Good times flow­ing down river

Basin plan helps many farm­ers be­come more wa­ter-savvy

The Weekend Australian - - COMMENTARY -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.