WATER: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Federals distance themselves from 'The Living Murray'
, November 1, 2003
Unprecedented resistance by irrigation farmers and regional communities to proposals by the Federal and State governments to remove a sizable amount of farmers' water entitlements has seen the Federal government shift its position on The Living Murray environmental flow proposals.The Living Murray
proposed taking up to 15% of water entitlements from farmers over 10 years and up to 30% over 20 years.
This is roughly equivalent to the entire water allocations for any of Victoria's Goulbourn Valley, or for Murray Irrigation Ltd, or for the consumption cap for South Australia.
Eleven hundred gigalitres would flow through the Murray's mouth and out to sea. What a waste!
A confidential report done by Rendell McGuckian for Murray Irrigation Ltd warned that "Significant economic losses will occur to both individual businesses and to the irrigation area and its community if water is withdrawn from irrigation."
Indeed, farmers argue that removing this much of their water entitlements is the equivalent of removing their profit margin. It is the equivalent of putting them into permanent drought.Coordination
The Federal and State governments are attempting to forge a coordinated approach on water issues through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).
At the August COAG meeting they agreed to kick start environmental improvements to the Murray Darling Rivers system with $500 million to buy 350 gigalitres of water for environmental flows, 300 GL of this being already allocated for that purpose.
COAG is due to meeting again this November. In the run up to that meeting, a recently released preliminary report by the Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology argued for taking up to 1,500 gigalitres (15%) from farmers.
Notably, Federal Agriculture Minister, Warren Truss, distanced his government from the report. He told parliament that the Federal Government's preferred target was to create "icon areas" by restoring sections of the river system to a pristine state. "We can achieve worthwhile outcomes without having to destroy rural economies or tear at the heart of the availability of water for irrigation"
He emphasised that the report made "the point that good management of the water that goes to the environment is just as important – probably more important – as the volume of water that is actually supplied" for environmental flows.
The Federal's policy shift is partly due to scientific reports, like that of Jennifer Marohasy for the Institute of Public Affairs Environment Unit. Many water experts argue that The Living Murray
is the most poorly argued scientific report on the environmental issues in the Basin.
It is also the result of strong protests by farmers and regional communities at meetings throughout the Murray Darling Basin.
The Murray Darling Basin Commission held a series of information meetings expecting 20-30 people to attend. At small towns like Deniliquin in southern NSW, the town shut up shop for the daytime meeting and over 450 angry farmers, business people and towns people attended the meeting.
At Yarrawonga several thousand people protested in the main street.
In small towns like Rochester in Victoria, 450 people strongly opposed The Living Murray
This scenario has been repeated throughout the irrigation areas of the Basin, where the hostility to taking away farmer's water rights has sent a clear message to Canberra that farmers and regional communities will not wear these proposals.
Any government contemplating taking water from farmers ought to consider the fate of the Victorian State Labor MP, Denise Allan.
Allan was elected in a by-election after the resignation of National Party figure, Pat McNamara, in the late '90s. She won the seat by a small margin.
Some months prior to the last state election, the Victorian government revealed a list of dams to be decommissioned, including Lake Mokan, in her electorate, only a few kilometres south of Wangaratta.
The proposal drew outrage from local wine grape and fruit growers, who drew their irrigation water from the lake, and from a large community of amateur fishermen.
The lake is one of the best Murray cod fishing areas in the Basin.
At the next state election, there was a large swing to the Labor Government of Steve Bracks, but the anger over draining Lake Mokan saw Allan lose her seat.