WATER WORKS: Member for Mallee Anne Webster, general manager customer and stakeholder at Lower Murray Water, Andrew Kremor, Senator Bridget McKenzie and LMW board member, Warren Lloyd at Lower Murray Water’s Merbein pumping station.

THE message is clear. Victoria’s Nationals want a blanket moratorium on irrigation development below the Barmah Choke.

In a powerful joint statement, a group of Nationals are calling on other Murray-Darling Basin States to follow Victoria’s lead.

The group, comprising Senator for Victoria, Bridget McKenzie; Member for Nicholls, Damian Drum; Member for Mallee, Anne Webster, and Victorian Nationals water spokesperson and Member for Euroa, Steph Ryan, described Victoria’s recently adopted moratorium on irrigation development below the Choke as “a good first step”, adding that no new licences for extraction should be issued, or limit increases granted, unless it can be shown there will be no increased risk to the environment or entitlement holders.

Speaking at Lower Murray Water’s Merbein pumping station during a recent visit to Sunraysia, Senator McKenzie claimed that water demands for horticultural crops in the southern Basin are already higher than estimated.

“I am delighted to be back in Mildura talking about the very important issue of water and making sure that our irrigation communities and agricultural industries have a sustainable and prosperous future,” she said.

“It is clear our communities don’t have enough water now. As new plantings including almond orchards mature in coming years, demand is only going to increase,” she said.

“We say to NSW and South Australia: “Back a moratorium, no more extraction licences, no more water extraction increases below the Barmah Choke.”

“It’s been great to see the Lower Murray Water facilities here, and to learn about both stages of the Sunraysia Modernisation Project, which means that we are going to see upwards of two thousand hectares opened up for additional agriculture which means more local jobs here in the Mildura region, which is fantastic news.”

Senator McKenzie said that anyone who is interested in the health and sustainability of agriculture, regional communities and indeed the river itself, needs to be concerned about the rampant unchecked development that is going on in NSW and in South Australia right now.

“This has extreme consequences and risks for the reliability and deliverability of water to existing licence holders here in Sunraysia and to see NSW and SA completely disregarding the impact of their planning decisions on communities and states and irrigated agriculture who have made the right decisions, is unacceptable,” she said.

So as Federal and State National Party members, we are calling on NSW and South Australian State Governments to follow the lead of Victoria, so that we can actually plan a sustainable and prosperous future because horticulture has a fantastic heritage and history in this region – you have perfect soil for it and fabulous sunshine – all you need to do to in Sunraysia is add water – and you have a fabulous product and a prosperous future.”

Senator McKenzie was asked about the expected timing of the ACCC’s report into the operation of the water market which will be of interest to irrigators who have had to endure high water prices during the drought and it coincides with calls for a National Water registry to be established.

“Anne Webster, Damian Drum, Steph Ryan, and I all agree that there should be a register,” Senator McKenzie said.

“We also agree that the productivity commission got it right about the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) when it said that the section of the MDBA which runs the river – which implements the Murray Darling Basin Plan – should be in a separate entity to the compliance.

“Who’s checking the ‘homework’ – who is making sure that everybody is doing the right thing? At the moment they are together and it leads to an inherit conflict of interest which we see played out in communities like this day in day out and so we are calling for that productivity commission recommendation to be adopted by the Government.

“In addition to calling for a moratorium on new developments from NSW and SA, we are also saying ‘no more to the 450GL’ (Commonwealth environmental flows to South Australia’s lower lakes).
We know from lived experience the socio-economic detriment that has been exhibited in our communities right along the Murray, you can’t take one more gigalitre out of these communities – off productive agriculture – without decimating them further and we are standing firm on that.”

Dr Webster said that the other factor farmers are looking for is transparency.

“They need to be able to trust the systems that are in place,” she said.

“They need to be able to trust that the compliance is being adhered to, whether it’s NSW, SA or Victoria – there needs to be greater uniformity in what’s expected and our irrigators are hurting.

“This last season has really crippled some of them who cannot return to their business and we don’t want to see that happen again. Therefore we are calling for greater transparency and this measure of separating the MDBA from compliance and operations, is essential to that.

“There are many other things that we have in play which we will be communicating in the coming weeks.”

The ACCC inquiry into the water market was due to be handed down at the end of May. With the COVID-19 disruption, it is now due to be delivered at the end of this month.