Farmers and the country towns that support them — currently getting universally blamed for the mess ‘they’ made of the Murray River at weekend barbeques in city and in rural southern Victoria — have until the end of November to comment on the Murray-Darling Draft Proposal.

Problem is, this prospect has been made more difficult because the science the proposal has been based on still has not been published — that’d be Volume 2:  Technical Background.

Currently classified as under development on the website, it was announced at Senate Estimates this morning that the technical background report will be available online from Friday. Previously the technical background report was not expected to be available at all until the end of the month, but as of this morning it’s now just the print versions won’t be made accessible until then.

It’s expected to be a massive document of around 500 pages, compared to the 260 pages for the guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. But despite the size and importance of the technical background guide, no additional time extension will be given for farmers, irrigators and other related parties to work on their submission, says the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

Now this will be a fascinating document but some groups seem satisfied without seeing the science, with groups like the Greens already calling for the Government to adopt the proposed cuts in full.

Meanwhile, National Farmers’ Federation CEO Ben Fargher announced his resignation this morning after six years as CEO, coming at a critical moment for farmers in the middle of MDBP negiotations.

So far the government, with overwhelming academic backing, has successfully reduced the cause of all the environmental problems of the Murray Darling Basin to water extraction by irrigators. At the same time government has effectively sanctioned the cost free removal of water from the system by many other means.

So here’s just a few of the subjects that are desperately in need of a mention in the all-important Volume 2:

  • The massive use of water by blue gum plantations, the impacts of bush burnt ‘to protect people’, clear felled to ‘regenerate’ or burned as woodchips for ‘sustainable energy’
  • The management of native vegetation in the Murray Darling catchments, shown by now faded past science to play a role in regulating the quality and timing of streamflow
  • The economic value of managing forests and other water holding vegetation
  • The disruption of the flow of this massive river system by weirs and dams
  • The poor regulation of streams for agricultural and even environmental trading that leads to repeated fish kills, eg in 2009 and 2010. The last fish kill in the Wakool occurred as meetings were held to discuss the ‘Draft Proposal’.
  • Did the environmental flows purchased at great cost to the taxpayer just ‘flow over the dam wall’ in recent floods in NSW to be lost to future ‘allocations’?
  • Any possibility of the removal of barrages from the mouth of Australia’s largest estuary to allow fish, dolphins and seals to move up and down the river system
  • Will taxpayers have to continue to pay for freshwater to keep these once great and productive estuaries fresh, even during droughts?

And what about the quality of the water? The sediment and nutrient from unfenced stream sides will continue to flow into the system as we increasingly expect farmers to address this issue their own cost while we pay as little as possible for food. The high costs of water is no longer a major issue — and if it is in the future and increases the price of food it will be the farmers fault. The pollution from sewerage, industrial waste and agricultural runoff throughout the course of this river system that could have been addressed with smart regulation and the removal of unintentional subsidies to polluters for a fraction of the cost of buying out ‘willing sellers’ — but is this unlikely now?

How many of those ‘willing sellers’ will be water brokers clients who got ‘caught out’ when it rained and made their ‘investments in water’ worth little? For these people is this proposed buyout ‘heaven sent’ — can they ‘attach’ water to failed walnut or almond etc. farms born of management investment schemes and get even more for their water from the government?

There are still investment opportunities here too as the water traders spruik for investment as increasingly less water is bound to attract increased prices into the future — with or without droughts.

Expect the public to keep blaming farmers as we pay more for increasingly rare local food and increasing amounts of imported fish, meat, grain, fruit and vegetables.

Bloody farmers.

Peter Fray

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