Irrigator groups in New South Wales’ Murray Valley are again calling for politicians to rethink environmental water recovery plans, saying their communities and agricultural productivity will continue to suffer if higher targets are pursued.
The groups commissioned environmental and agricultural consultancy RMCG to investigate the socio-economic impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on Murray communities.
It found that 28 per cent of the Murray Valley’s general security water entitlement is no longer being used for agriculture but is now held by governments for environmental purposes.
Those entitlements would represent an additional $120 million worth of production on Murray farms in an average year, RMCG found.
Released on Wednesday, the report is the first of four stages of work which will later dive deeper into the specific impact of environmental water recovery on particular communities and local economies, including job losses.
‘Hardship at every level’
Murray Irrigation Ltd (MIL), Australia’s largest private irrigation district, was one of four irrigation groups to commission the research.
Chief executive Michael Renehan said one-third of MIL’s water was now withheld and had been removed from agriculture.
“That has had a significant impact on the viability and the vitality of our region,” he said.
Annual cropping — rice in particular — and dairy were the two industries hardest hit by the sharp reduction in general security water available for irrigated agriculture in the Murray Valley, RMCG found.
The report claimed annual crop production declined about 30 per cent under the plan, while dairy production fell by about 21 per cent.
In its first tranche of work, RMCG did not separate the impact of the Basin Plan from the effect of other major economic and environmental factors which also contributed to those industries’ decline.
For example, rice production has come under growing pressure from alternative crops such as cotton, which currently provides a better return per megalitre of water for farmers.
Meanwhile, a dairy industry crisis continues to play out in south-east Australia more than a year after major processors Murray Goulburn and Fonterra slashed farm gate milk prices, plunging hundreds of farmers into debt.
Future stages of the RMCG research will look at separating the socio-economic impact of the Basin Plan from those and other factors, Mr Renehan said.
Environment works in the pipeline
The report comes as the political debate over the Basin Plan moves back onto the national agenda and irrigators call for an end to environmental water recovery until the impacts on communities and food production can be fully understood.
Water ministers from the Commonwealth and Basin states are soon expected to decide whether to sign off on plans for major infrastructure works which aim to return water to the environment more efficiently.
They will also need to consider whether to support changes to the environmental water recovery target in northern NSW and southern Queensland following a Murray-Darling Basin Authority socio-economic report which found that the Basin Plan had smashed employment in small, irrigation-dependent northern towns.