CROSS CUR­RENTS

There are signs the river sys­tem is re­cov­er­ing

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - SUE NEALES

Danny Thomas grew up in the thriv­ing Vic­to­rian heart­land town of Shep­par­ton more than 40 years ago, when the sur­round­ing Goul­burn Val­ley was a fer­tile patch­work of gur­gling ir­ri­ga­tion chan­nels, shady fruit blocks laden with pears and peaches, and small dairy farms, each with 150 milk­ing cows graz­ing in lush, al­waysgreen pas­tures.

To­day Thomas, the burly ru­ral real es­tate boss with CBRE who sells mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar prop­er­ties to for­eign cor­po­rate farm­ing arrivals, says he hardly recog­nises his former home.

Most of the dairy farms have gone. Their small ir­ri­ga­tion sup­ply chan­nels are dry, shut off from the re­main­ing main wa­ter sys­tem.

The old Dethridge wa­ter­mea­sur­ing wheels sit silent, a re­minder of a time when wa­ter was cheap and no one ques­tioned the eco­nom­ics of us­ing scarce wa­ter from the Vic­to­rian moun­tains on the dri­est con­ti­nent on earth to grow fresh grass for cows pro­duc­ing cheap milk.

“It’s a dust bowl now com­pared to when I grew up; the ir­ri­ga­tion wa­ter has gone else­where and the dairy farms are dry, dis­ap­peared or op­er­at­ing on very lit­tle wa­ter to sur­vive,” says Thomas, an ex­pert in the value of big com­mer­cial ir­ri­gated land in the vast Mur­rayDar­ling Basin.

“But that’s a good thing. Yes, the dairy farm­ers might be the losers in all this but it’s a dis­gust­ing waste of valu­able wa­ter to use it to grow pas­palum and rye-grass.

“The truth is that ev­ery­thing we said should hap­pen in terms of putting a proper value on wa­ter un­der the plan is hap­pen­ing. The wa­ter is there if you have the money to pay for it. It’s go­ing to its high­est-value uses such as al­monds and cot­ton, and agri­cul­ture in the Mur­ray-Dar­ling Basin — es­pe­cially in the south­ern river sys­tem — is so much more ef­fi­cient as a re­sult.”

Thomas’s de­cid­edly eco­nomic-ra­tio­nal­ist view of the achieve­ments of the $13 bil­lion Mur­ray-Dar­ling Basin Plan af­ter its first five years of op­er­a­tion is not shared by ev­ery­one.

While Thomas mea­sures the plan’s early suc­cess in terms of for­eign cap­i­tal pour­ing into the re­gion to buy rundown dairy and fruit farms, re­de­velop and com­bine other prop­er­ties into mega­cor­po­rate al­mond and cot­ton plan­ta­tions, and to spur in­vest­ment in pro­cess­ing plants, river ex­plorer and ad­ven­turer Rex El­lis is more wor­ried about whether its cen­tral en­vi­ron­men­tal ob­jec­tives are be­ing met, or at least track­ing pos­i­tively.

“I think the bal­ance be­tween the en­vi­ron­men­tal and agri­cul­ture is get­ting bet­ter but that’s easy to say af­ter a cou­ple of good (rain) years when there’s been plenty of wa­ter around for ev­ery­one,” says El­lis, who lives on the cliffs of the Mur­ray River near Mor­gan, South Aus­tralia, with his fa­mous tim­ber pad­dle­boat, The Dromedary, moored be­neath.

“I’m hope­ful we are see­ing the num­bers of the en­dan­gered re­gent par­rot — it’s a beau­ti­ful thing and it lives here in the River­land — sta­bilise, but ev­ery­thing is so tied to­gether that I worry that in a dry year when wa­ter is scarce, greed will take over again.

“For things to get bet­ter they must ad­here to the plan in full and make sure that in a dry year or two ev­ery­one pulls in their belts and puts the river first; be­cause if the river gets crook or out of bal­ance, the first thing that goes is the ecol­ogy.”

The new fed­eral Agri­cul­ture and Wa­ter min­is­ter and Queens­land Na­tion­als MP David Lit­tleproud whole­heart­edly agrees with El­lis that the plan must be de­liv­ered in full as agreed and the in­ter­state bick­er­ing must cease.

His stance is per­haps sur­pris­ing given the open im­pla­ca­ble op­po­si­tion of his pre­de­ces­sor and leader Barn­aby Joyce to any more wa­ter be­ing taken from ir­ri­ga­tors and farm­ers.

Lit­tleproud — whose vast Mara­noa elec­torate in­cludes the Queens­land head­wa­ters of the Dar­ling river sys­tem and con­tro­ver­sial Cub­bie Sta­tion, the largest cot­ton grower and wa­ter user in the land — says he is com­mit­ted to adding an ad­di­tional 450 gi­gal­itres to the amount of wa­ter to be re­turned to the en­vi­ron­ment by 2024, de­spite an­gry ir­ri­ga­tor op­po­si­tion.

“I ask for calm. We all have to work col­lab­o­ra­tively and the ex­tra 450GL (for the en­vi­ron­ment) is part of the plan and must be re­spected, al­though I haven’t got a fixed mind on how we achieve (that wa­ter re­trieval),” Lit­tleproud tells In­quirer.

“This is a piv­otal mo­ment in the fu­ture of the basin and we all won’t get ex­actly what we want. But the re­al­ity is that the eco­nom­ics of wa­ter are play­ing out and there is cau­tious op­ti­mism and in­vest­ment re­turn­ing to agri­cul­ture. We just all have to re­mem­ber that means meet­ing out­comes and tar­gets for the en­vi­ron­ment too.”

On this key ques­tion the re­cent Mur­ray-Dar­ling Basin Au­thor­ity five-year re­view — the plan is not due for first-stage com­ple­tion un­til 2019 and fi­nal res­o­lu­tion un­til 2024 — is muted.

The Mur­ray-Dar­ling Basin Plan was agreed in 2011 by all af­fected states and fed­eral po­lit­i­cal par­ties wor­ried about too much wa­ter be­ing sucked by farm­ers from Aus­tralia’s in­land lifeblood rivers for com­mer­cial ir­ri­ga­tion pur­poses.

The plan aims to re­duce the former 13,623GL an­nual ir­ri­ga­tor wa­ter take — equal to nearly three Syd­ney Har­bours full of fresh- wa­ter a year — by 20 per cent, with the re­trieved 2750GL of wa­ter owned by all Aus­tralians and man­aged by the in­de­pen­dent Com­mon­wealth En­vi­ron­men­tal Wa­ter Holder David Papps with the in­ten­tion of de­liv­er­ing key en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits.

These in­clude im­prov­ing na­tive fish and bird num­bers, en­sur­ing river wet­lands re­ceive ad­e­quate and reg­u­lar flood­ing, look­ing af­ter the river red gum trees, re­duc­ing salin­ity, guar­an­tee­ing that a more gen­er­ous sup­ply of wa­ter makes its way down the Mur­ray in South Aus­tralia to keep its Lower Lakes near Goolwa fresh and the river mouth open, and the restora­tion of more na­tive veg­e­ta­tion.

De­spite 77 per cent of wa­ter re­cov­ered from ir­ri­ga­tors and 750 de­lib­er­ate en­vi­ron­men­tal wa­ter­ings and flood­ing of wet­lands since 2013, the MDBA main­tains such a deeply dam­aged ecosys­tem takes time to re­cover.

But im­prove­ments are hap­pen­ing in some places, its re­ports say, with the rate of de­cline in wa­ter bird num­bers slow­ing, an in­crease in na­tive cod breed­ing, re­duced salin­ity en­ter­ing the river in South Aus­tralia, and im­prove­ment in the con­di­tion of some river red gum forests.

But De­niliquin rice grower Shelley Scoullar is most con­cerned about the im­pact of largescale wa­ter with­drawal and height­ened wa­ter in­se­cu­rity, scarcity and price rises on rich ir­ri­ga­tion dis­tricts such as the Mur­ray Val­ley.

Scoullar, who is spear­head­ing a Rive­rina cam­paign to make sure lo­cal ru­ral voices are heard in the big ci­ties, says the pain be­ing caused is both real and deep, af­fect­ing farm­ing fam­i­lies, jobs and lo­cal town busi­nesses.

The Mur­ray Val­ley, where the Scoullar fam­ily farms along the Mul­wala chan­nel, con­trib­utes an es­ti­mated $550 mil­lion to $700m in the an­nual value of its ir­ri­gated agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion to Aus­tralia’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct.

Over­all, farm­ers in the basin us­ing ir­ri­ga­tion to grow ev­ery­thing from wheat and cot­ton to rice, or­anges, av­o­ca­dos, al­monds and grapes con­trib­ute a to­tal of $7 bil­lion.

“It’s all very well to talk about eco­nom­ics and wa­ter go­ing to its high­est-value use, but this is peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties we are talking about, and tak­ing so much wa­ter out of pro­duc­tive use is re­ally hurt­ing,” says Scoullar.

“You’ve got farm­ers of dairy cows, rice, wheat and beef cat­tle right across this re­gion say­ing they can’t af­ford to own ex­pen­sive wa­ter rights, ir­ri­gate ev­ery year or even keep go­ing.

“That might be eco­nom­i­cally ra­tio­nal pric­ing of ir­ri­ga­tion wa­ter but milk, bread and rice are sta­ple foods that mums and dads need and want to feed their fam­i­lies — they can’t do that on al­monds and olives alone.”

South Aus­tralian se­na­tor and fed­eral As­sis­tant Wa­ter Min­is­ter Anne Rus­ton be­lieves it is these sorts of sto­ries and im­pacts that city dwellers — es­pe­cially ar­dent Greens vot­ers and diehard en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists — need to con­sider be­fore they ca­su­ally con­demn any farmer for grow­ing wa­ter-thirsty rice and cot­ton.

(Cot­ton and ta­ble grapes are ac­tu­ally among the more ef­fi­cient users of ir­ri­ga­tion wa­ter, re­quir­ing seven to eight me­gal­itres of wa­ter a hectare each year to grow, com­pared with al­monds and rice, which re­quire 12-15ML/ha.)

“I think there is a great dis­con­nect be­tween the city and the coun­try, and much less un­der­stand­ing in the ci­ties of the im­por­tance of the Mur­ray-Dar­ling Basin food bowl,” Rus­ton says.

“Just look at your din­ner plate in Mel­bourne or Syd­ney, and on most days two-thirds of the food on it will have come from the Basin,” she adds.

“I say, don’t sit in judg­ment in the ci­ties about what is go­ing on in these river farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties un­less you take the op­por­tu­nity to go out and see for your­self what amaz­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal man­agers and stew­ards these farm­ers are and how ef­fi­ciently ev­ery drop of wa­ter is now used.”

Rus­ton is hope­ful the bal­ance be­tween agri­cul­tural wa­ter use and pro­tect­ing the pre­cious ecol­ogy and sus­tain­abil­ity of the river sys­tem is im­prov­ing.

“I think we may have got the phys­i­cal wa­ter dis­tri­bu­tion right — the vol­ume of this fi­nite re­source split be­tween farm­ers and the en­vi­ron­ment — but I don’t think we have got the nar­ra­tive right,” says Rus­ton, who lives at Ren­mark in South Aus­tralia, where she owns a com­mer­cial rose farm.

“We still have a lot of peo­ple in the ci­ties who think the Mur­rayDar­ling Basin Plan is solely an ex­er­cise in en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and ‘sav­ing’ the river when it’s not; it is about achiev­ing a bal­ance in re­source shar­ing

“In that mix, there has to be more em­pa­thy for the peo­ple who grow the food, their com­mu­ni­ties and their liveli­hoods, be­cause if you take the basin’s ir­ri­gated eco­nomic pro­duc­tiv­ity away, that would im­pact on the food avail­able to ev­ery­one, whether they live in the ci­ties or re­gions.”

‘It’s a dust bowl now com­pared to when I grew up; the ir­ri­ga­tion wa­ter has gone else­where and the dairy farms are dry’ DANNY THOMAS CBRE

DAVID GERAGHTY

‘If the river gets crook … the first thing that goes is the ecol­ogy,’ says Mur­ray afi­cionado Rex El­lis

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