There has been heavy rain and even flooding in northern South Australia and parts of western Victoria. But irrigators upstream in the New South Wales Murray Valley are running out of water and what little remains is stagnant and becoming contaminated.
Right now about 1,000 farmers in this region are out of water and sheep are dying as farm dams empty.
This is the first year since the late 1930s, when the irrigation channels were first dug, that there has been no water for stock. Photograph taken by John Lolicato, Wakool, Murray Valley, January 2007.
These farmers began the season with a zero water allocation. This means they knew they would get no water from the licenses they held; from the entitlements they owned.
Many were hoping to get through the season with water saved from the year before, while others purchased water at considerable expense as a temporary trade to keep their stock alive.
Then just before Christmas they had 52 percent of this carry-over or newly purchased water taken off them by the New South Wales government.
Most farms within the Murray Irrigation boundaries are now facing the prospect of no ‘stock and domestic’ water for the first time since the beginning of irrigation in the region in the late 1930s.
Many irrigators in the Murray Valley claim the decision to take their water was unjustified as there is still water in the dams at the top of the catchment, in the Snowy scheme, but governments have been saving this for electricity generation and for Adelaide.
Instead of providing the farmers with stock and dometic water, the New South Wales government has in effect offered them $20 million dollars in compensation with any single farmer eligible for up to $50,000. Government has said that the water it has taken will be re-credited as soon as there is sufficient rainfall and that the $20 million is not compensation, but rather “extraordinary assistance”.
Why didn’t government buy the water, rather than just taking it, in the first place?
Perhaps because State governments are used to just taking water. Indeed across Australia a majority of irrigators often pay for water they never receive as they are locked into a system whereby 60 percent of their water entitlement is as a fixed charge, payable whether or not the water is provided.
Governments justify this arrangement on the basis they have to manage the water infrastructure whether or not there is a drought. In effect, state run water monopolies are saying, farmers should plan for drought, while we, government, are incapable of the same.
The $20 million payment smacks to me of a bribe in advance of the upcoming New South Wales state election.
ABC Online has suggested the $20 million was promised to avert the possibility of legal action by irrigators.
Normally state governments decide at the beginning of the season how much water they have in dams, likely inflows, and how much they can allocate for irrigation and other uses.
The decision by the New South Wales government to take water from irrigators during the season is unprecedented.
The $20 million Extraordinary Assistance Program for Murray and Murrumbidgee irrigators has been welcomed by the NSW Irrigators Council while the Council has noted that irrigators actually lost $57million in water late last year.
Many farmers would just like some water and all the New South Wales government needs to do is let it out of the Snowy Scheme. This would reduce the amount of water in reserve, but why deny farmers access to stock and domestic water now? There is an immediate need, and now is the time to act.
Photograph taken by John Lolicato, Wakool, Murray Valley, January 2007.
Where is Peta on this one? Photograph taken by John Lolicato, Wakool, Murray Valley, January 2007.