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Oct 15, 2010

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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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