John Lolicato and his dogs, Ned and Benji, "Whymoul", Barham, beside Opus variety rice planted October. Further restriction on irrigation will have a severe impact on productive Riverina communities. Photo by Rachael Webb.

Why upwater recovery spells doom for irrigation communities

A report claiming there will be no socio-economic impact by removing another 450 gigalitres of irrigation water from the Murray Darling has been met with disbelief by stunned producers in the Riverina.

The notion that 450 gigalitres of precious irrigation water can be forced past the most productive farming communities in southern Australia without making a dollar is ludicrous logic say Riverina producers.

Last week a long awaited report into the feasibility of recovering more “upwater” and sending it direct to Lake Alexandria, at the mouth of the Murray, was greeted by politicians as proof of possibility with authors Ernst and Young declaring low socio economic impact as a result.

Murray Valley Private Diverters’ chairman John Lolicato says the report is flawed and the impact will be enormous, particularly for the Murray and Murrumbidgee valleys.

“There is no way you can cut that volume out and not make an impact,” stressed Mr Lolicato, who grows rice, cereals and pasture in rotation plus sheep and cattle.

He says he and his neighbours are fed up with bowing to pressure from city-based bureaucrats who are putting frog breeding events ahead of food production.

He knows there is limited ability for the north to supply this vast quantity of water and so it will be up to southern irrigators to foot the bill.

In the north, Namoi and Gwyder valley irrigators have already struggled through water recovery programs and detailed socio economic assessments carried out under the Northern Basin revue plan showed further water recovery would create significant harm to northern communities, said Namoi Water executive officer Jon Maree Baker.

Meanwhile, southern irrigators have already adopted extensive efficiency measures including laser levelled paddocks and recycled water storage, and the most efficient methods of watering. 

“All the low-hanging fruit is gone,” Mr Lolicato said. “The Ernst and Young report appears to have been written to appease political goals instead of identifying any third party impacts and a number of their suggested water savings do not appear to be real.

Growers on general security water allocations are already coping with reduced ability to irrigate.

Mr Lolicato said the current drive to push extra water into Lake Alexandria was physically impossible without huge third party impacts and an extra 450gl would simply contribute to more unsustainable bank erosion.

Joe Dalbrio, a Murrumbidgee Valley rotational rice, cotton and cereal grower at Benerenbah via Griffith said current water restrictions were “crippling the family farm” and further reductions would cruel it.

“This is just a bullshit grab for water that will cripple farming productivity,” he said. “Now the profit from a crop goes to the person who owns the water and the farmer works for nothing.”

Roger Commins, Southern Cotton at Whitton, said the impact of a further 450gl reduction in irrigation water would have an enormous impact in the Murrumbidgee alone where three cotton gins now process 750,000 bales.

“The frustrating thing is that this water will not produce one dollar whereas water diverted (for agriculture) generates billions of dollars,” he said. “Cotton in this valley alone is worth half a billion dollars. People in the cities just don’t understand.”

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