REMEMBER the stories about how the Murray Darling Basin, the food bowl of Australia, was going to be lost to salt? Headline after media headline told of imminent ruin from rising water tables bring salt.
In the next year it is likely that a lot of farmers in this area will walk, will leave the Riverina, but it won’t be because of salt. Farmers in the Riverina worked with their local water corporation, Murray Irrigation Limited (MIL), and government engineers to solve the salt problem.
While it was once feared over 300,000 hectares would be lost to salt, by March 2003 the area with shallow water tables had stabilized below 20,000 hectares and is now less than 4,000 hectares.
Indeed farmers won’t be leaving because of salt. They will be leaving because of prolonged drought, and government policy.
Recently there has been quite a bit of media coverage about the Wakool Landholders wanting to sell their water to the Federal Government. Please allow me the opportunity to put the situation into perspective. The vast majority of Landholders would prefer not to sell any water at all but due to practically 3 years of zero allocation with virtually no farming income and governments ad-hoc approach to spending their billions of dollars on water buy-back, they fail to recognise the role we play in producing food and fibre for the country.
The recent ABC television Four Corners program highlighted the fact that Penny Wong and her department have entered into the market to buy large amounts of water with no set plan and have absolutely no regard for the social and economic costs to the local and regional communities of water leaving their areas.
Government have actively been encouraging groups of farmers to consider the complete shut-down of irrigation throughout the region, this has been the main catalyst to encourage the Wakool Landholders Association to investigate the option for a full sale of their entitlements, recognising that large parcels of water leaving the area would affect those that remain.
Over the last 10-15 years the area has already undergone massive restructure and up until the change of Federal government the remaining farmers were still showing their confidence in being broad scale food and fibre producers by continuing to adopt best management practices as encouraged by our land and water management plans (LWMP’s). The main push was to become more efficient and sustainable for the long term and usually this meant spreading the capital base by investing in more land and infrastructure.
Now the people that had the greatest confidence in the future of irrigation farming are being hit the hardest.
Here are some of the facts:
• The majority are paying more than $40,000 a year in fixed water charges for something they haven’t received for the last 2, going on 3 years. Some are paying over $100,000 a year.
• MIL has consistently told their shareholders to prepare for a 20 – 40% reduction in their entitlements.
• Government is not prepared to acknowledge the true cost of the water buy back, only wanting to recognise the market price without any structural adjustment.
• In their wisdom government pulled out of the most successful partnership developed by the community and government – the Murray LWMP’s with only 2 years of their commitment left.
• The majority of cereal crops have failed and the prospect of being able to carry stock or grow a summer crop is very unlikely.
• Issues like the purchase of Yanga Station by government (which increased the shires rates by 5%) and striping water off irrigation country undermines confidence.
If the government was serious about their desire to retrieve water for the environment while still recognising the role irrigation plays for the efficient production of food and fibre they could have adopted one of the many proposals put forward by the various irrigation communities. The main ones being:
• The WLA put forward a proposal to sell up to 20% of their entitlements that included recognising the impact on the local community and minimising the effect on the remaining irrigators.
• Murrumbidgee Irrigation has suggested a long term lease arrangement that could be a win-win situation.
• MIL has developed an integrated package that recognises benefits to the environment and shareholders.
The Rudd Government appears to be obsessed with shutting down irrigation communities without any real strategy or plan. Attempting to justify the buy back by living the lie of the South Australian Lower Lakes and encouraging more horticulture only fuels the increasing lack of confidence of practical business people for the future of broad scale irrigation.
In summing up the Wakool district has some of the most modern and efficient infrastructure in the supply system, on farm and in the region (eg. controlled water tables). It has the most efficient and dedicated farm business people in the world but like most business people they will not continue to invest capital into a business they see very little future in while these negative signals are being sent out by Government.
The picture of John Lolicato on the banks of the Wakool River in Possum Forest, was taken by Jennifer Marohasy in October 2007.
The following chart is from the Murray Irrigation Ltd Environment and Sustainability Report 2003 (click on the image, for a larger image).