MDBP report concerns

Irrigators express alarm at latest Murray-Darling Basin report

Water
REPORT DISAPPOINTMENT: Southern Riverina Irrigators chair Chris Brooks is among those disappointed by the Sefton report into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

REPORT DISAPPOINTMENT: Southern Riverina Irrigators chair Chris Brooks is among those disappointed by the Sefton report into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

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There's disappointment over the Sefton report, into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

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There's been widespread disappointment over the latest investigation into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

The Independent Assessment of Social and Economic Conditions in the Basin, led by consultant Robbie Sefton, has been criticised by irrigators for missing what they say are key concerns.

Ms Sefton said the draft report contained five key themes, starting with a call to encourage a strong partnership between the community and government, to work together to decide on "future deliverables.

"As a panel, we were disheartened to see communities at a crossroads, despite countless studies, reviews and inquiries," the report stated.

A seven-member Independent Panel was appointed in mid-2019, to capture the experience of individuals, families and businesses across this region.

The Panel's report highlighted the need for change and immediate action to help alleviate pressure on communities who were battling.

It also looked at the need to consider the long term opportunities, most likely to assist Basin communities adjust to ensure a positive future.

"We heard from people caught in a one-way conversation - over-consulted and under-listened to," the report found.

The Panel found the plan had created a wide gap between winners and losers.

"In previously vibrant communities, volatility, rapid change and uncertainty are resulting in sharp falls in investment and a loss of confidence," the report said.

Read more:

Murray Darling Basin communities over-consulted and under-listened to: socio-economic report recommendations

Voices from the Basin communities must be heard

Disproportionate impacts

But Deniliquin irrigator Louise Burge said she was disappointed the report didn't acknowledge the disproportionate impacts that had occurred, as a result of the Basin Plan.

"It doesn't really go into the details the Australian public really needs to know," Ms Burge said.

"The report's frequent reference to accelerating the constraints management strategy (CMS) is extremely disappointing and confusing."

It appeared to be promoting running the Murray and Goulburn Rivers above banks, resulting in an even greater impact on the irrigation sector, and riparian landholders.

Read more: Goulburn trade rule review

Ms Burge said she would be writing a submission, to help the Panel understand the real issues.

"It's very, very clear the government and Murray-Darling Basin Authority's objective is to move water to high-value crops," she said.

"A lot of Australia's water policy is about freeing up and moving water to high-value crops.

"But a high-value crop one day is a low-value crop the next."

Ms Burge said most of the sustainable diversion limits (SDL) projects affected the NSW Murray and northern Victoria.

SDL projects cover the maximum amount of surface and groundwater that can be taken from the Basin for agricultural and human consumptive use.

"Most are being applied to the NSW Murray, with the specific intention of facilitating water flows to new developments, downstream of the Barmah Choke," Ms Burge said.

"But if you look at history, such as managed investment schemes, governments have invariably failed, when they try to interfere in Australia's agricultural production systems."

The threat of the coronavirus pandemic should be a wake-up call.

"Surely this coronavirus pandemic tells us we need to do something about food diversity.

"We are looking at concentrating water resources into almonds, and other types of corporate investments - the long term ramifications for Australians wanting Australian food is huge."

No certainty

The Victorian Farmers Federation has also been critical of the report, saying it failed to make much-needed recommendations to give irrigators certainty about their future.

"The report fails to recommend that there should be no further buybacks clearly and fails to rule out the recovery of the 450GL of upwater," VFF Water Council chair Richard Anderson said.

"Instead the report lamely recommends the 'slowing' of water recovery," VFF Water Council chair Richard Anderson said.

Mr Anderson said the recovery of an additional 450GL was simply not possible.

"One it can't be delivered; and two, it will devastate irrigation communities that have already been knocked to their knees," said Mr Anderson.

The report also provided little acknowledgement of the negative impacts of water buybacks.

Mr Anderson also said the report has conflicting messages around constraints.

"In one section it suggests constraints should be relaxed, but in other parts, it talks about the inability to deliver water below the Barmah Choke and third party impacts," he said.

Southern Riverina Irrigators chairman Chris Brooks was scathing, in his criticism of the report.

He said there was a lot of "waffle" in the report about improving telecommunications.

"Improvements would better enable farmers to use telecommunications on our antiquated agricultural equipment and increase production by $20billion," he said.

There was also little point in focusing on improving roads, when "nothing is going out of the region."

He said farmers in the region had engaged in improving productivity, through installing pivot irrigation and reducing water losses.

"No irrigation infrastructure is feasible, and it won't compensate if you take the water away, because that's what's happened," he said.

Mr Brooks said members of the panel "should hang their heads in shame", as they had sold out the regions they represented for a few pieces of gold.

"They drafted up a report on what the MDBA wanted them to say," he said.

"Water is going to a higher value market, like almonds or cotton, and they are more or less saying the rice and dairy, in their local backyard, doesn't deserve to be connected to water.

"This is a joke, it's a report from one of those typical government departments, that structure the terms of reference around getting the answer they want."

Poor management meant taking the water away from the NSW Murray and northern Victoria.

"That's bad enough, but for these people try to draft up reports, to justify what they have done is criminal."

Cautious praise

Deniliquin's Speak Up Campaign's Shelley Scoullar said she was hoping, at long last, someone might 'listen' following the release of yet another damning report into the impacts of the failing Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Speak Up chair Shelley Scoullar said disengaged communities were wondering how many reports would take for governments to accept that the Basin Plan was failing and must be fixed.

Mrs Scoullar said Speak Up had been highlighting the need to engage with communities for several years, but governments and the MDBA had continually ignored the issue.

"In our region, we have totally lost trust in federal and state governments, though local government has worked alongside our organisation in advocating for change," Mrs Scoullar said.

"But is it any wonder the trust has been eroded with the way governments have treated us?

"When will we reach a 'line in the sand' where they acknowledge - like all the reports keep telling us - that the Basin Plan is failing our communities?

"We want to rebuild trust and engagement, but the first steps have to be taken by governments and the MDBA."

Ms Sefton said the panel was proud of its work and its independence from government.

"The Independent Panel has looked at a range of issues up and down the length of the Basin," Ms Sefton said.

"We've heard from communities and we've commissioned research.

The issues people have raised are real and some areas have been impacted by the water market, water purchase and water reform more than others."

She said people had already started to respond to the draft report.

"We've received feedback about constraints, the water market and water reform," she said.

"These issues are now being further discussed by the Panel.

"There's no doubt that different parts of the Basin have been affected in different ways."

We really want people from up and down the entire Basin to make a submission and provide feedback.

Water Minister Keith Pitt thanked the Panel for the work that had gone into preparing the draft report.

"Having recently travelled through the southern Murray Darling Basin region, the draft report confirms what I'd been told by farmers and other stakeholders about the challenges they face, particularly in the context of the ongoing drought," Mr Pitt said.

"It gives us deeper insights into communities' perceptions and views of the socioeconomic conditions throughout the Basin."

He urged residents to take the opportunity to provide feedback to the draft findings, which would be included in the final report, due at the end of April.

"The Government will finalise its policy response once that report has been completed," Mr Pitt said

Submissions will close Sunday 5 April 2020 at 5 pm.

To view the report, please visit - www.basin-socio-economic.com.au/stay-informed/documents.

To make a submission - www.basin-socio-economic.com.au/draft-report-submission

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