By VINNIE RODI

MILDURA Rural City Deputy Mayor and newly declared independent candidate for the Federal Seat of Mallee, Jason Modica, PICTURED, has called for more information to be made available regarding the issuing of new Annual Use Limits (AUL) in the region.

An AUL is a condition on a water-use licence, and defines the volume of water that can be used under the licence each year. It does not, however, imply that water is available for use.

Cr Modica raised his concerns at January’s Ordinary Council meeting, asking Council to ascertain if any new AULs are being issued in the region, while also seeking information about how the “activation of water as a tradable commodity” affected historic over-allocating after unbundling from the land. 

He also asked whether any ‘sleeper licences’ were left in the system, and if they had been rescinded.

“Victorian water allocation today is at 100 percent, and growers are paying roughly $600 a temporary megalitre and roughly $6000 for permanent (water per megalitre),” he said. “How is Council positioned to support the region’s growers if temporary water doubles in price as the drought continues and allocations reduce?”

Cr Modica also sought clarification over who has final say in opening up uncleared land for future agricultural development in the municipality, and across the State.

“What kind of permit does a developer need to clear land and then have access to pump water?” he asked. “Is there a register of available water to correlate with the equivalent opening up of greenfield sites? Particularly in regards to land opening up outside of the original pumped districts (the Mildura Older Irrigation Area).

To answer some of Cr Modica’s questions, the Mildura Weekly contacted local water and land authorities including Lower Murray Water (LMW) and Mallee Catchment Management Authority (CMA).

A Mallee CMA spokesperson confirmed that “there are new AULs being issued every year with new irrigation developments being approved in our region.”

“However, an AUL is the maximum amount of water which can be applied to land in a single season. It’s not the issuing of water share or allocation, this has to be sourced from the open market separately,” the spokesperson said.

“Changes in AUL are linked to the salinity reporting that is undertaken by the Mallee CMA though to the Department of Environment Land Water and Planning (DELWP). A copy of this information can be found on its website.

“The Victorian Water Register holds the amounts of AULs that exist in Victoria, and to which water source they are linked. Every three years the Mallee CMA produces a crop report that highlights the amount of irrigated hectares that exist in the region. 

“The 2015 report is available on the Mallee CMA website, and the latest report (2018) is due to be released shortly.”

According to a LMW spokesperson, no new ‘water shares’ have been issued since the early 1990s when Murray-Darling Basin States agreed to cap the issuing of new entitlements or water rights from the Murray.

“AUL, however, is sought by new irrigation developments, existing irrigators changing to higher use crops – wine grapes to citrus etc. – and is tradable. AUL is the measure of account used by Victoria for the salinity impacts of irrigation in this State,” the spokesperson said.

LMW executive manager Customer and Stakeholder, Andrew Kremor, provided further insight.

“There’s no limit on AULs other than you need to have irrigation designs approved, and specify crop types etc. – if all those things add up, then you’re going to get an AUL,” he said.

“However, purchasing water is a completely different process.

“Growing table grapes versus wine grapes takes double the water. So if a grower buys a wine grape property and decides to convert it to table grapes, they have a certain delivery share, a certain capacity, so they have to take that into account.

“They can come to us and see if they can get more delivery share, but that’s tightly held across the district.

“It may be that as we go forward we need to upgrade our systems, and customers need to pay for those upgrades with the high-value crops we’re seeing now. We want to support that growth and development as we go forward.

“Having said that, those who are redeveloping a property are well researched, and know all of these factors.”

In regards to who has final say in opening up uncleared land for future agricultural development in the municipality, and across the State, clearing of native vegetation requires a permit from local council, while an irrigation development requires an applicant to enter the ‘New Irrigation Development Process’ managed by the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources.

Cr Modica, ABOVE, through his series of questions, also called for “all correspondence Council has entered into regarding the Murray-Darling Basin Authority concerning environmental water and over-allocation correlated and sent to the Prime Minister, the (Federal) Opposition Leader, the (Federal) Agriculture Minister, our local MPs, all Basin State Premiers and neighbouring councils.”

“Council has, in the past two years with limited resources, endeavoured to understand the greater issues of water in the basin, and how less or unavailable water will affect our region,” he said.

“I would like all community members and politicians to know that there is a problem beyond drought, and many Councils and community groups have been asking questions about it for more than two years. 

“Where was the action from out municipal input? And what have we got from the $13billion already spent (on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan)?”

Cr Modica’s inquiries came just two weeks before he ended speculation about his political future, confirming late last week that he will contest the seat of Mallee as an independent at the next Federal Election.

He said that it was time the Mallee was acknowledged as “leading the way” on issues such as climate change, while also stating that regional areas needed to be better appreciated for their resilience and innovation.