Federal Member for Mallee Andrew Broad is pictured on the banks of the Darling River at Bourke. Photo: PAUL MENSCH

By VINNIE RODI

I’VE been a working journalist in Mildura for the better part of nine years, and in that time have covered everything from footy grand finals to visiting celebrities, Council matters and multi-million dollar funding announcements.

I have never, however, had an invitation quite like the one recently offered by Federal Member for Mallee Andrew Broad.

Mr Broad’s office contacted me about two weeks ago, wanting to know whether I’d be interested in taking part in a trip the Federal MP was planning to check out the state of the Darling River following recent allegations of water theft by the ABC’s Four Corners program.

My first thought was that it would be too big a trip for a small editorial team to accomodate, as I assumed there would be several days of driving involved.

“Oh not to worry, Andrew’s planning on taking you up in his Cessna 177RG to get a bird’s eye view,” was the reply.

How could I say no!

Mildura Weekly photographer Paul Mensch and I met Mr Broad at the Mildura Airport at 8.30am this past Monday, where the Federal MP’s private aircraft is housed.

Mr Broad is, in fact, an experienced pilot, having chalked up more than 700 hours in the air over a nine-year period.

“Flying has become a mixture of business and pleasure for me,” he explains. “Dad was a pilot, and I’ve always had this love affair with flying.

“I made the decision at age 30 to take it up, and to be honest it’s a bit of an indulgence.”

Being a pilot, as Mr Broad points out, makes Australia’s vast countryside “seem a lot smaller,” and provides the opportunity to see the large Mallee electorate from a different point of view.

After giving Paul and I a brief rundown of the plane’s specifications (she has a range of 1200kms and was purchased by Mr Broad two years ago), we head to Wentworth Aerodrome for a quick fuel stop. From there it was back in the air, tracking the much talked-about Darling River on to Pooncarie.

The Darling has been in the news for all the wrong reasons for the better part of a decade, with the New South Wales Government’s management, or as some have labelled it mismanagement, of the system questioned numerous times by Sunraysia-based irrigators.

That management has seen the Lower Darling River near Pooncarie dry up three times in a 10-year period, with recent allegations of water theft by cotton farmers near Barwon, not to mention corruption allegations against high-ranking NSW water officials, doing little to ease irrigator concern.

A farmer himself, Mr Broad is no stranger to the plight of the Darling, with the Federal Government’s Environment and Energy Committee, which Mr Broad chairs, also due to launch an inquiry into the Commonwealth’s Environmental Water holdings next year.

“The Commonwealth now holds 1200GL of environmental water, with our inquiry to look at how best to use that water to secure the future of the Murray-Darling Basin,” he said.

“This trip has two purposes, it gives me a chance to check out the state of the Darling River, see how the Menindee Lakes are looking, and also check out some of the cotton farms and dams near Bourke and Barwon.

“It’s a research opportunity.”

The view of the Darling River is nothing short of spectacular from 5500 feet in the air, with Mr Broad saying it was a trip he tries to undertake at least once a year.

“The last time I took a flight this way was in July last year, and the view was much different,” he said.

It was at this time that the Lower Darling was completely dry, with no flows coming from the nearly depleted Menindee Lakes.

“By September the Lakes were full again following some substantial rain,” Mr Broad said.

This time around the river, while looking a tad green, appeared in reasonable health, with the Menindee Lakes also a sight to see from the air as they are once again full.

Sections of the Darling River south of the Menindee Lakes, however, still appear quite low, indicating that without constant flows, the risk remains that the Darling could run dry again.

Mr Broad has already had his say on the Four Corners allegations in Federal Parliament, while also commenting on the impact those allegations could have on the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

He is of the belief that the Plan’s metering system, and policing of those doing the wrong thing, are major concerns, while also highlighting that there has been too much politics around water.

“The danger is that it takes away the confidence for people to invest,” he said. “If people don’t have the confidence to invest, we don’t get the water efficiency measures that we should have as a country.

“River health isn’t just about quantity, it’s more about how you manage what you’ve got.

“It’s why the Environment and Energy Committee’s inquiry is so important, because it will ask questions around what a realistic outcome for the environment is.”

From the Menindee Lakes we flew over a number of cotton farms just outside Bourke, with the set-up truly impressive from the air.

Large dams are scattered across the countryside, and while these particular set-ups were not the subject of the Four Corners allegations, it’s easy to see why some farmers would be tempted to break the rules to keep these valuable assets full.

After three hours in the air, we land at Bourke Airport, before taking a taxi into the small township. While on the ground we visit the Bourke wharf, which only six months ago was virtually under water as the Darling entered a flood cycle.

The water has since dropped to below average levels.

After an hour in Bourke it’s back on the plane, and homeward bound to Mildura, this time taking a more direct flight path over the vast scrub land, before enjoying an aerial tour of Sunraysia.

While as of right now the Darling River looks in reasonable condition, it’s a scenario that can change in the blink of an eye – as Lower Darling irrigators know all too well.