View from above tells the water story

By Geoff Adams

It was once a joy to fly over the Murray Valley and admire the patchwork of green, blue and brown, but in March 2020 there are some worrying reminders in the agricultural "quilt".

It's not so much what you can see but what you can't see.

I was staring down from about 1000 feet and trying to work out what this large, straight "fence" was doing in the middle of a paddock near Cohuna.

It wasn't a fence at all, but an inactive centre pivot.

Normally the Murray Valley and Goulburn Valley aerial patchwork included round circles of green, signifying plots of summer grown sorghum or maize.

Not many of them on this trip.

Behind me, seated in the twin-engined plane, was Victorian Senator Bridget McKenzie and Pyramid Hill farmer Chris Harrison.

Behind them, in the National Party-hired plane, was Victorian shadow water minister and State Member for Euroa Steph Ryan.

Mr Harrison and the pilot, Nigel, were helping us get our bearings as we peered down into the very green Murray River and looked across the Millewa and Barmah forests and Gunbower National Park running beside the river.

The contrast between the green forest and the surrounding farmland was stark.

In the Cohuna area, once home to hundreds of dairy farms, there were a few green patches.

Mr Harrison points out that the water held by Torumbarry zone irrigation farmers, has shrunk by almost half.

Irrigators below the Barmah Choke are competing with big farm developers downstream for water that has become more scarce as transfers to the environment continue.

Mr Harrison said the disturbing aspect of the basin plan was that while the transfer of water to the environment was causing pain for rural communities the plan was also causing damage to the environment.

“It's failing on so many levels,” he said.

“We're seeing the Murray River at the Barmah Choke, working to over capacity, which is having environemntal consequences.

“Chris Norman (the former chief executive of the Goulburn Broken CMA) has talked about the impact on the Moira grasslands.”

Ms Ryan said at the confluence of the Edwards and the Murray Rivers, stands of dying trees could be seen from the air.

“It emphasises the impact that regular flooding out of season is having on an iconic site that the basin plan was supposed to improve,” Ms Ryan said.

“It reinforces to me the reason for the MDBA to be split. It's role as the implementer of the Murray Darling Basin Plan does not sit with its role in compliance.

“The Productivity Commission pointed out that the MDBA was marking its own homework.”

Ms Ryan said she was intending to return to the forest and Barmah choke area to get a closer look at the environmental damage.

“My concern is that the promises of the basin plan are not being met and certain sites are being traded off against the health of others.

“We need to ask ourselves whether the Goulburn or Barmah are being compromised for the health of the Coorong. What makes those sites lesser than the Coorong?”

Senator McKenzie said the contrast between the flooded forest and the empty, dry and dusty paddocks was stark and pointed to the impact on rural communities.

“We are looking at the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the roll-out of the plan,” Senator McKenzie said.