Governments and bureaucrats are under the pump to deliver water to southern irrigators’ parched crops, but allocation figures show that private industry may offer the best hope of drought relief.
Media has been awash calls to free up dam water for farmers.
Right now the loudest noises from the irrigation community are coming from the southern Riverina, where farmers are on zero allocation of general security entitlements.
This week, farmers across the region flocked to Deniliquin, where around 500 people heard industry and community leaders outline their ideas of how water could be made available.
There’s a two week window to finish crops, some of which could be sold to livestock producers who are desperately short of feed.
NSW Murray - Lower Darling water allocation
- Total resource 940GL
- Irrigation carryover 431GL
- High Security (mostly permanent plantings) 185GL
- Environment carryover 89GL
- Environment holdings 141GL
The Basin Plan has been blamed for farmers’ lack of access to water that’s sitting in some relatively well-stocked dams.
“It’s not about supporting the environment or farmers, but a case of balancing the long-term needs of both,” said MDBA chief executive Phillip Glyde.
“There is a widespread assumption that all the water flowing in the rivers, or stored in the dams, is for the environment. In fact, most of the available water stored in dams right now is owned by irrigators,” Mr Glyde said.
“Environmental water entitlements account for roughly eight per cent of water in NSW’s Murray–Darling Basin storages and about 13 per cent in Victoria. And right now there is no shortage of water for sale. The water market gives farmers and governments the same access to water at market prices.”
Suggestions from speakers at the Deniliquin meeting ranged from cooperative to combative.
Farrer MP Sussan Ley said both the CEWH and state water managers should free-up some of their water so irrigators can borrow it under contract to finish crops and repay the balance later.
Murray Irrigation Limited chief executive Michael Renehan said a one per cent allocation of general security holdings could deliver a worthwhile 140GL to irrigators in the Murray Valley.
The newly appointed special envoy to drought assistance, Barnaby Joyce, has also weighed into the issue separately, calling for Commonwealth environment water to be made available to irrigators.
Help drips out
Some environmental water has been made available to irrigation, but it’s not enough to make a dramatic difference to the drought’s impacts.
Under the Water Sharing Plan, NSW Rural Water Minister Niall Blair has facilitated a borrow of 231GL from from the Barmah-Millewa Forest Environmental Water Allowance to assist consumptive water users, to be repaid when general security allocations reach 30pc.
NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton is responsible for a state-owned water portfolio reserved for environmental uses. She has responded to calls for drought relief this week, committing to sell 15 gigalitres into the market, with the proceeds going to drought relief measures.
Details on when and where the water will be made available, and what the funds will be used for, are yet to be made available.
Each year the Office of Environment and Heritage sells a portion of its holdings to pay for water management costs, and buys back when the price is right.
In the past five years OEH sold 26GL at an average price of $139/megalitre and bought back 30GL on the market, at an average price of $45/ML.
The Commonwealth Environment Water Holder has also announced a sale of 20GL from the Goulburn Valley in Victoria, to be offered on September 3.
“We have to acknowledge the significant effort of federal and state governments, ministers and statutory authorities which are trying to identify water for productive use in the Murray Valley. We need to look at what we can do on farm to manage our own situation as well,” said Southern Riverina Irrigators chairwoman Gabrielle Coupland.
Mr Blair said he balances bulk water needs across the state.
“There are other valleys in NSW that are in a more advanced state of drought. That is not to downplay the situation in the Riverina, but I’d prioritise the Lower Darling, Macquarie Valley, Gwydir and Namoi before I’d look at the Murray and Murrumbidgee,” He said.
“That is not the answer that people who are finishing a crop want, but I have critical human needs to meet, and stock and domestic supply to deliver as well.”
He said privately-held water in the southern basin could potentially be made available.
“Carryover is held by other farmers. They may be growing different crops, but it’s not just government that can pull the lever on this. I’d be grateful if they could put some of that on the market.”
Mr Blair said there is a “nuclear option” to suspend Water Sharing Plans, which determine allocations to consumptive and environmental uses, but stressed there is a “long way to go before it comes to that”.
“Even if I did suspend the sharing plans and switched off environment water, I’d still have to satisfy those stock and domestic and human needs, and then I’d have to work out which productive uses get the water. Do I prioritise an abattoir over a grape producer, lucerne over wheat?”
Mr Blair said he and other states are working with the Federal Government to free up water. He suggested drought relief spending could fund South Australia to fire up its desalination plant, and reduce demand on upstream flows.