Basin cash splash

Senator Perin Davey, Member for Farrer and Environment Minister Sussan Ley, and Water Minister Keith Pitt at Deniliquin on Tuesday. Photo by Laura Green

Senior government ministers visited the Southern Riverina this week to mark what some have described as a ‘‘turning point’’ in the relationship between the area’s agricultural sector, water users, and the Coalition.

The visit by Water Minister Keith Pitt and Environment Minister and Member for Farrer Sussan Ley comes ahead of the election, to be held this year.

Mr Pitt and Ms Ley, along with Deniliquin-based Senator for NSW Perin Davey, announced a $1.2 million ‘‘injection’’ across the Farrer electorate through the latest round of the Murray-Darling Healthy Rivers Program.

It will benefit 11 community and user groups, including conservation projects at the Barham-Koondrook Forest and Moulamein.

‘‘These (projects) are about improving local environmental standards. It’s about addressing weeds and fencing riverside, and these are really good local projects,’’ Mr Pitt said.

He said the funding would help build local economies and provide practical environmental outcomes across this section of the Basin.

The funding will pay for 4000 hectares of weeds to be treated, 58 kilometres of fencing, and the purchase of 58,000 seedlings across the 11 projects.

The Western Murray Land Improvement Group has received $99,978 to restore the Swan Lagoon in partnership with Traditional Owners at the Koondrook-Perricoota Forest.

The Moulamein project will see $84,361 go to the Vial Family Trust to rehabilitate a lagoon and reestablish native fish on North Dale at Moulamein.

The ministers visited the Murrumbidgee River region on Monday before making their way to Deniliquin, in what many considered the first tour on the campaign trail ahead of the 2022 federal election. No date has been set for the election, but latest speculation is suggesting some time in May.

The Deniliquin visit, which began Monday evening and continued Tuesday, was hosted by Murray Irrigation.

The water supplier released a statement espousing the positive relationship the company hopes to achieve with the Coalition going forward.

‘‘We appreciated the opportunity to showcase our achievements to Federal Minister for Water Keith Pitt, Federal Minister for Environment Sussan Ley, and our local Senator Perin Davey,’’ said Deputy Chair of Murray Irrigation Noel Baxter.

‘‘Murray Irrigation also appreciated the efforts of so many local people, representing a broad cross section of community and farming interests, who joined us and were also able to engage effectively with Ministers Pitt and Ley, Senator Davey and other government representatives who attended.

‘‘On Tuesday, our communication with government continued when representatives from Murray Irrigation hosted a half-day session with the recently appointed New South Wales Minister for Water Kevin Anderson. We are confident this, too, will be a catalyst for improved communication and understanding of unique issues around water policy and management in the New South Wales Murray.’’

On Monday, the ministers jointly announced $126 million toward a state-led Off-farm Efficiency Program for the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.

The project is centred around Griffith and district.

‘‘The $126 million was for a project led by Murrumbidgee Irrigation, it’s entirely in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation District, we’re open to looking at similar ideas from other groups and other organisations, for example, in the Murray, but we totally understand the reservations people have because there is a portion under the Off-farm Efficiency Program for water savings to be transferred to the environment,’’ Senator Davey said.

‘‘And to date, from the Murray, there has been a reluctance to do that. And that is fine and that’s why it’s got to be a state led project; it’s got to have community consultation, community buy-in and we support projects that community supports.’’

Mr Pitt said the Coalition is ‘‘looking to strike the right balance between the needs of irrigators, the needs of the community, and the needs of the people that live here, and of course, the needs of the environment’’.

While described as a ‘Basin cash splash’, the Murray Regional Strategy Group said the Murray region has ‘‘missed out’’.

It said local farming groups were disappointed Mr Pitt, Ms Ley and Senator Davey handed out nearly $200 million in the Murrumbidgee and Goulburn Valley regions this week, but very little for the NSW Murray.

‘‘Through MRSG we have sought funding for numerous projects, and we have developed our ‘roadmap’ which provides solutions to some of the unintended consequences of the Basin Plan,’’ MRSG deputy chair Lachlan Marshall said.

‘‘I hope we do not miss out on pre-election funding, for no other reason than we are in a safe Liberal Party seat that they know will not be under threat when the election is called.’’

Ms Ley said she is ‘‘acutely conscious’’ of the criticism toward the Federal Government’s handling of the water issue over the last decade.

Concerns have been expressed over a range of federal and state issues, including criticism that Ms Ley has not done enough to protect agricultural production in her electorate.

Ms Ley believes the mood in her electorate is positive for the future.

‘‘Even in a good year farmers are planning for the tough years, as they should, and some of the toughest years in the Basin have been in our region, which is why we’re so determined to make change,’’ she said.

‘‘But I also note that within the Basin Plan, we have legislative constraints; we can’t just change the legislation easily.’’

Mr Marshall called the lack of flexibility in the plan ‘‘disappointing’’.

‘‘Mr Pitt basically said funding was over-subscribed and there would be no amendments to the Basin Plan before its scheduled review,’’ he said.

‘‘It is disappointing that this ‘in full and on time’ mantra continues, despite all the original promises that the plan would be adaptive and flexible, which has not been the case from day one.’’

Ms Ley emphasised her focus on the next election and urged Farrer communities, particularly farmers, to ‘‘stay strong’’.

‘‘We’re focused on the next election — we also really, really know that it’s important that we are here after the next election to continue as we come to that critical review of the Basin Plan in 2024, because I know that the people we represent, would much rather we did that review than Labor.’’