Water inquiry hopes rise as tight market sinks family farms

Water inquiry hopes rise as tight market sinks family farms


Here's why irrigators are warning government it must to deliver on its promise for an inquiry into the southern Basin water market.


Irrigators are channeling their frustrations with the water market into hopes for the federal government's promise to commission the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission to investigate as unprecedented price pressures in the southern Murray Darling Basin.

The inquiry's terms of reference haven't been written, the responsible agency is viewed with scepticism, and the promise was made just three weeks out from the election to boost the stocks of Liberal MP Sussan Ley in her election battle with independent Kevin Mack.

But farmers' frustration with prices and water availability in the southern Basin is so high that they're willing to overlook their perception of the ACCC's confidence in free markets.

Victorian Farmers Federation water council chairman Richard Anderson welcomed the ACCC inquiry initiative, and 37 year-old irrigator Gavin Dal Broi, from near Griffith, NSW said market de-regulation "may have gone a bit too far".

"The water market is basically an equivalent of having shares on the stock exchange. It might be better to limit ownership to people who have a stake in the region," Mr Dal Broi said.

"A latte sipping Melbourne person shouldn't be able to influence a farmers' return on investment while they're sitting 500 kilometres away.

Older generations are trying to give their family members advice, but they don't know what to do. They feel lost - Gavin Dal Broi

"Older generations are trying to give their family members advice, but they don't know what to do. They feel lost."

There are a range of big issues which irrigators want investigated: the reduction of water irrigation through the Murray Darling Basin Plan, an increase in cashed-up corporate water owners - particularly by traders that don't own land, inter-valley trade rules that enable water entitlements to flow to permanent plantings downstream of established irrigation schemes, and the influence of water brokers.

Meanwhile dairy farmers are selling out in droves. Rice farmers make more money renting out their water than they do growing a crop. Corporate farmers are buying out family farmers at an increasing rate and changing the cropping mix in the process.

Mr Dal Broi said the combined impacts of the Basin Plan and corporate investment into high security entitlements to water permanent plantings like nut and citrus crops had undermined the viability of many businesses.

"It's really starting to hit hard on family farms and the smaller operations here," he said.


"It's scary for younger people , they're breaking new ground. They're asking should they continue to invest in their farms, or shut their books and wait for things to improve."

Mr Anderson said the inquiry should look into regulations for water brokers, the need for a water register to increase transparency over trades, and "explore those owning water not tied to land and whether they are distorting water prices and availability in dry years".

It remains to be seen how quickly the government moves on the inquiry, and what scope it gives to ACCC to investigate.

But just one week out from the election it announced $8 million to fund the corporate watchdog's agriculture unit, on top of the $2.7m it allocated in the 2019-20 federal budget.

The pressure is on government to act quickly. Anger at water allocations recently prompted irrigators to launch a $750m class action against the Murray Darling Basin Authority, and some groups are demanding a pause to water recovery under the Basin Plan, until a Royal Commission can soprt out the mess.


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