SENATE VOTE CRUCIAL TO OUR FUTURE: Next week Parliament will be voting on whether to buy 605GL off irrigators in the Southern Basin to return to the environment – a move, which if adopted, would be devastating to our region, according to Member for Mildura Peter Crisp.

By JOHN DOOLEY

WHEN Federal Parliament resumes on May 8, it won’t just be the Budget in the spotlight.

Over two days, on May 9 and 10, the Senate will consider what is known as a disallowance motion.

This motion relates to the southern part of the Murray-Darling Basin and 605GL of water that the Greens are demanding be taken from irrigators and “returned to the environment.”

Member for Mildura Peter Crisp has expressed deep concern that if this motion is not defeated, the future of horticulture in our region will be under threat.

“There are a number of troubling things about this motion, not least of which is the misinformation surrounding it,” he said. “If this disallowance motion goes through, it will have serious implications for our region, and if we are to remain commercially productive, it’s critical that the Senate understands what the disallowance would mean for places like Mildura, and importantly, what it won’t deliver for the environment.”

The Senate will be voting on whether to buy 605GL of water off irrigators along the Murray to put it back into the environment. That’s a huge amount of water in terms of irrigated horticulture, but in terms of the environment, it’s a drop in the ocean according to Mr Crisp.

“(It) 605GL won’t raise water levels, it won’t create ‘overbank’ watering that reaches our vulnerable floodplains, it will simply flow down the river to the ocean,” he said.

Mr Crisp said in the worst case scenario, if the disallowance motion passes the Senate, between now and 2024 the Government will have to buy water off irrigators to meet the environmental flows required.

“The economic impact on the whole Murray Valley, whether it be NSW, Victoria or South Australia, will be disastrous – you can’t take that much water out of the economy without having a severe impact,” he said. “We can’t let this happen, particularly when there is a better way.”

Mr Crisp said that while returning 605GL back to the river (for environmental flows) wouldn’t be enough water to see our floodplain flourish from Swan Hill to the Murray mouth, there are projects that could achieve a better result.

“There are several proposed projects now at risk because of the disallowance that would achieve the right environmental outcome without requiring water to be taken away from irrigators,” he said.

“While the 605GL is not enough to generate a flood, proposed innovative pumping projects will help the environment and support our horticultural industries.

“The fact is there is a smarter way to approach this issue – the Mallee Catchment Management Authority (MCMA) is proposing a raft of Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDL) projects to use the environmental water we already have to water our floodplain.”

Mr Crisp said an additional 605GL will raise the river level by no more than a few inches, which won’t deliver water to the red gums on the lower floodplain, let alone reach the black box trees on the higher floodplain, which he said are in need of more regular flooding.

“However, the projects proposed by the MCMA will be able to deliver water to these areas, using less water,” he added. “The proposed Lindsay Island Project is a great example of what could be achieved – it involves the construction of a weir across the Lindsay River.

“This weir could raise the water level around the Lindsay Island and Mullaroo Creek floodplains to the same level as Lock 7, which would allow for the flooding of the higher floodplain.”

To explain the principle behind the SDL strategy, Mr Crisp pointed to the Hattah Lakes, where the MCMA installed a pumping station some years ago.

“The Hattah Lakes need the river to be at a certain height before it will flood into Chalka Creek, which is the natural feeder for the lakes, and these heights are now rarely achieved naturally, meaning the Hattah Lakes and the landscape around them were in real distress,” he said.

To overcome this problem, and to ensure a water supply to the lakes, the MCMA put in a very large pumping station at Hattah to supply environmental water.

“Using pumps, only a fraction of the water that would otherwise have been needed is now required to fill Chalka Creek and from there to the lakes,” Mr Crisp said.

Mr Crisp said that as a result, the Hattah Lakes are flourishing, supporting threatened species and attracting increased tourism to the region.

“Hattah demonstrates that environmental water can be delivered efficiently using less water to achieve great outcomes, just as irrigators in our region have proven their own ability to embrace on-farm water efficiencies,” he said.

The estimated cost of the Lindsay Island project is $85million, which according to Mr Crisp the Commonwealth is prepared to fund.

Clearly frustrated, Mr Crisp said that the Greens want to put the water back in the river without having any plan on how to make the water deliver tangible benefits to the floodplains, and without any consideration for the social impacts.

“If they maintain their position, not only won’t we save any trees on our floodplain, we’ll put a lot of farmers out of business, and that will have a terrible effect on our local economies, which we don’t want to happen,” he said.

Mr Crisp said it’s important that issues related to the Northern Basin do not cloud discussions in the Southern Basin, as there are distinct differences between the two. He also voiced concerns that irrigators in Mildura are being tainted by the allegations against large and corporate irrigators in the Northern Basin.

“The situation here is different, our farmers are innovative and water-efficient irrigators, they understand the importance of a healthy river system and the balance required to support the environment and the community,” he said. “They are not abusing the system, they support our viability.”

Mr Crisp said that during the last disallowance motion, the vote was split by only two.

“This is too close – we need some Senators to change their minds,” he said. “The Senate is making a huge decision about our future and I fear they’re doing it with no understanding of the very real impact it will have on irrigation communities, particularly regions such as ours that are reliant on one river.

“Buying this water back would be devastating for Mildura – it will mean less water for production and it’ll mean much higher water pricing – we can’t let this happen.”

Mr Crisp fears the “important motion” could get lost with all the focus on the Federal Budget.

“I am very worried about the Budget overshadowing this important issue,” he said. “When the Deputy PM, Michael McCormack, was here recently I had a frank discussion with him about the risks the disallowance posed for Mildura, and Mr McCormack strongly supported my view that it would be a bad outcome for all the impacted river communities.

“Mr McCormack said he very much hoped that Labor would change its mind, and make this go away.”

Mr Crisp said that if the disallowance motion goes through, Victoria, NSW and SA will all suffer.

“Irrigated horticulture is the lynch pin for river economies right along the Murray, none of us, including South Australia which relies on irrigation to support its powerhouse wine industry, can afford to see the industry decline,” he said.

“The SA Senators must change their minds because as the Deputy PM said in Mildura during his recent visit, SA will be cutting its nose off to spite its face if it votes for the disallowance motion.

“Common sense doesn’t always prevail in Canberra, but on this occasion I very much hope it does, because the future of our region depends on it.”