

Ms Sheed said her greatest concern was that the 450GL would be delivered through further on-farm works.

“As we know, on-farm works have this on-going, long-term impact of removing the water from the district," she said.

“Once it’s gone out of the pool, it really has an impact on the wider region

“It might be good for the farmer – he get’s a bucket of money, he does the efficiency works, he gives up some water in return, but once that water has gone, it’s gone.”

Speak Up

Deniliquin, NSW, lobby group Speak Up chairwoman Shelley Scoullar said she was concerned about a what appeared to be a deal between Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud and the Federal opposition, to deliver the 450GL environmental water.

“It seems hard-working food and fibre producers have been sold down the river by the National Party, which I thought was supposed to represent our interests,” Ms Scoullar said.

“Instead, they have caved in to appease South Australians and city environmentalists.”

She said there were independent and MDBA reports that showed the economic losses in northern Victoria and southern NSW were in the billions of dollars.

“What happened to the ‘triple bottom line’ balance that we were originally guaranteed and continue to be promised?,” Ms Scoullar said.

The Federal Government has been contacted for comment.

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