Farms left high and dry by water grab

Bookmark and Share Food & Environment | Alan Moran
The Herald Sun 3rd December, 2011

The release of the Murray-Darling plan adds another chapter of woe to those reliant on the river system's irrigation water.

At present, 11,000 gigalitres of water - about 40 per cent of the system's flow - goes to irrigation.

This has been an indispensable component of the basin, providing 40 per cent of Australia's agricultural output and contributing to the livelihood of tens of thousands of farms and many communities.

Based on green agitation, there have been calls to reduce this level.

The latest report from the Murray-Darling Commission says it wants to take 2800 gigalitres from the farmers. That this is down from the previously planned 4000 gigalitres is small comfort for the enterprises that rely on the water.

The fact is that the Murray is a working river. It is not the pre-European settlement river that alternatively flooded vast tracts of Victoria and then dried to a series of puddles.

The dams along the river bring an assured flow and allow it to be used for farming and recreation.

And though the drought left many of the native trees stressed, there is nothing abnormal in this.

Those seeking to justify the greens' demands that more of the river's flow should be reserved for the environment should be aware that the aim of these activists is to take all of the flow and to retreat from modern agriculture.

In their pressure to reduce irrigation flows, the activists are supported by farmers at the mouth of the Murray who want a larger share.

The aim is to ensure the river's estuary is fresh water.

The irony is that the estuary's natural state, before barriers were built to keep out the sea, is salt or brackish water.

Victorian Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh has warned that the measures proposed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority would result in the closure of a dairy.

A Commonwealth Government study has said cutting irrigators' allocations would mean a reduction in agricultural production of only a few percentage points.

But such statements are beside the point. Australian agricultural productivity has stagnated for decades because green pressures have denied us new technology such as genetically modified crops and have restrained the use of land through native vegetation plans, clearing restrictions and the like.

The drought has led to a 15 per cent saving through better uses of water and doubtless further gains are possible. But if we sacrifice whatever gains we make by providing more resources to some mystical environmental cause, we will have little benefit.

Moreover, for the first time in a century we are likely to see burgeoning demand. The booming economies of India and China will mean an expanded requirement for protein and dairy.

The Coalition is talking about freeing the use of the rivers in northern Australia to allow increased agricultural production. We must also do the same with the Murray-Darling.