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Murray Murmurings: It’s no wonder rural people are angry

This is the first in a Rooted series from different interested parties — farmers, lobby groups, environmentalists, etc — discussing their reactions to the guide of the draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the community consultations surrounding it, called Murray Murmurings. If you’d like to contribute your thoughts, email ajamieson[at]crikey.com.au

Shepparton farmer David Furphy writes: It’s not surprising that farmers, business people and community members are scared and angry about the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s plan. Water is everything in these communities.

Along with around 600 others, I queued to get into a function room at a Shepparton pub to hear what the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) had to say about the 260 page “guide to the plan”. The mood was tense but social. There’s been many public meetings relating to irrigation in recent years. The crowd was a decent size, but not fiery like recent protests about the Plug the Pipe or later meetings at Deniliquin and Griffith.

The first to the microphone were local pollies and industry spokesmen, then over the next two hours the questions and the crowd responses got more vocal and emotional. Looking back, I don’t think there was a single person questioning the need for restoring the health of our river systems. There were some questions about whether the several hundred GL transferred to the environment in recent years are counted towards the 3000 GL (Answer: no, that’s history) and another about what the environmental objectives were (Answer: maintain current/recent ecological conditions, not pre 20th century levels).

All the others related to social and economic impacts on farmers, businesses and communities. Everyone knew, and let the presenters know they knew, the 800 job loss figure was a nonsense and an insult (including, it turns out, MDBA chair Mike Taylor). The most vocal scoffing was for Mary from the Department of Water, when she claimed they take responsibility for all the appropriate costs when they buy water from willing sellers on the open market. Also upsetting and prompting heckling from the the crowd was the frequent blame shifting and ducking of responsibility. Mike Taylor often claimed issues were outside the scope of the plan or the responsibility of some other organisation or government. If there’s one thing that rankles farmers and other business people, it’s arse-covering when a bit of courage and straight talking is needed.

But it’s not just the scale of the cuts that upset people (though that is certainly shocking), it’s the shock of how they’ve been presented. It’s the apparent lack of understanding and concern shown for what it will do to families, business and communities. A comment from one of the thousands of people at Griffith this morning sums it up.  ”It’s taken us 100 years to build this district and you give us 16 weeks for consultation, it’s a disgrace.”

Farmers are great innovators and it is amazing how so many have responded and survived the Millennium Drought, which has been at least as bad as the great Federation Drought. They’ve also survived and adjusted to the massive water policy changes of the last 20 years — water trading, privatisation, salinity plans, whole farm planning, unbundling of water from land titles, The Living Murray, Water for Rivers, Foodbowl Modernisation, the Sugarloaf Pipeline to Melbourne and much more. Farmers have changed crops and practices, invested in sophisticated irrigation technologies, built active Landcare groups, bought and sold water, and of course worked from dawn till dusk and beyond. Many have moved on to other pursuits. None of this positive work seems to be understood or acknowledged by some urban folk who see irrigators as evil pillagers of the land and rivers.

Now this plan hits like a train in a dark tunnel. Across the M-D basin they say at least 27% of water needs to be returned to the rivers. In some catchments, the proposals are for cuts of up to 45% on top of the changes already made. Imagine if Melbourne or Sydney residents were told “45% of all roads across the city are going to be closed, sorry” or “45% of phone traffic and electricity has to go… get over it!” No doubt there would be more than a little angst.

Maybe the rivers are completely stuffed and maybe irrigators are living on borrowed time. The guide to the proposed Basin Plan does not present much evidence of this. But they say that evidence does exist. I, and many farmers, understand water needs to go back to the rivers.

But the question is, who created the problem? Popular opinion seems to be that farmers just went out and started pumping water and growing their crops. That’s not how it happened. For over 100 years, governments have been building irrigation schemes and issuing water entitlement to farmers and saying “go forth and use this water to produce food and fibre from our sunburnt land and produce wealth for your family, your community and your nation.” And they did.

Now we’re told it was all a big mistake. If that’s the case, it is not fair to ask irrigators and local communities to bear all the pain. The governments who made the mistakes, and the nation (on who’s behalf they acted) need to understand that the cost of fixing this properly will be monumental.

It’s not good enough just to just say we’ll buy back the water from willing sellers. The notion of “willing sellers” is a deception. It implies a simple choice between current circumstances and a bag of money. In fact, all the risks and uncertainties about what the future holds must also be considered. If the proposed changes cast a shadow on the future viability of your business, industry, irrigation district or community, of course you will consider selling. But that doesn’t make you a “willing seller”.

Solving the Murray-Darling Basin’s problems by merely buying water from so-called willing sellers is a cop out. The decaying, unviable irrigation infrastructure left behind, the isolated farmers left without markets and processing industries, the declining communities with vanishing public services and the thousands of dying business are all part of the Murray-Darling Basin problem. It’s more than just restoring flow to the river. So far the government and many outside the Basin don’t seem to realise the scale and complexity of the problem that’s been created over the last 120 years.

It’s no wonder farmers, business people and community members across the Basin are scared and angry.

David Furphy is former small scale irrigator on the Broken River, who sold his water last year to the government as part of the plan to return Lake Mokoan to Winton Wetland. He is also a director of Hydrozone.

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  • 1
    lindsayb
    Posted October 15, 2010 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Well said!
    One thing that seems particularly unfair is that some (corporate/MIS type) irrigators have been essentially gifted huge volumes of water in recent times (Cubbie and the likes), but everyone across the basin, regardless of crop type, suitability of the land for irrigation, or how much you originally paid for your water right, is expected to make the same sacrifice.
    One potential positive I heard today was Tony Windsor talking about finding new water from a Snowy type scheme. If this could be done without causing the sort of environmental damage seen in the Snowy, it might be the cheapest and best solution.

  • 2
    Jackol
    Posted October 15, 2010 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I think that it is understood that there is anxiety in MDB communities about what this will all mean.

    That’s about all you’ve expressed here. As a city-slicker I get that rural people work very hard and have been remarkably innovative and adaptive in the face of many challenges over the years.

    What is disappointing is that you haven’t really suggested what YOU think should happen.

    It appears that everyone agrees that less water needs to be taken out of the MDB. (You made a veiled skeptic comment re: “maybe irrigators are living on borrowed time” “The guide to the proposed Basin Plan does not present much evidence of this. But they say that evidence does exist.” – how is this helpful?)

    But you agree less water needs to be taken out (“I, and many farmers, understand water needs to go back to the rivers”.) The MDBA has outlined what it has found to be the amounts that can make a difference. The various experts have said that the amounts proposed are the bare minimum to prevent an ecological collapse. If you have expert advice that this is not the case, feel free to share it.

    Given that we’ve got a clear (and agreed) need to take less water, and (currently) an uncontested amount, how exactly do you propose this be done? Or be done in a different way that still cuts the amount of water taken out but results in less anxiety for MDB water stakeholders?

    Everyone agrees that the basic problem was caused by state governments failing to do their job with respect to the overallocation of water entitlements historically. No one has suggested that fixing this will be solely the burden of rural water users. However, you scoff at the offer of payment as restitution; what exactly can government provide apart from payment? They can’t make water appear magically. They can provide services instead, but what services would be more useful than cash? (That’s not an entirely rhetorical question, if you think there is something other than cash that would be more useful/appropriate/appreciated, then now would appear to be the time to speak up about it.)

    You mention complaints as well about 100 years vs 16 weeks. Well, how long do you want consultation to drag on for? 4 months should be enough time for everyone’s viewpoints to be heard. Dragging out strong action for years simply prolongs whatever pain is going to be felt. Anxiety and fear of the future are best dealt with by actually making the necessary changes (with all due care of course), removing the uncertainty, dealing with the actual implications rather than the imagined fears.

    Mounting an emotive political campaign to oppose taking action is not helpful. In the current political environment it is entirely possible that you could force the government into doing nothing; the federal government is fragile and has shown itself to be of weak political will in the past. That would be to the detriment of everyone, including yourselves.

  • 3
    don g
    Posted October 15, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    In regard to Murray Darling, the absolutely “Big Picture” must be considered.

    Can the river sustain all the water drawn out of it? Yes. No. All emotion aside.

    Watching all the emotion on TV has been interesting. The Water Authority must have considered the long-term sustainable water-flows of the river, although there must be some room to move.

    Notwithstanding that, we city people have been changing our way of doing things significantly. Massive massive progress is being made in greening our commercial, retail buildings (water, heating, cooling, usage) etc. Surprisingly this has been missing in all the country debate so far as we see and watch our country folk state “we are the purveyors of the land, we know what is best”.

    I say really?

    Very interesting was a bloke on ABC Radio Brisbane recently from Israel (not that I support how they have usurped water from the overall geographical area). He was trying to pass on their significant knowledge of water management in a very dry part of the world. He gave up. He said dealing with Aussies is too hard. They will not listen.

    This might be a very strong message to our bush counterparts. What are you doing, what have you done to do your part? Hve you changed from growing the most water hungry crops in the world (cotton/rice) to crops or other farming that does not need so much water?

    And in closing, now when we have an abundance of water is the time to implement change. But do expect that everyone will have to make sacrifices …..

  • 4
    juobo
    Posted October 15, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    No-one doubts that the cuts will be devastating. To farmers, their families, their communities, and to a lesser extent the rest of the south and eastern main-land states.

    What I want to know is what these angry irigators are suggesting. Are they proposing that cuts be made to all communities except theirs? Or are the proposing no cuts and the rivers be damned?

    When I was in primary school in the late 1970s, we were taught that the Murray river was dying. This is not a new problem. Will the river system survive another 30 years of business as usual?

  • 5
    Robert Merkel
    Posted October 15, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    David,

    Firstly, if you and the irrigator communities didn’t see this coming, I dunno what planet you’ve been on.

    Secondly, Jackol nails it. If you accept that less water needs to be taken out of the river, what alternatives do you propose?

  • 6
    Mike Seabrook
    Posted October 15, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    the banks will be willing sellers /signers of the sale contracts for the water.

    more water for the murray would not require building a dam. – The water can be collected from the tasmanian poatina power station water outlet – piped under bass strait thence to lake eildon and the goulburn/murray rivers.

    have all the house builders/ rtenovators left the murray darling basin yet, but then there are many recently upgraded schools – wonder where the students to fill them will come from.

  • 7
    Don Matthews
    Posted October 15, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    If you live along the Murray, you know that rainfall is at all times lows,so are the figures being sugested from the original allocation ,ie high rainfall times ? If so then we have had at least 10 years experance in low allocation water use with population increases each year.If we go back to original allocations, callulate the % reduction in rainfall from that time, apply that % to allocations of both water and people, yes send them away, we will have solved the problem.

  • 8
    rosa
    Posted October 15, 2010 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Yup, it’s all the government’s fault and farmers have been providing their services on a humanitarian basis for the last 100 years (with no government assistance).

    I actually support the government providing money to help farmers adjust to the changes, but note that small businesses which go bust in the city (and the country) don’t receive that sort of help.

    Could someone explain why farmers are different. In the present situation, do they have a binding legal entitlement to water which necessitates a government pay-out?

  • 9
    Stressed Chef
    Posted October 15, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    The MDBA’s guide to a draft of a sketch of a concept of a plan does actually pre-respond to many of the criticisms that have been made of it. It firmly recognises the need for substantial transitional assistance to accompany water buybacks (though it leaves the detail of this, rightly, for others to decide). It acknowledges the limits of the economic modelling it has been able to do (if only everyone would follow suit with their own modelling!), and calls for more input and work. People are understandably worried, and there should indeed be plenty of debate and constructive input, but there’s no cause to worry that the MDBA wants to simply flush communities down the toilet (as Barnaby Joyce was describing it on the radio this morning). People should read the report, bureaucratese and all.

  • 10
    Posted October 15, 2010 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    It’s not true to say everyone agrees about this, everyone agrees about that. Obviously not everyone.

    David never said everyone should listen to him or farmers because they have the better solutions, he was just simply trying to paint an emotional picture straight from the people who maybe for several reasons struggle to express, or to communicate.

    I’m no expert, but it seems that everyone loves to make a jab at each other.

    Maybe they should ask themselves, do I actually know anything about the topic of my questioning? OR better still do I know anything about farming, before throwing punches at people who have already had people close to them commit suicide?

    These people, like city people, need to be heard.

  • 11
    CML
    Posted October 15, 2010 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that we have reached the point where the number one priority is saving the rivers. Otherwise there will be no farming – irrigated or otherwise. I agree with most of the posts here – what do these country people want? Obviously, someone else to take the pain. That seems to mean that someone from Shepparton (say), should not have any water reductions, while (maybe) Griffith in NSW, or Renmark in SA should take all the cuts. Of course the people in these latter areas reverse the above. David – you need to accept that all of you have to share the pain. Now that may mean water restrictions in the cities as well, and maybe higher food prices for all of us. So be it.
    I am also becoming increasingly annoyed by the “let’s blame the government” brigade. Burning reports and blocking up the street with tractors is childish. If that is the only contribution you country lot have to make, then the problem will remain. For heaven’s sake, it is about time we had some constructive suggestions!
    If you look at the history of the MDB irrigation rights system objectively, what you will find (certainly over the last 30-40 years), is that country people have been dudded by the very people they keep voting for – the Coalition, especially the Country/National Party. Therefore, it is a bit rich to now be demonising the Labor Government who are making an effort to correct decades of neglect. Why don’t you try working WITH the MDBA and the Govt to produce the best outcome possible?
    There has already been criticism today of the new enquiry/committee (Tony Windsor, chair) set up by the Govt to address the socio-economic issues arising from the MDBA draft consultation process. Since country people are all saying that there will be social and economic problems, surely this is needed?
    Finally, I agree that country people are very resourceful – I was born and raised on the Murray River in SA, but have lived in cities for a good part of my adult life – so where are the suggestions for alternative food production using less water? Or ideas about how to make your towns viable following other pursuits? At the moment, all we are hearing is doom and gloom. The last thing you need now is city dweller apathy/disinterest, but that is what you will get unless you start addressing the problem constructively.

  • 12
    Tony Kevin
    Posted October 15, 2010 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    a good essay and some good comments. i devoted a lot of attention in my climate policy book ”crunch time” [scribe, 2009] to the effects of climate change on the murray-darling basin, see pages 16, 123, 125,148,162,199,232, which pick up many of the isues identified here. if river flows are to be taken substantially away from irrigation-based human communities to restore ecological health to the river system, it cannot be left to the chance vagaries of market forces to decide who stays and who goes. it could be the big mechanised cotton and rice farms that stay and the small mixed farmers, orchardists ahd horticulturalists that go one by one. this is not a good social outcome. the australian community owes the irrigation communities a lot – we encouraged them to work hard to build these areas. and we are going to need their food in future as climate change and peak oil reshape our national food import and export patterns, as they must do.

    the present temporarily benign climate is no guide to the future policy environment. severe climate change must be factored in. against a background of the inevitable dessication through climate change of [most of the unirrigated] murray darling basin areas , especially in the south, the case for preserving the economic and social health of these irrigation communities will become stronger – not weaker. they should correctly be seen as becoming under climate change like oases in the arabian or sahara deserts. arab desert people cherish those oases and look after them – they do not walk away from them.

    there is a huge social capital and farming expertise invested in our irrigation communities. it is evil nonsense to suggest that market forces be used to encourage any of our irrigation farmers to walk away from it all. australia needs to sustain the people and social capital of these irrigation areas.

    in my book’s final chapter, i urged a series of solar and wind-powered snowy-type schemes along the eastwards- flowing rivers of eastern australia, to pump increasingly overabundant coastal rainfall due to climate change up to highland storages just over the dividing range . the advantage of doing this is that it will give enough water – for now – to sustain both the MDB natural ecologies andf the irrigation communuities. and it will be an insurance national water infrastructure for the time – maybe 20 years off – when the MDB will face severe average temperature increases and coastal region sealevels will start to rise fast, disrupting coastal communities and forcing migration inland. . we need to plan ahead and start to build that infrastructure now, while our nation can still afford it. meanwhile, the extra water can sustain the national asset of our present MDB irrigation communities.

    tony windsor MP, your questions about going outside the MDB for more water are on the right track. don’t let doctrinaire market economists mock you into silence. hang in there, and go on asking these questions and challenging market rationalist conventional wisdom.

  • 13
    political animal
    Posted October 15, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    The Burdekin River could be tapped.

    800metre long dam wall, 14m of water often flowing over it, do the math. Take care not to make whatever mistakes the Snowy Scheme made.

    If AGW makes the south drier and the north wetter then this allows the water to be sent down south where it can be used.

  • 14
    Don Matthews
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    NO – all we need to do is move all rice growing to the Burdekin, if thats not enough then move all the Golf Cources as well. What are we doing watering Golf Cources from a stressed river ???

  • 15
    political animal
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Yes, I suppose, cotton and rice could be moved to the Burdekin.

    In Adelaide water from a sewerage plant is used to water one golf course. two other sewerage plants send water to the Virginia market garden area and the Southern Vales wine area.

    But don}t forget the AGW aspects!

  • 16
    political animal
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    don’t

  • 17
    zoomster
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Mike Taylor often claimed issues were outside the scope of the plan or the responsibility of some other organisation or government. If there’s one thing that rankles farmers and other business people, it’s arse-covering when a bit of courage and straight talking is needed.

    And if Mike Taylor was correct, then he was showing courage and straight talking. Or do you want people to lie to you and pretend they can do things when they can’t?

    Farmers are great innovators and it is amazing how so many have responded and survived the Millennium Drought

    So they’ve weathered no water allocations at all, and overall water allocations of less than 30% of entitlement. The water cuts proposed are 30% – much less than those imposed by the drought.

    They’ve also survived and adjusted to the massive water policy changes of the last 20 years — water trading, privatisation, salinity plans, whole farm planning, unbundling of water from land titles, The Living Murray, Water for Rivers, Foodbowl Modernisation, the Sugarloaf Pipeline to Melbourne and much more.

    OMG, farmers can keep up with the times. We’re meant to be impressed?

    If they’ve coped with past water policy changes, why are they struggling with this one -one of the most anticipated?

    You fail to mention the billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money that has gone into delivering some of these policies. The cost to farmers of these adjustments have been minimal in this context.

    Imagine if Melbourne or Sydney residents were told “45% of all roads across the city are going to be closed, sorry”

    Or imagine that they were told they’d have to cope with 45% less water. Oh, what? They have been? And they managed?

    Roads and water are not analogies.

    If that’s the case, it is not fair to ask irrigators and local communities to bear all the pain. The governments who made the mistakes, and the nation (on who’s behalf they acted) need to understand that the cost of fixing this properly will be monumental.

    Well, I understood that it was the government – and thus the nation – which was footing the bill for fixing the problem.

    It’s ordinary taxpayers whose money is going to buy out the licenses. And it’s their money which is funding the consultations. Oh, and their money which is currently being spent on water infrastructure. Oh, and their money which, in the future, will be used to help regional areas adjust to the changes.

    So the government and the ordinary taxpayer are paying the costs of past poor decision making. So are farmers, of course, but nowhere near to the same extent.

    Solving the Murray-Darling Basin’s problems by merely buying water from so-called willing sellers is a cop out.

    So just as well no one is proposing this.

    As mentioned above, you don’t provide an alternative. To be returned to the system, the water has to come from somewhere. Infrastructure savings etc only go so far.

    So if you’re not buying it from people who want to sell it – whatever their motives – then where do you think it could come from?

    The decaying, unviable irrigation infrastructure left behind

    So let’s just ignore the billions of dollars being invested in irrigation infrastructure as we speak.

    the isolated farmers left without markets

    I beg your pardon?

    Why would having fewer farmers mean that finding markets for produce would be more difficult? Especially as we export 66% of our ag products anyway?

    One would anticipate that the ones left in the system once it all washes out will have more water security than they do at present. They will be able to ride out droughts more easily because of this. This will make them more viable, not less.

  • 18
    galeg
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    One simple statement. Unless any proposal is accepted by farmers and rural communities in QLD, NSW and Victoria, nothing will happen for maybe 10 years. It must be nearly 10 years since another Federal Government floated the idea of stripping water allotments, potentially closing rural communities.

  • 19
    fredex
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    I’m a granddad of pre-teens.
    Consequently I’ve watched “Finding Nemo” more than a dozen times.
    I love the image of the seagulls in that movie when they mindlessly chant “Mine! Mine! Mine!’ as anything they want floats past.
    They remind me of irrigators.

  • 20
    peach1
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    If you have a business and it hits the wall and you have to let go your employees who is going to help you?? No one. You have to pick yourself up and look for something else to make a living.

    The people in the MDB can’t carry on the way thing were going up to no or it will kill the river. most of them know that. So there will be a shake out.

    Those that rely very heavily on lots of water will have to find something else to do.
    Those who manage on less water will continue as before.

    It no different to living in the city and losing your job or your business.

  • 21
    david
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    David Furphy here I’m the author of this post. Firstly, I am grateful for the opportunity to put my views to readers of Rooted. There’s been a lot of heat and emotion this week. I hoped I could give some insight into why the reaction has been so strong. Like many, I cringed when I saw the vitriol and particularly the burning of books at Griffith. Please remember that TV thrives on and tends to magnify such images of conflict.

    For the record I do trust the scientists when they say there are really big ecological problems and that more water is needed in the rivers and that farmers can improve the irrigation practices. In fact I’m concerned that climate change has been underplayed in the report and the problem may be bigger than stated (in the southern basin).

    My hope (maybe naive) is that the debate will calm down and a respectful dialogue can flesh out solutions that are more than a crude compromise where everyone feels they are the loser. I certainly hope it doesn’t become a purely political fight with parties defending entrenched positions. That would certainly “end in tears”. Tony Windsor seems to have a wise head and might just be able to achieve and successful outcome.

    Several commenters correctly pointed out I proposed no solutions. Your right, I don’t know how this will be solved. Like many, I do have some ideas but that was not my aim with this post. But you’re right to expect solutions from the basin community not just complaints. I believe given the chance these will come. Many of the eventual solutions are in fact already out there.

    I heard Professor Chris Miller talking to Fran Kelly about engaging communities and building ownership of the problem and finding good solutions through engagement. He presented examples from fishing communities in Canada. He has done work with the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and I strongly recommend listening at http://bit.ly/brMbE5

    I think the Isreali bloke that don g mentioned is the CEO of Netafim. They are leaders in drip irrigation and I think they have a huge role to play in the future of the MD Basin. Many farmers are using drip irrigation (Netafim & others) successfully to grow crops as diverse as tomatoes, corn, lucerne and I think cotton. Nillumbik and Glen Ira councils in Melbourne have invested in several sports fields with drip irrigation. However, the capital and knowledge investment required is much higher and the uncertainty prevents many from adopting at this stage. Netafim have got a factory in Melbourne. I’d love to see enormous demand for their products driving investment in a big world class factory in my home town of Shepparton.

    I didn’t mean to present a “blame everything on the government “ opinion. My aim was to counter the “blame everything on the farmer” view that some have. Neither is helpful in solving the problem.

    My comment about Mike Taylor ducking responsibilities was a cheap shot. I’m sorry for that, he is showing considerable courage in continuing to front these hostile crowds. I do wish though that more had been done by government to anticipate the hostility in particularly by engaging the communities earlier in the process as Prof Chris Miller suggested.

    Zoomster, during the election campaign, prior to the Guide’s release and during this weeks meetings we kept hearing that the plan would be implemented by “buying from willing sellers” Yes, other things like infrastructure investment are underway but it was the constant references to buybacks which got people scared and angry.
    When I mentioned “farmers left without markets” Zoomster, I didn’t mean end users. Sorry about the ambiguity. I meant processing industries for difficult to transport products like milk, cotton, tomatoes. By the way I think these claims about threats to food security and rising food prices are nonsense. Global trade will continue to do its job no matter what happens in the MDB.

    Tony Kevin & Mike Seabrook I’m interested to read more about your ideas but I would say I’m very wary about big engineering solutions. I’d hate to see my grand children faced with similar dilemmas we are discussing today.

    I hope I haven’t used up my quota of goodwill with this long comment. Please keep the dialogue with Basin community members going.

  • 22
    Bob the builder
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    If you’d like some straight-talking and courage, how about: -
    If irrigators didn’t see this coming they were idiots. If they haven’t noticed their rivers and ecosystems dying they are idiots. If they think they are ‘entitled’ to water at a fraction of the cost of domestic users they’re idiots. If they think they can have open channels, above-canopy irrigation, any type of sprinkler irrigation at all, they’re idiots.
    The problem with the above is that whenever this type of ‘straight-talking’ appears, farmers and their union…sorry, ‘federation’, gets into a sulk, but still feel like it’s alright to knock ‘bureaucrats’, ‘pollies’, ‘city people’, etc. with impunity.
    I do have a lot of sympathy with small-scale irrigators (particularly the minority who use water with care), but we can’t keep using water like this. If we knocked out a few of the corporate players with their huge irrigated cotton, rice, etc. properties and very low employment rates, we could get a lot of the water back, lose few jobs and have a limited effect on rural communities. The bureaucrats might be full of shit, but some of the farmers are little better and would be better served by being constructive instead of obstructive. Using water wisely (most fruit could be grown on a fraction of the water with a relatively small drop in production), using water on fruit and other semi-intensive farming (which is relatively high-value in monetary and food terms, suitable for family farming and creates relatively high employment) and having farmers care for their country (as many do) including wildlife refuges is one way we could move forward positively with big, but not too destructive, change to the irrigation areas.
    Another thing we need to do is price food higher so that farmers can get a decent price for their labour and aren’t put in the position of choosing between their livelihood and the ‘environment’.
    Farmers – know your enemy(ies)! It’s not the ‘environment’, the thing that sustains your – and our – livelihoods. It’s the systems that keep you busting your guts and damaging your health for ever-diminishing returns and ever-less productive soil.

  • 23
    david
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Bob the Builder
    If you made your points in a less confrontational way I think you’d find most farmers agree with most of the suggestions you make

    On water prices, the reason prices are higher for city water are the higher costs of storing, treating and delivering clean reliable water to millions of households. Neither domestic or agricultural users pay much if anything for the water itself.

    I agree that food prices do not reflect all the costs to the environment including water problems and greenhouse gas emissions. If consumers could be convinced to pay more there might be a way forward. But we all saw the complaints when food and fuel prices were a bit higher back in 2007. There’s a lot of work to be done on this front.

  • 24
    david
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    And there’s also the problem of competing with imports from countries that have worse environmental protection than Australia. Probably a solvable problem, but not easy.

  • 25
    fredex
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    Yep its no wonder that rural people are angry.

    So much self serving spin sprouted by the greedy irrigator lobby generally swallowed and regurgitated by the media for decades resulting in blame being directed at the poor dumb cowardly tame pollies and the innocent city folk expected to keep subsidising a fundamentally inefficient wasteful industry that is so stupid it can’t even see what is good for itself in the medium term [like next year maybe] and won’t even think about the long term.

    Meanwhile the river is going to continue to degrade in the future [unless the bleating of the irrigator lobby is ignored and I very much doubt that will happen] and non-irrigator businesses and people and communities along the river are suffering because the irrigator lobby are stealing their water and to hell with anything or anyone else.

    It makes me, a rural living irrigator, very angry and depressed.

    And I’m not alone but sadly in a small minority and our concerns are drowned by the noise of those holding the country to ransom.
    Quite literally holding the country to ransom ….still.

  • 26
    Bob the builder
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    David,
    I deliberately expressed my “points” in a confrontational way to make the point that so-called “straight talk” goes both ways, and if you say you’re not getting it, don’t whinge when you do get it; and, to (attempt) to make the point that a lot of the rhetoric that is getting airplay (and may or may not represent the views of most irrigators) is extremely confrontational. I don’t think rural and remote people (and I am one of ‘them’) get a fair go much of the time and I understand food producers’ pride in what they do and anger at their devaluation, but many/most (thank you fredex) are looking at the wrong targets for their anger as well as being pig-headed about their current practices.
    Monoculture food production is an inefficient fantasy based on the myth of cheap oil and water. Both of those things are or will soon be in very short supply and the most inefficient food production system in human history will collapse, regardless of the evil bureaucrats. Change is long overdue and is better made actively than reactively.

  • 27
    zoomster
    Posted October 17, 2010 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    David

    I’m up river from you.

    To me, there are some simple solutions. I recognise they’re not simple for farming communities, because they mean adjustment. And yes, some towns which rely on present farming practices will ‘die’ but recognise – this has always been part of the Australian rural experience (I can show you plenty of towns on maps which don’t exist any more).

    There’s a lot of myths out there which are part of this discussion and which farming communities are promoting because it suits their agenda.

    One is that farming and farmers are fixed enterprises which can’t be moved.

    Thirty years ago, places such as the Ovens and Kiewa valleys, the Yarra Valley etc – areas close to where the water is produced, and thus high rainfall, low irrigation – were home to thriving dairy industries.

    Those dairy industries are now centered on the Goulburn valley, on irrigated pastures. Even during the drought, dairy farmers in the naturally high rainfall areas couldn’t compete with dairy farmers on irrigated land. I’m not sure that there’s a single dairy farm left in the valleys I mention (sorry, correction; there are still a couple in the Kiewa).

    Our dairy industry has shifted from country which requires little irrigation to that which requires high irrigation.

    The same argument can be made for orchardists. My home orchard hasn’t been watered for at least ten years. The trees have survived (and even produced good crops). I know of other commercial tree crops locally which are never watered (admit they would be more productive if they were, but the point is they’re surviving).

    The same can’t be said for irrigation areas, where the same kinds of trees have been ripped out, because they can’t survive without annual irrigation.

    We can continue these industries, they can be just as productive, but to do that we’d need to move them back up river.

    I know that would lead to uprooting of families and losses to small communities, but that’s nothing new. As I said to begin with, I saw with my own eyes families shifting out of the Yarra Valley to areas such as Shepp for dairying. Similarly, our area saw a big exodus of farmers and farm workers only a decade or so ago.

    Farmers shifting where they farm because of changing circumstances is as old as Australian settlement. Farming communities dying because of this is also (lots of towns on maps which no longer exist).

  • 28
    fredex
    Posted October 17, 2010 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    http://davidhortonsblog.com/
    I think it is relevant to draw attention to David Horton’s post, “Start here”, on this topic.

  • 29
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    DAVID FURPHY:” “”Shepparton farmer David Furphy writes: It’s not surprising that farmers, business people and community members are scared and angry about the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s plan. Water is everything in these communities.”"”

    Really? If water is everything to the rurals why do they treat it with contempt? Australian farmers are prodigiously wasteful with it. Perhaps you could take a trip to the Middle East to find out how to use water properly? In Iran and Syria you could look at barren looking fields yielding crops and wonder where the water is? The answer is not confined to oases.

    For hundreds of years the farmers have been building underground tunnels in order to divert rivers and streams through them. Guess what DAVID FURPHY? By using this system there is no evaporation.

    Please don’t take refuge in the tired old excuse of Australia being such a big country, too big to use water the way Iran does. Really? Yes. Iran is a big country too. It would be no good going to I”s”r”a”e”l it would only depress you. Certainly they have some of the best dry farming in the world and they specifically got hold of Australian farmers to advise them how to do it. Years later the Australian farmer has lost all that knowledge and instead uses what little energy is available to mount a continual blame campaign against the city dwellers.

    As a matter of interest I would like to know how Cubbie Station was allowed to get so much water at obscene give away prices? Cubbie Station has knackered the farmers in the area. Why, oh why wasn’t there a huge protest by them? Couldn’t be bothered?

    If people in the big cities were to run their businesses the way the farmers rape the land, there would be mass bankruptcies. There would be no government help either.

    The rurals have all sorts of help from the taxpayer. All sorts of subsidies and they have a huge Lobby group which does what? It goes into top gear at the mere thought of drought/flood/locusts/frost/hail/fire. What recourse to the taxpayer do the city dwellers have to draw on? B U G G G E R all, David. Bugger all.

    And when the endless rapacity and money-gouging farmers actually succeed in destroying the MDB, the rurals will probably whinge ever louder in order to get some giant and hideously expensive plan off and running. The rurals have learnt nothing!

  • 30
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    DAVID FURPHY: PS: Some people claim the farmers knew nothing about the construction of Cubbie Station. Very interesting. They saw no bull-dozers passing along the road, heard no noises of concrete mixers, no people installing fences and alarms, no tree felling, no speeches from pollies telling the farmers how lucky they were to be getting this huge Station, no sound of politicians pocketing payola, no building construction, no one in the nearest township noticed real estate agents looking prosperous. No nothing?

    And my name is Lady Godiva!

  • 31
    david
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Venice Alstergreen, the hostility that you show to the “rapacious and money gouging farmers” is astonishing. I get that there are problems and that things have to change, but to say things like rurals “treat water with contempt” and have “learnt nothing” shows an ignorance of the Murray Darling Basin communities and a huge lack of empathy for your fellow humans. Even if what you say were true, what about the hairdressers, teachers and plumbers in these communities? Do they not deserve some compassion?

    I’ve not travelled to the places you mention but I do know that some of the places you hold up as examples contain their own ongoing water related environmental disasters. The fact that our rivers flow entirely within our national boundary gives us both a responsibility and decent chance of avoiding the worst calamities.

    Technologies such as piping and lining of supply channels and sub-surface drip irrigation are certainly important. Adoptions of these and many other ideas like distributed networks of soil moisture monitoring instruments has been happening – perhaps too slowly. Ways need to be found of getting a return on the large costs that they involve.

    I know little about Cubbie Station other than it has truly enormous water storages and can produce a huge amount of food and fibre. In any case, “fixing” Cubbie Station will do relatively little to fix the environmental, social and economic problems in the other valleys of the MD Basin.

  • 32
    david
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Zoomster, your absolutely right that farmers, farm enterprises and whole industries can and do move. There are many dairy farmers now in the Goulburn Valley who grew up and began their farming careers in Yarra & Kiewa Valleys, Gippsland, New Zealand, Europe other places. I also know there are dairy farmers who have moved their family and enterprise to Mount Gambier where the climate is cooler, and underground water appears to be plentiful. I imagine climate change may lead to much more of this adjustment in the future.

    To some extent it is the geographic changes that make adjustment in rural areas that bit more difficult than in the cities.

    The changes proposed in the plan are enormous in some areas. With some support and compassion the risk of human suffering, social upheaval and economic waste might be minimised.

  • 33
    fredex
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Whoa David, slow down a bit.

    You have jumped too quickly on Venise with this, among other pseudo-points you spin:

    “Even if what you say were true, what about the hairdressers, teachers and plumbers in these communities? Do they not deserve some compassion?”

    Of course such people deserve compassion and more than the irrigation lobby gives them in fact.
    And it is precisely these people, and their city cousins, that are missing out in the noise that emanates from the irrigation lobby.

    In my comments above I tried to include persons other than irrigators in the debate.
    I wrote [and you appeared to have missed]:
    ” … and non-irrigator businesses and people and communities along the river are suffering because the irrigator lobby are stealing their water and to hell with anything or anyone else.”

    In my small section, my local area of the Murray I know several business that are directly suffering because the irrigators have been taking all available water for years.

    I know several people whose retail sales are down because of reduced tourism because recreational fishing and other activities have suffered because water has disappeared into irrigation pipes.
    The houseboat industry, tourist accommadation, retail sales are all suffering, money being lost, values down, jobs lost.

    I can name people and businesses that have suffered thanks directly to the overallocation of water to the irrigation lobby, an entire town of several thousand people whose economic activity has suffered because the irrigation lobby has grabbed all available water and, to repeat, “to hell with anything or anyone else.”

    You can’t advocate giving all [in a sustainable sense] water to one sector of the population without necessarily taking from others.
    Including the river among ‘others’.

  • 34
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    DAVID FURPHY: “”I’ve not travelled to the places you mention but I do know that some of the places you hold up as examples contain their own ongoing water related environmental disasters. “”

    And this is an excuse for Australian farmers to have knackered the Murray and the Darling rivers; and the MDB???

    “”what about the hairdressers, teachers and plumbers in these communities? Do they not deserve some compassion?”"

    Thus far your lot has done nothing for these people but because you are having a heated discussion you suddenly find it convenient to bring them into the issue.

    “”The fact that our rivers flow entirely within our national boundary gives us both a responsibility and decent chance of avoiding the worst calamities.”"

    Interesting. It is my opinion the MDB calamity has been caused by the unfortunate fact
    that three states share the boundary. State governments are notoriously venal and corrupt. How much money has been trousered by these paragons of vice? The Victorian premier, John Brumby, is a vicious little bully. At the last meeting of the three states concerned; held under the aegis of the Federal government when Kevin Rudd was PM, Brumby came back gloating about how he had managed to bugger the talks and get loads of money out of the Federal government. BTW: John Brumby is a farmer!

    “”Ways need to be found of getting a return on the large costs that they involve.”" Indeed but by now the rurals should have discovered these ways. This is the twenty-first century-is it not?

    “”I know little about Cubbie Station other than it has truly enormous water storages and can produce a huge amount of food and fibre. “”

    Doesn’t it occur to you that you should bloody well know something about it?

    “”In any case, “fixing” Cubbie Station will do relatively little to fix the environmental, social and economic problems in the other valleys of the MD Basin.”" I venture to suggest that Cubbie Station is merely the ultimate extension of the Australian farmers terminal greed, stupidity and lack of interest in the future.

    You might ask yourself, and your fellow farmers..Why have we been able to get away with raping and degrading everything about the land? To which I would reply “Because the governments of whatever political persuasion have all allowed you to do it.” And, now the proverbial stable door had almost slammed shut you are busy seeking a horse
    of legendary power and beauty. But only if the taxpayer will fork out more billions of dollars to find it.

  • 35
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    FREDEX: Thanks for helping out. :) ;)

    Cheers

    Venise

  • 36
    david
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    “heated discussion” ?
    Obviously Venise, your idea of a discussion is quite different to mine

  • 37
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    DAVID: “”“heated discussion” ?
    Obviously Venise, your idea of a discussion is quite different to mine”"

    VENISE: So?

    It is ironic that the subject matter of the death throes of the Murray/Darling rivers should appear under the by-line R O O T E D. N’est ce pas?

  • 38
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    David, your comments have been enlightening. I will just take issue with this point, as others have. You write of one comment from a farmer ”It’s taken us 100 years to build this district and you give us 16 weeks for consultation, it’s a disgrace.”

    If they haven’t had 40 years to prepare for this, I’m a monkey’s uncle. As others mentioned, us poor city slickers learned about this at school decades ago. How many years have the farmers had to address this problem, as a group?

    16 weeks for consultation. Well, if these people read the letters to the editor, they would see that ‘the uncertainty is killing the farmers’ so taking any longer would just prolong the agony. If the MDBA consult they are criticised, if they don’t consult, they are criticised. At the back of it all, the people who were in the middle of it all, the farmers, either must have or should have known this was happening, and as a group they did nothing at all about it.

    City slickers like me do wonder how it is that we pay exorbitant rates for water that the parched lands on the other side of the ranges get for a pittance. Yeah, we are confused.

    We wonder why a dairy farm would be set up on irrigated pasture when dairy farms, as a rule, should all be on this side of the range, naturally watered, not irrigated. Using irrigated water for dairy makes cotton and rice look like a great use of water How the hell did this happen? It is a mystery wrapped in an enigma inside a riddle for us. Surely no farmer would be so stupid to do that, and surely no government would promote it, but it happened, and the city slicker can’t be blamed for this one. How could farmers have gone into that with their eyes open?

    I listened to some of the crowd input to some of those regional meetings, and quite frankly, many of those who spoke disgraced themselves with their anger, their lack of solutions and their lack of personal insight that they were somehow part of this debacle. They bullied an abused those who came with intemperate remarks and personal insults and were roundly applauded by the masses.

    I’m sure that most farmers aren’t that tragically myopic. At least, I hope.

  • 39
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    “Imagine if Melbourne or Sydney residents were told “45% of all roads across the city are going to be closed, sorry” or “45% of phone traffic and electricity has to go… get over it!” No doubt there would be more than a little angst.”

    As pointed out by others, this is just specious. Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane wholeheartedly agreed to significant water restrictions over the last decade. Roads and electricity have nothing to do with it. Besides, nobody has told the farmers to get over it. Government’s all over the land have been throwing money at this and related problems (drought assistance) all my life. They are still throwing money at it. Suggesting that anyone has said ‘get over it’ is inflammatory rhetoric. All we see is money going to farmers and no progress at all on the problems the money is supposed to address. Bloody hell!!!!!!!!!!!

    What we are largely talking about here is changing the land use, not getting people off the farms. Farmers should be able to stay there with minimal water, just not dairy farmers, or cotton grower or rice farmers. If one farmer sells up and leaves, the land will be available still, just not for profligate water use.

    Why does a city slciker have to tell a farmer that?

  • 40
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    DOG’S BREAKFAST: God you make some excellent points.

    Imagine that all the nation’s News Agencies were hit by a calamity of their own making and they hit the proverbial wall. Would they get subsidies under the government’s special News Agency Helpline? Be buggered.

    Some newsagents would commit suicide, others would give up all interest in life. Some would spend years looking for jobs. Should they, in turn, blame their customers? And throw things at meetings, and carry on like teenage hoons? Or should they get together and discover why they were unable to pull through a national disaster?

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