By JOHN DOOLEY

MURRAY Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) chairman, Neil Andrew, PICTURED, has been forced to answer some tough questions this week at a forum organised by the Mildura branch of the Liberal Party.

Held at the Mildura RSL on Tuesday night, the event attracted more than 40 people including growers, members of other political parties, community leaders and activists.

Mr Andrew told the audience that he wanted to assure them that the MDBA’s controversial Basin Plan was on track, and that while there had been challenges, it will be delivered on time.

“Inevitably, it’s going to be difficult because frankly when you are dealing with Australia’s most valuable resource, which is being skilfully used by irrigators across the entire basin, and we want to reduce the availability by 20 percent, it’s going to hurt,” he said.

“I don’t expect it to be popular, but I know that it is absolutely essential, and we couldn’t go on extracting water at the rate we were.”

Mr Andrew went on to say that the MDBA was made up of members from across the basin, including irrigators, environmentalists and people with a range of skills and ideas.

“There has never been a dissenting report, they are all on the same page,” he said. “The reason for this is that everyone has the same objective – sustainability.”

At a recent community consultation and update of the Basin Plan held in Mildura, MDBA board member, and colleague of Mr Andrew, Di Davidson, said the Plan was about ‘balance and equity’.

“She is absolutely right,” Mr Andrew said. “What we are trying to do is to ensure that none of the river valleys are having to carry more than their fair share of the adjustment load.”

Mr Andrew, a former horticulturist, comes well credentialled for the rigorous role he has to perform as MDBA Chair, having served as a Waikerie District Councillor for nine years, and as a Member of Parliament in both the South Australian and Federal Parliaments.

Recent allegations of water theft from the upper-reaches of the Murray-Darling Basin were also raised with Mr Andrew, who said that some ‘heads’ in the NSW public service had already rolled over the matter, and that the NSW Government’s independent inquiry head, Ken Matthews, had delivered a scathing interim report.

The Matthews report recommends a range of urgent measures, including the creation of a legislated NSW Natural Resources Regulator that would take on water and eventually other resource issues.

The NSW Government has already said it would act on this recommendation.

The Matthews report is one of six inquiries under way after the Four Corners report highlighted cases of irrigators installing equipment that took billions of litres of water, potentially undermining confidence in the entire $13billion Murray-Darling Basin Recovery Plan.

NSW Minister for Primary Industries, Niall Blair, told a media conference that the interim report was “pretty sober reading for the government”, revealing failures, some which would need to be acted on immediately.

“Where they do not exist, urgent installation of water meters for all large users in NSW within 12 months will be a top priority,” Minister Blair said.

Ruralco Water general manager, Phillip Grahame, also spoke, informing the meeting of the current status of the water market.

Mr Grahame used a diagram of the basin to illustrate how the Plan’s structure had worked efficiently to get farmers and the community through the ‘millennium drought’.

A lively ‘Q&A’  took place at the conclusion of the speeches, with the first question coming from Liberal Party branch president Adrian Kidd, who asked Mr Grahame about who owned the 10 percent of water rights that weren’t owned by people directly connected to agriculture, and whether those owners came from overseas.

“There are a number of private equity groups that may have overseas investors who have an interest in water, in my estimation these may represent one to two percent of the 10 percent allocation,” Mr Grahame said.

In highlighting the value of water today, Mr Grahame said that the lowest value crop per megalitre of water to produce is rice.

“The current temporary water price is such that Australia’s second biggest rice growing family recently made the decision not to grow rice this season, and they will run sheep instead,” he said.

A variety of other questions for Mr Andrew came from growers disillusioned with the MDBA and its implementation of the Basin Plan.

Lower-Darling irrigator Alan Whyte said that while the rhetoric around the Plan sounded good, the reality was something different.

“Why are you supporting a Plan that is clearly intended on destroying the Darling River? What are you going to do to guarantee water supply to the more than 70 families on 50 properties who rely on the river for their livelihoods?” Mr Whyte asked.

Mr Andrew responded that it is “absolutely not the intent of the Plan to have less water coming down the Darling River, and furthermore, all that I have seen of the Menindee Lakes projects indicate it is an arrangement to minimise evaporation, not to cut flows down the Darling.”

One thing that is clear, the issue of water remains the single biggest concern to our region’s farmers, and only time will tell if the MDBA’s implementation of the Basin Plan will lead to better outcomes.