The Murray Darling Ministerial Council met last week, and behind the headlines that off-farm water recovery will be prioritised comes a subtle but significant shift in the way socio-economic impacts from irrigation water cutbacks are calculated.
The shift in social factors sets the scene for last 450 gigalitres of recovery across the Basin.
Stakeholders praised the commitment to look to off-farm sources to fill the bucket of ‘upwater’ required for the Basin Plan by 2024.
They had argued local economies wouldn’t sustain the loss of economic activity which could come from a widespread roll-out of schemes that pump Commonwealth funds into farms for water efficient infrastructure in return for 50pc of an irrigator’s permanent water entitlements.
The plan stipulates water cannot be recovered if it will cause a negative impact on local economies.
Community groups argued loss of water from a district cruels cashflow from communities that struggle to fill schoolrooms, hold onto services and remain viable.
Also, irrigators are concerned if some farmers sell their entitlements and farms ‘go dry’, there may be too few left to cover rising water delivery costs, meaning some irrigation schemes could become uneconomic.
So it was welcome news when ministers agreed to shift their focus from farmers to sources like stormwater recycling and industrial users.
An Ernst and Young report to the Murray Darling Basin Authority in January noted that off-farm water could deliver around 350 gigaltires of savings to the environment.
The commitment to rewrite the definition of socio-economic impacts in the Basin Plan expands the criteria from the limited farm-by-farm basis to incorporate community impacts.
That leaves the door open for beneficial on-farm recovery schemes.
So loud was the opposition to on-farm recovery it’s unlikely to be canvassed anytime soon - except in South Australia where a limited trial is already underway.
But after the Victorian election in November, there may be some clear air to consider the potential benefits for targeted on-farm schemes, which could recover the remaining 100GL or so, that can’t be found off-farm.
The reduction of overall irrigation will remain a concern for most regions.
But it’s inevitable they will have to confront the buying power of large consolidated agribusiness and the impact on water prices from the increasing demand for water entitlements - especially permanent plantings in the Southern Basin.
We need all our representatives to stand up for Victorian family farmers - especially those in the GMID who have already willingly given up so much of our water to ensure healthy river systems under the #MDBP#auspol#fairflow@PeterWalshMP@StephRyanNatshttps://t.co/YwcPxJu7MJ— Suzanna Sheed (@SheedSuzanna) June 4, 2018
Australian Bureau of Statistics data show consolidation is moving apace across the irrigation industry.
The number of irrigators halving since 2005, falling from 44800 irrigation businesses to 22,100 in 2017.
A Commonwealth injection of efficiency funds may be required to keep traditional sectors that are now struggling, such as dairy, competitive.
Federal Water Minister David Littleproud highlighted the Ministerial Council’s reaffirmation that there would be no negative socio-economic impacts and said the new criteria would be ready by Christmas.
“In the meantime, let’s get cracking on the off-farm, urban and industrial projects.”
National Irrigators Council chief executive Steve Whan welcomed the off-farm focus, and the commitment to reassess socio-economic impacts.
“Very sensibly, they’re doing this in a way that respects that one-size-fits-all on-farm efficiency schemes aren’t appropriate.”