Dairy farmers fight to protect their Murray waters

Goulburn Valley dairy farmers, who rely on water from the Murray and Goulburn rivers to sustain herds, have seized on figures published last week by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority showing that irrigated agriculture in their region has flatlined since the plan was rolled out.

The MDBA basin plan evaluation, a report card on the first five years of the plan, shows that since 2001, there has been zero growth in the value of irrigated agriculture within the basin area. This compares with a national figure of 11 per cent growth for all irrigated agriculture in Australia. Over the same period, the value of total agriculture has increased by 11 per cent across Australia and only 4 per cent in the basin area.

Katunga dairy farmer Daryl Hoey, chairman of the Australian Dairy Industry Council Basin Water Taskforce, said although the figures were partly explained by commodity prices and drought, there was a direct correlation between lost water and lost production.

“It has to be recognised that the amount of water taken out of the basin is having a significant impact on the economy,’’ Mr Hoey told The Australian.

“We all signed on to the basin plan accepting there would be some pain and adjustment but it is far greater than we expected.’’ The MDBA assessment returns into sharp focus the politically charged question of what to do with a provision in the plan that allows for 450GL of water, in addition to the headline figure of 2750GL agreed to by Queensland, NSW, Victoria, South Australia and the commonwealth, to be returned to the environment.

Although the provision is conditional on water savings having a neutral or positive socio-economic impact, South Australia is adamant extra water is essential to the health of the river system.

Suzannah Sheed, an independent MP for Shepparton, believes local dairy farmers are already at a tipping point and further water savings will devastate the local economy. “We have seen very considerable, negative impacts,’’ she said. “We were always willing to give up the 2750GL but that has brought us to a tipping point. Any more would be severely damaging and in a drought, disastrous.

“As a community, we want to see a decision made that the 450 is not doable, that it’s off the table, so we can get some certainly. At the moment, people are at a loss as to where we stand.’’

Committee for Greater Shepparton chief executive Sam Birrell said water savings already realised under the plan had improved the health of the local rivers but the MDBA figures were clear evidence that irrigated agriculture had stagnated.

He said that if more water savings were imposed on local farmers, herds, orchards and export markets would be lost. “I don’t know how a place like Shepparton comes back from that,’’ he said. “What worries me as a representative of this community is not what has already happened but what we are being set up for in the future.’’


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