Good times flowing down river
Basin plan helps many farmers become more water-savvy
Southern Australia’s MurrayMurrumbidgee food bowl is in good shape, and not only because its catchment has enjoyed a couple of reasonable seasons. Despite years of bickering between politicians and states over water allocations, a quiet export boom is under way, fulfilling Asia’s insatiable demand for crops such as table grapes, oranges, almonds, walnuts, avocados, stone fruit and olives. Farmers’ confidence is well placed. More than a decade after the Howard government established the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, and five years after Tony Burke, Labor’s sustainability, environment, water, population and communities minister, signed off on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, important lessons have been learned. Mindsets have shifted.
Over the past week, national rural reporter Sue Neales’s Why the Murray Matters series has explained the changes and challenges, the winners and losers. Under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, there is now about 10 per cent less water available for farm irrigation than five years ago. As a consequence, under what is now one of the world’s most sophisticated water trading systems, prices are rising, underlining water’s inherent value.
Far from depressing the agricultural sector, however, land values in areas from Albury and Griffith in NSW through to Mildura in Victoria and Renmark in South Australia have doubled. Few farms are for sale. Slowly but surely, the plan, and the water market, are bringing stability and a necessary realism to the sector.
The change, however, has created losers as well as winners. Many dairy farmers have discovered it is no longer viable to pay high prices ($3000- $3700 a megalitre for a permanent irrigation water entitlement along the Murray) to irrigate vast tracts of grass. As a result, many dairy farmers around Shepparton and the Goulburn Valley have sold their water rights in government buybacks, or to crop farmers. The Australian Dairy Industry Council is warning that three of four dairy farmers in northern Victoria and southern NSW — who produce 25 per cent of Australia’s milk — could walk off their farms by 2024 if the full basin plan is implemented. In northern Victoria, more than 1000 dairying jobs have disappeared and $200 million has been lost from the value of annual milk production.
The rice industry, as Neales reports today, is adapting, with rice growers now using only half the volume of irrigation water as their overseas counterparts. They plant after wet seasons, when dams are full. The uncertainty, however, has disrupted jobs and local processing.
However painful for those involved, finding a sustainable approach to the nation’s most important river system in a wide, brown land prone to droughts and flooding rains was always going to be hard. The success of local farmers in adapting to new imperatives underlines their resilience and enterprise.