‘Duped’ anger

By Zoe McMaugh

A local group is furious at the state government, claiming it was “duped” into dropping a class action.

The group dropped the action after agreements were reached which it believed were satisfactory, but is frustrated because nothing has been done.

The Murray Valley Groundwater Irrigators Association and its chairman Greg Sandford led the class action following a controversial government decision in 2006 to remove water entitlements.

One Blighty dairy farmer lost 90 per cent of his permanent water, which he says makes the business unsustainable in dry times, like he is presently experiencing.

Mr Sandford said the class action was dropped when the government agreed to investigate that all groundwater users would receive a more equal share of original entitlements, before the acquisition.

A further part of the agreement was that the NSW Government would not pursue legal costs, but Mr Sandford said they have recently been sent a bill ‘‘for quite a lot of money’’.

‘‘We left that meeting (at which the agreement was reached) after eight years of fighting thinking something had finally been resolved and, even though we didn’t have to, we dropped the class action.

‘‘We now feel we were duped,” Mr Sandford said.

The issue has been raised with Member for Murray Austin Evans and was discussed with Deputy Premier John Barilaro when he was in Deniliquin this month.

Blighty dairy farmer Brett Napier, who has been caught up in the controversy, says removing the groundwater means they “struggle to keep the farm productive in dry times”.

He wants entitlements to be retrospectively returned.

Mr Napier said under the groundwater acquisitions in 2006, his farm’s permanent entitlements were clawed back about 90 per cent from 595 megalitres to a 70ML, which is ‘‘a far cry from what is needed to keep the dairy farm afloat if there is no access to surface irrigation water’’.

He said rubbing salt into the wound is that some in NSW Murray, including those nearby in Blighty, suffered cuts at least 50 per cent less than his own.

‘‘Because of the way the cuts were handled, we lost about 90 per cent while some only lost between 40 and 45 per cent,’’ Mr Napier said.

The cuts occurred in a drought period and were based on historic use, despite the original government proposal to have a 40 per cent cut across the board.

‘‘We all understand there had to be some cuts, but it’s unfair that some lost 40 per cent while others lost 90 per cent,’’ Mr Napier said.

‘‘Bore water is valued at $1600 to $1700 per megalitre, so that’s a lot of money lost off (the value) our place.

‘‘Our entitlements were taken from us unfairly and now (in a dry year) we have to buy in water just to grow feed for our cattle.

‘‘What we want is for some of that permanent entitlement to be given back, so those of us who lost more are equal to the others — we would be happy with that, and were not going to stop fighting until it is fixed.’’

Mr Napier said in a dry year when access to surface irrigation water is limited, like this year, his farming business has to purchase at least 200ML to 250ML of water just to grow feed.

He said that can be unsustainable due to the cost, but saving money by thinning the milking herd is not possible because the herd guarantees their loan with the bank.

He said if governments and decision makers would listen to grassroots farmers in the NSW Murray, the impacts could have been lessened.

‘‘What helps us stay in business is access to water, but everything the governments have done has restricted that,’’ Mr Napier said.

‘‘We have no reliable access to surface water, and on top of that we’ve taken a hit with the groundwater.

‘‘Government decisions are gradually putting us out of business.

‘‘The bores are meant to ensure we have access to water in a drought, but the government has taken up to 90 per cent of it from us.

‘‘We have to keep lobbying for change, and one easy way governments can help is by releasing permanent water back to us.’’