SCRUTINY of the community impacts and potential pitfalls of the controversial Murray Darling Basin Plan has swamped the voice of some farmers who are arguing that the water reform must be delivered in full.
Media is flush with voices calling for checks on water recovery, as river towns struggle to stay afloat.
But some irrigators want the focus to turn to farming’s dependence on the environmental benefits the reform promises to deliver.
Stone fruit grower and irrigator from Woorinen, near Swan Hill, Victoria, Peta Thornton, is one such farmer.
“We are the beneficiary of the rivers’ wealth and we have a responsibility because of that,” Mrs Thornton said.
She has lived in around the river her whole life but has recently raised her voice in the reform debate.
Mrs Thornton has organised community events at nearby Shepparton to discuss the Basin Plan’s benefits and she is now organising a petition through online campaign platform change.org titled ‘Irrigators in support of the Basin Plan’.
“We will not allow our best hope for a healthy and proud farming future to be washed down the drain. Unite for Murray Darling. Support the Basin Plan, implemented on time and in full,” the petition says.
It will be handed to Malcolm Turnbull during National Water Week in October.
Mrs Thornton said her views can be polarising among her peers, but stressed her aim was for an open, informed debate.
“Arguing for the Basin Plan can be difficult at times, especially as a young woman. Sometimes I get the question ‘how much can you know?’.
“But I just want to have the conversation, and find I can soon break that barrier down. It’s amazing how much common ground we have as irrigators - even extreme views aren’t really that far apart.”
Plans to recover the initial tranche of 2750 gigalitres from irrigation are in falling into place and could even be finalised in coming months.
But a second effort requiring 450GL of so-called “upwater” waits in the wings. it promises to be even more controversial than the first recovery process.
The pool of willing sellers of entitlements has been reduced and the cost of water efficiency projects risen, after easy wins to improve flow or save water losses were picked-off in the early days of the Basin Plan water recovery.
“From an environmental point of view, the Basin Plan has been a compromise between industry. I am concerned that if politics plays too much of a part rfgom here on, it won’t be fully implemented,” Mrs Thornton said.
“But it is the law and it has taken such a lot of work and taxpayer money to this point, we need to make sure it achieves the goals the plan was set out with.”
In Central West NSW beef producer Glenn Hall is a long time advocate for water reform. He said there are many farmers who advocate for the Basin Plan, but the media tends to focus on the negative social impacts of reform.
Mr Hall breeds black Angus cattle at “The Mole” on the western edge of the Macquarie Marshes, about 100 kilometres north of Warren and part of his property houses Ramsar listed wetlands. He is also chairman of the Macquarie Marshes Environmental Landholders Association.
Mr Hall said controversy has caused some of the Basin Plan’s gains to be overlooked.
“Environmental water management has been going extremely well, it’s a bit of a hidden secret how well water is managed in the Macquarie Marshes.”
The Basin Plan had his full support, right up until November 2016 when the Murray Darling Basin Authority recommended the water recovery target for the Northern Basin be reduced from 390GL to 320GL.
Federal government must reject recovery reduction for long term sustainability of agriculture in the Basin, he said.
“The reform is about improving the environment and it’s also boosting the ability to recover from big droughts.”
Water recovery is often the sole target of blame for economic downturn in river communities, Mr Hall said.
“Warren is our community, and I know they are doing it tough, don’t get me wrong. But we shouldn’t forget there are other impacts to employment and identify the impacts from mechanisation, round bales, Bt cotton and improvements to yield.
“The 2017 cotton crop could be the most ever ginned in Warren - even after all the water recovery. It’s a bit convenient for leaders to blame the Basin Plan for what has happened in the community like that.”
Like many irrigators and representative bodies, Gwydir Valley Irrigators Association executive officer Zara Lowien argues any and all water recovery should be subject to rigorous assessment, to ensure the socially-challenge process delivers maximum bang for buck.
“We want to make the environmental outcomes achieve what is meant to be achieved,” Mrs Lowien said.
The Gwydir Valley has had “some very good outcomes” already, with the improved condition of wetlands and promising bird breeding.
“But we know the impacts that taking water will have and we don’t think rural communities can handle any more reform of this nature,” Mrs Lowien said.
Non-flow measures like cold water pollution in environmental flows from dam releases, which can curb native fish breeding, should be a priority before further reduction to irrigation.
“We need to monitor and measure the results from the Basin Plan in the environment, and adjust it to get the desired outcomes.”