Food and fibre production in southern New South Wales is being further threatened following the June meeting of state and federal water ministers.
Rice production is already under serious threat, with Australia to run out of domestic supplies by the end of the year.
Another staple, dairy production, is also suffering significantly in the Murray ‘food bowl’ because dairy farmers no longer have access to affordable, reliable water supplies.
And yet while ministers keep promising to protect communities, stakeholders say their actions show the opposite.
John Lolicato, chair of Wakool Rivers Association, said the inability of water ministers to understand complexities around water management and delivery was of extreme concern.
The issue had been again highlighted during their discussions on constraints in the Barmah Choke at their Ministerial Council (MinCo) meeting.
‘‘We know from responses to letters we have sent that there is limited understanding of the Barmah Choke and its impact on the environment and deliverability of water,’’ Mr Lolicato said.
‘‘Our confidence gets further dented when we read that ‘options for optimising the capacity of the Barmah Choke’ were discussed by water ministers and managers, including the Murray Darling Basin Authority.
‘‘They are making decisions which will significantly impact our livelihoods, yet they have limited knowledge about the Choke, its history and its environmental fragility. Federal Water Minister Keith Pitt had a fleeting visit to the region after he was appointed, but hasn’t returned for any discussions with knowledgeable local people. We don’t think some other ministers have even seen the Choke.’’
Mr Lolicato said a grave concern was that Mr Pitt, an engineer by profession, may favour infrastructure works to by-pass the Choke, which is the easy option being preferred by the MDBA.
‘‘But where does that leave our food and fibre producers? It could again reduce affordability and reliability, allowing more water to leave our region and is again abandoning the promise that our communities would be protected under the Basin Plan,’’ Mr Lolicato said.
‘‘The Barmah Choke, like the Coorong, is a RAMSAR listed site with cultural significance to our nation’s First People. Yet this significance gets conveniently ignored because the MDBA wants to meet unrealistic volume targets due to an entrenched fixation on delivering volumes, rather than outcomes.
‘‘The Choke’s capacity has been reduced by 20 per cent since the Basin Plan was implemented, and in the process there has been irreversible environmental damage.
‘‘Through this inability to manage the Choke, our region’s food producers will again be the ones who are punished. The situation has been exacerbated by false modelling, unrealistic volume targets and unregulated downstream development.
‘‘We constantly tried to warn of the damage to the Choke and its limitations, but were ignored. If those in charge of our water actually understood the system and its problems, their discussion priorities at MinCo should have been centred around how to address unregulated, unlicensed and non-compliant floodplain harvesting, rediverting the south-east drains into the Coorong, how to manage the Lower Lakes in a drying climate and how to ensure sufficient water is available to produce homegrown staple foods.
‘‘Instead, we get ministers from Victoria and New South Wales who, like ourselves, get increasingly frustrated with a failing Basin Plan and the failure of their ministerial colleagues in other states to address the problems. It is disappointing, but given the history not surprising, that those who have contributed the least — South Australia, Queensland and the ACT — have little care for the sovereignty of our nation or protecting the environment of the mid-basin.
‘‘We would dearly love to see our water ministers and managers working collaboratively between themselves, as well as with our communities, to implement solutions which can save us from the disaster which is unfolding.
‘‘But to this point it seems they don’t have the knowledge of the system, the understanding of what is required or the willpower for this to happen.’’
Federal Environment Minister and Member for Farrer Sussan Ley, who was in Deniliquin last week, said she was confident Mr Pitt’s background in engineering would give him a unique understanding of the plan, and particularly sustainable diversion limit projects.
Ms Ley said she is in constant communication with Mr Pitt, and is encouraging him to return to Deniliquin and district once Queensland border restrictions have been lifted.