Water allocations have dried up in the crucial fodder growing Southern Murray Darling Basin and irrigators as well as Farrer MP Sussan Ley are urging the federal and state governments to explore every option to free up supply.
As feed becomes ever more scarce as drought rolls on the price of temporary water has tripled to $370 a megalitre in the Murray Valley, more than three times the long term average of $120.
Thirsty crops in the ground could be salvaged, potentially for fodder, but will need another drink before they’re harvested. The crop could benefit drought hit farmers far and wide.
Irrigators acknowledge that finding fresh water in the current climate is easier said than done.
“We’re asking regulators has every possible and creative option been explored to make a parcel of water available to irrigators in the Murray Valley,” said Riverina mixed farmer and Southern Riverina Irrigators chairwoman Gabrielle Coupland.
“It’s warming up and crops are starting to turn very quickly. Timing is crucial - before we get to a point of no return,” said Mrs Coupland, Finely, NSW.
Ms Ley is calling on the Commonwealth and Victoria and South Australia to allow NSW to execute a temporary borrow from water reserved for Murray River flow.
NSW Water and Environment Departments have joint responsibility for management of state holdings. They could potentially facilitate an early release into the Murray River to provide allocation for General Security holders, which would be paid back down track.
Projections in the current drought conditions show up to 4 per cent allocation may be available to general security holders by November. But this would be too late for the crops in the ground.
“It’s a perfectly possible, sensible thing to do," Ms Ley said, warning of public backlash if NSW’s doesn’t make a case, or the other parties don’t participate.
“Farmers here will have had enough, and I will have had enough,” she said.
Regulators balance a range of demands, from town supply to environment requirements and long term security.
“The environment needs its water too - it's not a one-or-the-other issue. But a short term borrow from the environment would be fantastic. Every little bit would count,” Mrs Coupland said.
“If we can't recover some of our input costs from the crops in the ground it will be tough, it could be 18 months before we get a crop.
“But if we get enough to survive the next little period that would help fodder supply and farmers for the long term.”
National Irrigators chief executive Steve Whan echoed Ms Coupland’s call.
The Commonwealth Environment Water Holder is another potential irrigation source. It can trade its holdings into the market, but must comply with strict regulations balancing the environmental water needs.
Ms Swirepik is playing her cards close to her chest.
“We have not proposed any intentions to trade but continue to actively assess the situation based on environmental demands and the available water resources,” Ms Swirepik said.
Water can only be sold if environmental objectives have been met and the water cannot be carried over, or keeping the allocations is likely to result in future allocations being reduced. It can also be sold if environmental outcomes can be improved by selling water allocations and using the proceeds to purchase water and/or invest in for environmental activities.
Any trade would be made in a competitive market process. The CEWH has has not sold any water entitlements, but has sold 39.9 gigalitres of annual allocations.
Northern Victoria fodder producer Brett Radcliffe said the 2018 watering season was due to open this Wednesday and most of his crops could use a drink virtually straight away.
“It has been pretty dry here, everything is still green but a hot day would knock things around quite a bit,” said Mr Radcliffe, Kerang.
He said at current water prices he would need to see returns of $300 a tonne for cereal hay and $500/t for lucerne hay to cover the production costs.
Mr Radcliffe said most irrigated fodder producers in his area were growing winter crop and hoping rainfall could cut watering costs.
He said summer crops, such as corn, would be too expensive at the current price of water.
“You’re looking at 10 megalitres a hectare for a corn crop, so there’s $3500/ha on water alone.”
“Growing a winter crop also means you have the product earlier which is what the end users will want.”
Mr Radcliffe said he was anticipating strong demand for hay when it was made.
“Even just from Victoria we are getting a lot of inquiry, I don’t think selling hay will be an issue this spring.”
The CEWH has has not sold any water entitlements, but has sold 39.9 gigalitres of annual allocations.
In 2014 it sold 10 gigalitres of allocation in the Gwydir, NSW and 34 megalitres in the Peel, NSW. In 2015 it sold 22.8GL in the Goulburn, Victoria and 6.7GL in the Gwydir this year.