Monday, 18 October 2010
On Friday, 15 October I attended the two public consultation sessions held by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in Renmark seeking community feedback on the authority’s guide to the Basin Plan. Several hundred people attended each of the sessions and whilst their anger was restrained their genuine concerns about the possible cuts to their water allocations were clearly evident. The authority’s guide suggests reductions of between 26 and 35 per cent to South Australia’s River Murray water allocation. That equates to a reduction of water extracted from the Murray by South Australia of between 175 and 235 gigalitres each year. Seventy-five per cent of South Australia’s Murray water allocation is used by primary producers—mostly in South Australia’s Riverland region. In 2008-09 their produce was worth $390 million. I also note that South Australia only takes about seven per cent of the Murray-Darling Basin water, with New South Wales taking 54 per cent, Victoria 34 per cent and Queensland five per cent.
I believe that the South Australian Riverland community raised some legitimate concerns about the proposed water reductions in the guide, concerns which explain and justify their anger and frustration. I take this opportunity to highlight two particular concerns raised on the day. Firstly, for the past 50 years Riverland growers have been investing their own money in efficient irrigation systems, and their opportunities to be more efficient are now very limited. Their draw on the federal government’s $5.8 billion set aside for water efficiency measures will be negligible. Nor can they make up the cuts to their water supplies by further efficiency investments. Secondly, since the late 1960s no new River Murray water licences have been made available to growers in South Australia because South Australia capped the issuing of licences. It was the first state to do so.
Overallocations of water from the river by the issuing of new licences occurred in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s in the upstream states while South Australia was maintaining a cap. The cap had been imposed to ensure that water extractions in South Australia were sustainable into the future. Not having caused or been responsible for overallocation, the South Australian Riverland growers now quite rightfully ask why they should share the pain of returning the river to sustainable diversion limits. It is not an unreasonable position to take.
The South Australian Riverland region is Australia’s oldest horticultural region. It is unique in that many of the growers have relatively small farm sizes which are intensively farmed and reliant on their full water allocations. Because of international competition, climate factors and water restrictions over the last decade, many growers have endured difficult times and are struggling. Any further impediments to their viability will bring many of them to their knees.
I well understand that the Murray-Darling Basin waters have been overallocated and that current allocations are unsustainable. I understand and accept that based on the best possible weather forecasts allocations will need to be cut if the river’s health is to be restored and extractions are to be sustainable in future years. I also understand that it is important to all Australians, wherever they live, for the river system to remain healthy.
I am conscious, however, of the economic and social impact on regional Murray-Darling Basin communities if water allocations are cut. That is why it is important to work through the process methodically, rationally and free of populist political point taking. The government has invested heavily in a range of strategies to reduce water extraction from the Murray-Darling Basin area. I believe that water savings made through these measures should be assessed first and taken into account before any cuts are made to the allocations to growers.
In the case of South Australia’s Riverland region, I believe that due allowance should be made for the water efficiency investments already made by growers in that region and for the fact that South Australia has operated under and respected the licence cap imposed in the late 1960s. I believe that it is possible, with the right strategies, to restore the environmental flows that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority believes are necessary with minimal impact on the Riverland growers, and I ask the minister to take into account the special circumstances of the Riverland community when considering the government’s response on this matter.
I was most encouraged by the minister’s response to questions on this issue asked of him today in question time. I also welcome the parliamentary committee inquiry, chaired by the member for New England, into the impact of water cuts on communities in the Murray-Darling Basin. I look forward to the committee’s report.