Perfect storm

By Olivia Duffey

‘‘We are in the perfect storm and it is unviable to go forward in the production of agriculture.’’

That is the message Deniliquin farmer Louise Burge impressed on members of the Australian Competition and Consultation Commission when they visited Deniliquin on Tuesday.

The long-time advocate for balance in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan said pressures on the water market are mostly directly linked to the flawed policy.

And she was not alone in her opinion, with other farmers, business owners and community members expressing a similar viewpoint during the forum.

Mrs Burge said it is the ‘‘cumulative effect of the government’s decisions’’ which is having the most impact on district irrigators.

‘‘They have a requirement to deliver the water to South Australia or to future development, and at a loss to us,’’ she said.

There were collective calls for more transparency in water, particularly a register of ownership the public can access easily, and for free.

There was a unanimous view an inability to obtain this information effects confidence to trade in the water market.

‘‘The market is out of control. We can be out bid for water and it is pushing us (irrigators) out,’’ one member of the crowd said.

‘‘There are two enemies here; the government is the biggest and corporations. This is why we need a royal commission, to stop all of this manipulation of the market,’’ another chimed in.

The inquiry is specifically looking at the impact of the basin plan on the water market.

ACCC deputy chair Mick Keogh kicked off the Deniliquin session by saying, ‘‘I am interested in the perspective of whether there have been fundamental changes to the water market in the last five years’’.

Local dairy farmer Lachlan Marshall was one of the first to speak up, saying water security had deteriorated significantly.

‘‘I moved to the Blighty area because it offered water security,’’ he said.

‘‘Farmers were later given the opportunity to sell water to the government, and the government took advantage.  We were told it would not affect the reliability of yield, but that’s all we have seen since.

‘‘With no yield on entitlement, my business and assets have been devalued.’’

Wakool/Barham irrigator John Lolicato said not enough emphasis is being put on the socio-economic value of water.

‘‘Water creates revenue and support for the community,’’ he said.

‘‘And we are treating water like it is a commodity.

‘‘We think we can put it on a truck and ship it off to South Australia without any consequences, but we know there are huge consequences by doing this.

‘‘I could sell all my water tomorrow, but what I leave behind is a community.’’

In support, another member of the crowd chimed in that there are ‘‘too many inconsistencies (in the water market) and not at any stage has the socio-economic effect on these communities been considered’’.

‘‘We have let the free market lead the way without any consideration of all of this. It is not fair,’’ he added.

Those in the room highlighted that since the introduction of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, water prices have been ever increasing.

This week, according to data available through Murray Irrigation Limited, water is trading for as high as $1000 a megalitre. The ‘sell low’ price is sitting at $640/ML.

Moulamein farmer and SunRice chairman Laurie Arthur said until water availability improves, ‘‘prices of water will be sky high’’.

Tensions and emotions ran high throughout the two hour session on Tuesday, starting from the offset when those attending questioned the timing.

While admitting ‘‘this meeting does not have great timing’’, being held in the middle of harvest, Mr Keogh said the panel had no other choice.

‘‘Unfortunately we have been given limited time to conduct the inquiry.

‘‘Those who are not here will have a chance to respond later.’’

To view the issues paper and make a submission, visit here.