Farmers in the Murray Darling Basin are sweating over the prospect of big cuts in water entitlements by as much as 37%. The details were leaked from the guide to the Murray Darling Basin plan, which will be officially released tomorrow by the Murray Darling Basin Authority.

The release of the plan will signal the beginning of a detailed consultation process, but the community is already deeply divided over the issue.

Australian Farmers’ Federation CEO Ben Fargher says a reduction in water entitlements of 27%-37% would be completely unsustainable for farming communities.

“We’re concerned about these numbers. Those levels would have a devastating affect on the whole regional community. We’re really worried we’re not going to see balance,” he told Crikey.

“We want to make sure that the numbers are a draft and that the consultation process is genuine because there’s absolutely no way these numbers can be final.”

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) has taken a strong stance in favour of the proposed changes. ACF’s Healthy Rivers campaigner Dr Arlene Harris-Buchan says irrigation of the basin has increased by 500% in the past century.

“We need to restore the balance between irrigation and the environment by putting more water back into the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin,” she said, calling for the plan to address the river’s long-term health and include sustainable diversion limits.

“All interested parties will have the opportunity to comment, improve, consolidate and add to the information underpinning the plan. This will be the time for making the proposal as good as it can be,” she said.

Cotton farmer Michael Egan has worked the land around Warren in NSW for 30 years. He’s concerned about the proposed limits and says the flow-on effects cannot be underestimated.

“The direct human cost of reducing irrigation on farms is about one man for every thousand mega litres,” he told Crikey. “Then there’s the multiplied effect of what isn’t produced — work in packing sheds and cotton gins.”

Egan says most farms are mortgaged, and there will be a direct correlation between financial loss and further irrigation limitations.

“They’ve gone way too far towards the environment. The federal government’s already bought one or two thousand gigalitres, and we’re down to 18% limits on irrigation,” he said. “With the drought just broken, we’re only just getting runs on the board this year, and now we’ve got this to deal with.”