Simon O’Connor, the Australian Conservation Foundation’s economic adviser, writes:

By pure co-incidence I delivered a lecture on the importance of including environmental values into our economic accounts at La Trobe University’s Mildura campus on the very day the Murray-Darling Basin Authority held its public consultation in Mildura.

My recent analysis has examined the value of wetlands to the rural economy of the Basin, in particular the value of the services provided for free to surrounding communities by a healthy wetland – water storage and filtration, flood control and habitat for pollinators and insect predators.

I planned to use this work as the illustrative example in my public lecture, highlighting that without recognising these very real economic benefits that come from healthy rivers and wetlands, we will continue to make poor economic decisions that destroy our environment and erode the very environmental assets that underpin our economy.

For a startling example of this we only need to look at the recent $150 billion cost to the US economy that came from the loss of bee colonies that resulted in massive losses in fruit and nut production and the need to import bees to replace those that had been naturally occurring.

Arriving in Mildura, it was immediately clear almost everyone in the area is in some way related to a “blockie” – the small to medium sized irrigators that grow the wine and table grapes and dried fruit the region is famous for.

I realised my analysis and conviction that the river was dying from overuse of water and as a result we must find water to put back into the river system, meaning taking water back from the very people dependant on this water for their livelihoods, was to be tested.

So what did I find? Many of these family farmers have had it tough for years, knocked around by the drought, commodity prices dropping, exchange rates increasing and the whims of consumer tastes. (One blockie I met had planted shiraz grapes first in 1967, before ripping them out and replanting numerous times over 40 years due to the whims of wine drinking trends – can you imagine the value of 40-year-old shiraz vines now?)

So change is nothing new to these irrigators. They rely on their adaptive capabilities to weather the literal and figurative storms of farming in this tough country. The last decade has shown just how adaptive Australian farmers are, with the value of farm output across the Basin only barely dropping during a decade-long drought and employment continuing to increase in places like Mildura despite massive reductions in water allocations.

It’s no surprise to farmers that they are dynamic and will adapt, changing farming techniques, investing in water efficient irrigation systems, choosing better adapted crop species that use less water and so on. And adapt they will, given half a chance and some certainty on what level of change is needed.  But currently certainty doesn’t exist.

I didn’t meet a single person who did not agree that the river is dying and needs more water. The question of how we go about this change is what remains in dispute.

The blockies in Mildura that I spoke to aren’t ruthless profit-maximising farmers, ripping the guts out of the land. They are all deeply concerned and fearful for the future of their community and, most particularly, about whether their children and grandchildren will be able to remain in this region that they love.

What I realised is that the national debate about the future of the Murray-Darling has failed to focus on what is important. It has failed to address the question – how do we deliver a transition that gives water back to the Murray-Darling at a level that not only slows its decline but improves its health, while looking after the communities that rely on the river. To go through this reform, and deliver enough water that only draws out the death of the river system does justice to no one – not the birds, not the trees, not the fish, not the blockies.

Unfortunately, the industry bodies meant to be representing the blockies are doing them a disservice.

The powerful irrigation lobby groups are currently doing nothing to find a solution.  Instead they insist on battering with a 4×2 the reform process everyone agrees we need to have, whilst fanning the flames of fear in farming communities.

This leaves everyone in the most unproductive space possible.

With $9 billion of government funds on the table, there is certainly no shortage of cash to provide a solution that keeps healthy communities in a healthy Basin environment. To not find a solution is sure to kill the river and river communities.

It’s pretty simple really – continuing to destroy the very river that provides the Basin with jobs, food and water is bad economic management.

This is part of 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 [email protected]

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