'There's no certainty there': Report sheds light on impact of Murray-Darling Basin Plan on Victorian communities

Farmers selling their water entitlements too soon has resulted in financial hardship down the track, while others are concerned that water uncertainty is having social impacts on Murray River communities.
Farmers selling their water entitlements too soon has resulted in financial hardship down the track, while others are concerned that water uncertainty is having social impacts on Murray River communities.

A NEW report has highlighted the individual stories of those living in Murray River communities following the introduction of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan – and found horticultural irrigators were the winners, while dairy farmers were the losers.

The report used the personal stories of 24 people who spoke of stress and uncertainty at water prices and buy-back schemes and poorly-conceived Connections projects.

Yet the majority remained in favour of environmental flows to improve the river’s health.

The report was commissioned by the Murray River Group of Councils, including Loddon, Campaspe and Gannawarra shires.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was introduced in 2012 to improve sustainable water flows, habitats and address soil salinity by transferring “significant volumes of water” from irrigation purposes to environmental flows.

Since its inception, the plan has recovered 800 gigalitres of water for the environment from the Victorian part of the basin, according to the report.

But some communities have seen the Basin Plan as another burden on struggling farming sectors.

In the report, a small business financial adviser said the introduction of water buy-backs had added another level of stress to overworked farmers.

“[It’s] that insecurity of not knowing. How much water are we going to get next year?” they said.

“Even though storages are full, we should be really happy, we should be celebrating, we should be pretty much thinking the next two or three years we’ll get our full allocation.

“But no, we can’t. There’s no certainty there, absolutely no certainty.”

Many also sold their water entitlements to pay back debt – a decision that has caused them further financial hardship down the track.

Others were critical of Connections Projects. While not specifically a part of the Basin Plan, the projects have further heightened skepticism within communities about the competence of water authorities.

Some received grants for water-saving projects on their properties, only to find the grant did not cover the complete cost and they were unable to afford water in the future, making the project ineffective.

“I can take you around the district and show you farms that have got up to $500,000 of taxpayer-funded irrigation infrastructure that will probably never, ever see water while that particular farmer is there, because they can’t afford to buy it,” a business financial adviser said in the report.

The report called for more studies into the Basin Plan’s social consequences.

Partisanship a threat to future water policy

The report – one of a number into the effects of the plan across the Murray-Darling Basin – was released as MPs debate an amendment about how 2750 gigalitres of water could be provided to the environment.

The future of the plan appeared uncertain earlier in 2018 when Labor sided with the Greens against the amendment over concerns about maladministration and water theft, angering Victoria and New South Wales.

Labor has since struck a deal with the Coalition.

Speaking in parliament last months, Member for Bendigo Lisa Chesters said the Basin Plan had been working, but bipartisanship needed to remain.

“As we grow in this plan and really mature we are learning more and more about the best way to become more water efficient and to return more water to the system,” she said.

“It is about open dialogue; transparency; supporting a just transition and funding towards those areas; encouraging innovation; and supporting the good work that's being done and building on those lessons.”

Member for Murray Damian Drum said 605 gigalitres could be saved for agricultural purposes from the 2750 by finding “smarter and better ways of reaching these environmental outcomes”. 

“We can use science and technology to create exactly the same outcomes, if not better outcomes, and actually use 605 gigalitres less to achieve the same outcome,” he said.

“We hope that in the next short while it will also be passed through the parliament here.”

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