Doomed Planet

From food bowl to dust bowl


Casual observers of the present water situation in the Murray-Darling Basin would rationally assume that irrigators would have access to large amounts of water for the coming summer cropping season. They are tragically wrong.


To use an Australian idiom "the drought has broken, the frogs are croaking," the dams are spilling and rivers are flooding. Both snow pack and inflows are at twenty- five year highs and storages in the Murray-Murrumbidgee are holding over twelve million megalitres of water. Add to this the timely coincidence that farmers, in spite of the high Aussie dollar, have the best terms of trade in a lifetime, because the world desperately needs our food and fibre.

Surely then we should be looking at record summer crop production and flow-on jobs as communities across the  Murray-Darling Basin recover from the recent drought. Irrationally this will not be the case and worryingly this is why.

Because of the unavailability of water due to the long drought this year’s autumn harvest was in most cases the first crop and first income in several years for annual crop irrigators across the  Murray-Darling Basin.

During the drought years irrigators were still obliged to pay to the State (NSW) $19 per megalitre “Fixed Asset Charge” for their entire license entitlements even though the State could not supply water.

Farmers were paying the State for a service (supply of water) that the State could not deliver.

Then, when the drought broke and farmers happily watched the huge water flows fill the lakes, billabongs and importantly the dams, irrigation farmers looked forward to several years of maximum plantings and a chance to recover from years of negative cash flow caused by the drought and State bureaucratic greed.

Business communities were hopefully anticipating improved trading conditions as a result of the bountiful availability of the lifeblood of the  Murray-Darling Basin – water.

These expectations were bolstered in March when the NSW Office of Water released a “Water Management and Outlook for 2011/12.” This document advised that in both the Murrumbidgee Valley and Murray-Goulbourn Valleys, irrigators could reasonably expect one hundred percent of their license entitlements.

Finally irrigators would not be paying the State for a business input (water) that they were not receiving and both farmers and Basin communities were relieved that productivity and incomes would return to more normal times.

However a shock was in store, delivered by the same bureaucracy that had made the positive prediction and whose job it is to manage this vital renewable resource.

On 1 July, the NSW Office of Water released the “Commencing allocations for the Murray Valley and lower Darling and the Murrumbidgee Valley.” For general security irrigators (i.e. annual croppers of rice, corn, cotton, vegetables and livestock pasture,) the opening allocations for the Murrumbidgee Valley was 44%. For the Murray Valley an inexplicable zero percent.

In an announcement released last week the general security license holders in the Murray Valley have been increased to 10% and in the Murrumbidgee valley to 53%.

Remembering this is only four to six weeks from planting.

NSW Water Commissioner, David Harris, in this news release tried to justify this baffling decision by explaining that irrigators have carry-over water held in the dams and this is added to an unquantified volume of “environmental water,” which means there is no room for irrigation water. Carry-over water is allocated water from the previous year that irrigators did not use. So it is important that we look at why there was so much of the previous year’s water carried over.

At planting time last year (from September to end of November 2010), although the dams were over the spillways and the rivers in flood the general security allocations in the two valleys was around 60%. The NSW Office of Water did not announce allocations of 100% until December 15, 2010. A date when it was far too late to plan for and plant summer crops.

Hence the carry-over water, because irrigated crop production costs are huge and growers cannot afford to gamble on the whim of bureaucrats that extra water may be available later in the growing season.

In the case of rice growers the annual costs of producing a hectare of rice is over $1600.00 of which the cost of water is around 26%.

The facts are that at the end of several years of drought when annual irrigation croppers have had no water, no crops, no income, but have been paying the State for a service they have not received and Basin communities have been barely surviving, a bloated green bureaucracy has managed to minimise production, lower State income and destroy confidence across the food bowl of Australia, for two of what should have been maximum production recovery years.

While growers were denied water they desperately needed to grow food and maintain their families the dams were full and since October last year fifteen Burrinjuck dams full of water has run into the sea in South Australia, with no environmental advantage just to satisfy green ideology.

Who is liable for this bureaucratic nonsense?

It seems a classic case of everyone blaming some other person or body for the multi layered bureaucratic rules that now make practical management of water in the national and State interest impossible. The irrational result of this maladministration is best demonstrated by looking at what has happened to the Riverina rice industry based at Leeton.

In a normal water supply year the industry can produce around 1.3 million tones of paddy rice which is all processed ready for human consumption by Ricegrowers Ltd. in regional communities and directly employs over one thousand people to keep the mills working and deliver this product across the world.

Unavailability of water in the years from 2007 to 2010 saw average production drop to 110,000 tonnes of paddy annually with a big drop in employment.

Because of the failure of the NSW Office of Water to manage and supply available water in a timely manner last growing season, growers were only able to produce 800,000 tonnes of paddy, so the Coleambally Mill is still in mothballs and the 70 people who worked there are still out of work along with many others.

(Photo: Coleambally Mill in caretaker mode)

This is just one industry in the  Murray-Darling Basin that was brought to its knees by nature’s drought and is now being kept on its knees by a bureaucratic administration answerable to environmentalists and not the people who pay for the water even when it cannot be supplied.

We are flooding and drowning both the environment and our common sense and unless changes are made to this maladministration it will result in further job losses, declining regional communities and food shortages.

Ron Pike is a retired third generation irrigation farmer from the Murrumbidgee valley and now an advisor on water conservation to the Coalition Dams and Water Management Task Group.

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