Basin plan meetings cause tension

By Alana Christensen

We are not being heard.

That was the message delivered by irrigators, councillors, dairy farmers and locals as three meetings about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan were held in just two days across the region.

Tension was apparent at the meetings, with individuals frustrated at continually delivering the same message at seemingly endless meetings.

The Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources was again holding meetings regarding the neutrality test for the 450Gl of ‘up-water’, visiting the towns of Swan Hill and Rochester.

Meanwhile, the Murray River Group of Councils attended a meeting in Echuca about the basin plan.

The meetings in Rochester and Swan Hill came after Federal Water Minister David Littleproud demanded his department return to regions after an earlier round of meetings were plagued by complaints of a lack of notice and information.

More than 260 people have attended six meetings at Shepparton, Echuca, Swan Hill, Rochester, Deniliquin and Kerang in recent weeks, as work to establish a test to determine the socio-economic impact of further water recovery and water efficiency projects continues.

At the Rochester meeting held on Friday the message was clear — no more water can be recovered from the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District without putting the future viability of the region at greater risk.

‘‘What we’re dealing with is a shrinking pool of consumptive water in the GMID that we have to live on now,’’ Tallygaroopna dairy farmer Natalie Akers said.

‘‘The angst around the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is much greater than just (the 450Gl),’’ Mrs Akers said.

‘‘We are hearing this continuous rhetoric about how we have to deliver the plan in full ... well, I don’t think the intention of the plan was to destroy irrigation communities.’’

Several irrigators echoed Mrs Akers’ concerns, with a number airing their frustrations about continually having the same arguments to no avail.

Kim McGillivray, who runs an organic dairy farm at Patho (south-west of Torrumbarry) with her husband Henry, said the outcome of the basin plan had the potential to affect the future of the entire industry.

‘‘If there’s no future for water there’s no industry,’’ Ms McGillivray said.

‘‘Even on a good year the water is just not there, it’s quite depressing. You’d rather just pack up shop and go when you’re still young enough to do something else.’’

VFF Water Council chair Richard Anderson questioned what was to stop other states from undertaking water efficiency projects under the plan to achieve the 450Gl, only to later purchase water from the Victorian water market when their irrigation needs increased.

Without work undertaken to raise constraints, Mr Anderson said much of the water recovered for environmental use could not even be sent down the river without flooding over the banks.

‘‘How do we stop bleeding water out of the GMID?’’ he said.

Conducted by the Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources and consultancy group Sefton and Associates, the public meetings are seeking community and industry views on potential additional assessment criteria for on-farm water efficiency projects to ensure they produce neutral or positive social and economic outcomes.

Councils say 'hands off'

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was the top of the agenda in Echuca last week as 13 councils, two regional peak bodies and the Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources met to discuss the plan.

Covering 20 local government areas and representing 483224 people across northern Victoria and southern NSW, council representatives from as far afield as Griffith were in attendance.

Murray River Group of Councils executive officer Geoff Turner said he came away from the meeting as positive as he could be.

The MRGC delivered a strong message — our communities are clear any additional water recovery from the consumptive pool will have negative impacts on our region.

‘‘There was a lot of cynicism in the room but it was encouraging that everyone from a local government perspective was on the same page — keep your hands off the 450Gl,’’ Mr Turner said.

They said the community’s resilience and ability to adapt had been reduced by years of water reform and any further water recovery through on-farm projects risked pushing industry in the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District to collapse, in particular dairy and its ability to produce food staples relied upon by millions.

The councils were firm in their opinion that any future water recovery must be strategic and that no water should be recovered unless it was aligned with the easing of constraints to ensure water could be delivered to the Lower Lakes and the Murray mouth in South Australia.

Mr Turner said he had grave concerns the Federal Government would push on ahead with the recovery of the 450Gl.

‘‘The MRGC has worked with and advocated for our northern Victorian irrigation communities on water and the basin plan for 12 years,’’ he said.

‘‘We support the plan as the best way to balance competing needs for water in our region, but we note the way it is implemented can mitigate or magnify the negative impacts on our communities.’’