Senator Bill Heffernan, one of Cubbie Station’s staunchest critics, opposes a Commonwealth purchase of the vast water cotton farm and instead has called for it to be scaled back to a sustainable level.

Heffernan, who as a Junee farmer and parliamentarian has lived and studied water allocation more than any other Commonwealth or State MP, has previously called the overland harvesting system on which Cubbie relies “a national disgrace” and wants it reformed to provide sustainable water allocation, rather than the Commonwealth paying up to $450m for the Station — a purchase Heffernan believes would amount to a fraud.

While Cubbie Group chairman Keith De Lacy has boasted of the station’s 538 gigalitre storage capacity as part of attempts to drum up interest in the Station – which has been financially hammered by the drought — Heffernan explains that this is based on a 70GL extraction from the Balonne River, and the remainder — 469GL — on “unregulated, unlicensed, unmetered, free” overland flows.

The overland flow from the floodplain — which Cubbie Group insists “would have been naturally consumed through seepage, evaporation and evapo-transpiration in the areas that are now levied off from the floodplain as storage and field areas” — would if undiverted enter the Balonne and Culgoa Rivers. Cubbie draws off up to half of every flood in the catchment, preventing it from entering the Balonne-Culgoa (and enabling Cubbie to boast of the small amount of water it takes from the Murray-Darling system). Crikey has previously described the impact of the massive Cubbie diversion in northern NSW.

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Heffernan — who regards Cubbie as a “great vision but on the wrong scale” — notes that the diversion originated in the 1990s when there was no regulation of overland flows. The new Queensland Government resource operating plan that would license the current Cubbie diversion authorisation is in draft form and under court challenge. In effect the vast majority of Cubbie’s diversion remains unlicensed.

“It would be a fraud on taxpayers if the Queensland Government was to issue a licence for the overland flows knowing it was unsustainable, and that the Commonwealth was to purchase the Station,” Heffernan said. “Cubbie should be left in private hands and its diversion should be scaled back to a sustainable level, using new technology.”

According to Heffernan, farmers on the Gascoyne River in the Carnarvon area of Western Australia were able to generate $70m worth of returns in 2006-07 from a total water allocation of 8.5 GL. The same allocation would have generated just $3m in cotton.

Heffernan has previously criticised the way the Commonwealth water buyback program is being implemented under Penny Wong, who last year faced persistent criticism that she wasn’t moving fast enough to acquire water in the Murray-Darling Basin. In particular, Heffernan has been critical of the lack of due diligence from Commonwealth officials in actually checking on what they are purchasing, and the purchase of low security entitlements, or in some cases flood event entitlements that are virtually meaningless.

An ANAO performance audit of the water buyback scheme might yield some interesting results in terms of value for taxpayers’ money.

And as Heffernan says, the real issue with Cubbie is ending its vast and unsustainable diversion of overland flows, not who owns the property.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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