THE Murray Darling Basin Authority hosted its ‘River Reflections’ conference in town this week, a two-day summit attended by more than 200 people at Mildura’s Quality Grand Hotel.

While water was on the agenda, the health and prosperity of Basin communities was also at the forefront of discussions.

One of the first keynote speakers at the conference was co-founder and director of The Demographics Group – Simon Kuestenmacher.

He told the assembly regional towns close to capital cities were seeing strong population growth that could position them well as future economic powerhouses.

“An uptick in migration will help the city centres of regional hubs, with millennial families the biggest growth segment,” Mr Kuestenmacher said.

“The general trend in the Basin is for more rural and remote populations to decline while some of the bigger regional centres will continue to attract more people who are relocating both from big cities and smaller towns.”

Mr Kuestenmacher pointed to the stressors that Basin communities share which could act as barriers to the potential growth.

“Across the board, house prices rose sharply up by 14 per cent in Mildura,” he said.

“High house prices make the skills shortage even more difficult to tackle.

“How can Basin businesses looking to fill low-income jobs attract workers when there is no affordable housing available?”

Mr Kuestenmacher cautioned that the skills shortage and housing shortage go hand-in-hand and could hinder economic expansion.

“There are some challenges on how you can attract the right workers to your region,” he said.

“Our workforce is transforming, with more highly paid knowledge workers and more low-paid workers, there are fewer middle-class and middle-income workers.”

In good news for the agricultural sector, Mr Kuestenmacher said he expected global food prices would continue to increase.

“Good money can be made here for farmers and food producers, however the cost of imports is steeply increasing,” he said.

“As the cost of doing business is only going up, businesses shouldn’t just try to tighten the belt and hope for costs to go down.

“The goal is to invest in quality assets and materials which will allow businesses to lengthen the replacement and renovation cycles.”

Mr Kuestenmacher said another interesting demographic trend was that many regional centres were missing young people in their 20s and 30s.

“Young people leave regional towns to get educated in the big cities of Australia and only return to their hometowns when they have school-aged children and want to replicate their own childhood for their kids,” he said.

“The pandemic and the option for many workers to work remotely allows young families to act like retirees in the housing market.

“What I mean by this is that they can choose their place of residence based on lifestyle factors rather than vicinity to the inner-city employment hubs.

“Basin communities want to actively woo millennial families. Be loud and proud about your region, explain to potential new residents what life will look like.

“Work together as a whole community to ensure new housing supply comes online. Speak as one voice to state government to attract infrastructure spending into your region.”

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority’s Mildura Regional Manager and Acting Executive Director River Management Andrew Kremor said that the aim of the River Reflections Conference was to get people from across the Basin together to listen and learn about what is going on and to share their views.

“Clearly there are a range of different views across the Basin which may be at odds with each other from time to time,” Mr Kremor said.

“And so this conference provides a great opportunity to get people together to hear first-hand what is happening and what’s valuable and are shaping things going forward.”

The conference took place at time when there is an abundance of water in the Murray-Darling Basin system.

“This year is a wet year and the outlook is for continued wet weather over winter,” Mr Kremor said.

“And so there is a lot of water around and allocations are going to start fairly high and so that paints a very positive outlook and is in contrast to a few years ago and so it is an easier story in that perspective.

“The most dramatic turnaround was in the northern Basin, particularly in Queensland, which saw water in dams leap from a dire 19 per cent to 97 per cent full in the past 24 months.

“Heavy rain in the north beyond the normal wet season has meant water has run off the already saturated catchments.

“This has certainly brought renewed optimism to many in the agriculture sector even though it’s meant some challenges with flooding, infrastructure impairment and difficulties with harvest, planting and crop damage.

“One important thing to note is that the much-wetter-than-average conditions are not consistent across the whole Basin, with rain in thew Upper Murray in March to April returning to be around average after being high in the 12 months or so prior.

“However, Upper Murray inflows have remained well above average with averagely-wet catchments.

“Dartmouth Dam inflows back in January were the highest on record.

“Across the whole Murray River system, active storage levels remain well above the long-term average and are likely to remain very high into the coming spring.

“Longer term however, the Basin faces challenges with climate and water availability, delivery risks and a whole range of other factors that we will need to work through collectively to find solutions that work for everybody.”

With the MDBA having an office in Mildura now, the communication and engagement for stakeholders in the region will hopefully be enhanced.

“It certainly enables us to better connect to our region as well as others in the Basin and their communities,” Mr Kremor said.

“It has been difficult obviously with COVID, but now we are very much have ears on-the-ground and to be able to be a voice back to head office and to government to the decision makers and that is proving to be quite valuable.”

Mildura Mayor Liam Wood welcomed the delegates to the conference on Wednesday morning and told the Weekly that “water is of course the essential element to life”.

“That’s a fact, not an argument and so it is great to see so many people coming together including some powerful people as well from all over Australia who are gathering here in Mildura this week to talk about it,” Cr Wood said.

“Having the Basin Authority’s office here in Mildura which I think is essential.

“What the river means to our region and people which we see as being very much a connector.

“What we do affects everyone up and down the river and large areas on either side of river and so we should take that into consideration and all work together.

Cr Wood said that even though the conference is being held in an environment where there is an abundance of water in the system – the issues are no less important.

“We know the cyclical nature of things and how our extremes are becoming our norm and so it doesn’t matter when we talk about the river system and its health, it is just how often that we talk about and we can never talk about it enough.