Dairy farmers in Victoria’s Gunbower region have joined growing calls, from NSW irrigators, for the release of environmental water to farmers, to grow much-needed crops.
Up to 82 Gigalitres of water is being delivered to the Gunbower Forest, between mid-June and the end of November, a decision questioned by Cohuna dairy farmer Jodie Hay.
“The water currently being poured into the Gunbower forest in one day would keep a local 300 cow dairy farm operating for a year,” Ms Hay said.
“This equates to roughly $1 million for the local economy, not to mention the flow on benefits to the regional and national economies.”
Southern Riverina farmers and Deniliquin lobby group Speak Up have called for the release of environmental water, to grow fodder and crops.
Read more: Release environmental water to farmers, says Speak Up
State Opposition Water spokeswoman Steph Ryan has also questioned the environmental flows, being put into the forest.
A spokeswoman for the Victorian Environmental Water Holder said watering was essential for Victoria’s highly-modified river and wetland systems to survive dry conditions and to build resilience once these conditions ease.
“The internationally-recognised Gunbower Forest has been showing signs of stress after being in a drying phase for 18 months, including two very hot, dry summers,” the spokeswoman said.
“Without current environmental watering, the forest and its wetlands would continue to degrade.”
Due to human modifications to the Gunbower Forest, the management of the site was not able to return to a ‘natural’ flow regime.
“The aim of environmental watering is to deliver water in a way that protects the remaining ecosystem, including plants and animals that are important to the community,” the spokeswoman said.
“Environmental watering at Gunbower Forest is being undertaken as efficiently as possible, with the same water being used as many times as possible at multiple sites on the way to Gunbower Forest as well as downstream.”
Environmental structural works also allowed the watering of high-value sections of Gunbower Forest using much less water.
“Environmental watering at Gunbower Forest will protect 3,000 hectares of high-value river red gum forest and wetlands, consolidating the improvements made in recent years.” she said.
The water would boost the productivity of the forest, maintain healthy native fish populations and provide habitat for waterbirds, including important migratory species.
The VEWH might sell some water in northern Victoria later in the year, but this was not likely to be known, until peak environmental watering and peak inflows during spring were well underway.
Ms Hay said she wondered whether it was the best use of Commonwealth water considering the current situation, in much of rural Australia.
“The forest has had a flood for four years out of past five, but at present, our farm has only a 50per cent water allocation and the lack of temporary water availability,” she said.
“The current cost of water, at around $350 a megalitre, means buying it is not a viable option.”
She said Victorian farmers were a lot better off than their colleagues in NSW, whose allocation was zero.
“These factors coupled with the dry conditions mean we are facing a challenging time.
Ms Hay said the Commonwealth last year carried over 605 GL of its water holdings, which exceeded its current needs.
“If some or all of this was released back into the consumptive pool it would help reduce the inflated prices and increase water availability,” Ms Hay said.
“This would enable Goulburn Murray Irrigation District and other farmers to purchase water to maintain their own businesses as well as providing fodder for our NSW and QLD drought-stricken farmers,” Ms Hay said.
She said she believed a lot more research is needed into the forest’s water requirements, instead of the constant man-induced flooding events, which had become the ‘norm.
“As farmers, we have to be fully accountable for the water we use – surely the same should be expected of the environment,” she said.
Ms Hay said she had been involved in the Cohuna-Leitchville dairy discussion group for the past 30 years.
She said the group’s members shared her concerns regarding the Commonwealth ’s effect on their irrigation district and businesses over the past 10 years, as well as the challenges ahead facing one of the toughest years yet.
“We don’t seem to be using our resources in the most effective way.
“Hopefully, we can get smarter in the way we protect the environment without decimating our farmers and the communities which rely on them,” Ms Hay said.
She said the Government had a small window of opportunity to act before the current dry period causes a failed spring and the district faced the same bleak outcome as other parts of Australia.
Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office has said it is investigating the possible sale of 10GL of Goulburn regulated allocation, over the coming months.
In a statement, the CEWO said high environmental demands and low allocations were affecting consideration of other sales.
The CEWO acknowledged large parts of the Murray Darling Basin are experiencing pressures from water scarcity, with low storage low storage levels and rainfall deficiencies.
“While dry conditions are a natural component of Australia’s environment, water is still required to protect the health of the rivers, floodplains and wetlands of the Basin,” a statement from the CEWO said.
While there were no plans by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder for permanent purchase or sale of entitlements in 2018-19, trade options were under investigation.
“The possible sale reflects successful environmental watering in the Goulburn Broken system in recent years and a likely temporary surplus of allocations,” the CEWO statement said.
“The sale would leave sufficient water to meet all of our planned environmental targets this year and be prepared for the next year.”
Favourable market conditions may provide the opportunity to set aside proceeds from a sale to benefit the environment of the Basin in the future.
Trade with the objective of building capacity for future environmental needs would be implemented under section 106(3) of the Water Act 2007.
“After detailed consideration of the conditions locally in the Goulburn and across the southern Murray Darling Basin, there is enough water available (including h 74 GL of carryover from 2017–18 and 134 GL of new annual allocations against the Commonwealth’s entitlements in the Goulburn) to meet environmental needs,” the CEWO said.
“Another consideration factored into this assessment is the high likelihood of operational deliveries meeting some of the Goulburn-Broken environmental demands.”