MURRAY Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) CEO Phil Glyde is urging governments to deliver aid to farming communities that face the biggest social and economic distortions caused by water reductions in the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
The MDBA’s now completed review of water allocation measures in the northern Basin has suggested environmental flows in that section of the river system - effectively half of NSW and the southern part of Queensland - should drop from 390 gigalitres to 320GLs.
The Authority conducted technical analysis of current and future social and economic impacts of water losses which said the communities most adversely affected may need targeted structural adjustment assistance to help them adapt to looming changes.
The report said the MDBA’s modelling indicated the communities to be most affected by water recovery targets are; Bourke, Collarenebri, Dirranbandi, Narromine, Trangie, Warren, St George, Moree and Wee Waa.
Mr Glyde said in going from 390GLs to 320GLs in environmental water flows, about 200 fewer jobs would be lost in the northern Basin - but they’re still jobs to be lost; particularly in the Lower Balonne, St George and Dirranbandi in Queensland, where the larger part of the water recovery task remained.
He said while it wasn’t within the MDBA’s control, one of the northern Basin review recommendations called on governments to help secondary businesses in communities facing reduced water supply.
Mr Glyde said state and federal governments needed to worry about providing more assistance to those “dependent communities”.
“At the moment irrigators either get their water bought from them at an agreed price or they have infrastructure put in on their farm, but then the flow-on effects to agricultural supply businesses and the businesses in town like the service station, the IGA, the butcher, the baker, the candle stick maker, they’re not being compensated through these losses so we’ve pointed that out as well,” he said of the review findings.
“Our estimates include not just losses on-farm but the losses in the community as well.
“There have been particular communities that have been badly affected and we think governments need to be providing further assistance to them; and not just to the irrigators.”
Mr Glyde said the Authority’s review found that towns like Dirranbandi - where local business people understood they had to endure a reduced level of water availability due to the Basin Plan - wanted assistance to help them articulate that future.
He said those stakeholders wanted government funding assistance to help them with investments to help transition towards new business opportunities, rather than strict compensation.
“There’s quite a push on in the St George and Dirranbandi communities for governments to be providing that assistance now,” he said.
He said the government had provided a funding program in the overall Basin Plan water reform package, to help businesses transition - but very little of that money actually went to towns identified in the MDBA’s northern Basin review as being directly impacted by water cuts.
“Now that we’ve got this new information about where the impact is and what the size of it is, governments at least are aware of where the problem areas are now, more specifically, and they can target that assistance,” he said.
“It’s not an area of expertise for the MDBA - we’re not in the business of structural adjustment and community assistance - but there are other parts of government that do that work and have those programs.
“We think it would be sensible for all of the governments to look at how you might continue to support these towns as they go through this really fundamental transition from an industry based on over-allocated water, to an industry based on sustainable water allocation.”
The MDBA’s report said with further water recovery, as proposed under the 390GL scenario, estimated impacts for the St George community included; a 23 per cent decline in the area irrigated; a loss of 64 full time jobs (9.5pc) in farm and farm-related sector employment; and loss of 31 jobs (6.5pc) for the other private businesses.
“Relative to the employment change associated with positive economic stimuli in other communities, these changes are quite large,” it said.
“They are likely to be further increased when the flow-on effects from water recovery in the Dirranbandi community are taken into consideration.”
For Dirranbandi-Hebel, the study said additional water recovery under the 390GLs modelling would reduce the maximum irrigated area by 50pc and cut farm and farm-related jobs by 63 jobs (23pc) and slash other private business sector jobs by 11 jobs (18.5pc).
“Across the local economy of Dirranbandi, the potential reduction in jobs during the maximum crop production periods was estimated to be around 18pc (64 jobs),” it said.
“These changes are quite large.
“This small, agriculture-dependent community was already challenged by the effects of drought (including the 2014 and 2015 drought) and prevailing economic and social conditions, making it difficult to adjust to significant and quite rapid changes.
“Given the scale of the effects on the Dirranbandi-Hebel community, the changes in employment would be expected to add to the underlying rate of population decline.”
Overall, the MDBA’s analysis showed that 711 jobs would be lost under the 390GLs modelling and 528 under the 320GLs scenario.
MDBA Chair Neil Andrew has said the proposed 70GLs reduction in environmental water flows for the northern Basin is based on a condition that relevant Basin governments agree to implement projects designed to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of environmental water management.
Submissions as part of public consultation on the proposed amendments to the Basin Plan, to reduce the volume of water to be taken out of the northern section, are due by February 10.
It’s understood the MDBA’s recommendation has been presented to Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce for his consideration.
The federal government committed $200 million towards a strengthening basin communities program that is now closed but saw funding grants awarded to local governments in the Basin to assist community-wide planning for a future with less water.
In round one, the Balonne Shire Council gained $200,000 while other Basin councils in the river-system won funding for projects like helping local communities and irrigators with tackling climate change and managing reduced water security.
One source who asked not to be named said the program’s funded projects were largely superficial and aimed at appeasing and silencing local governments rather than providing genuine compensation or funding to address genuine economic damage caused by reduced water availability for farm production.