By pure co-incidence I delivered a lecture on the importance of including environmental values into our economic accounts at La Trobe University’s Mildura campus on the very day the Murray-Darling Basin Authority held its public consultation in Mildura.
My recent analysis has examined the value of wetlands to the rural economy of the Basin, in particular the value of the services provided for free to surrounding communities by a healthy wetland — water storage and filtration, flood control and habitat for pollinators and insect predators.
I planned to use this work as the illustrative example in my public lecture, highlighting that without recognising these very real economic benefits that come from healthy rivers and wetlands, we will continue to make poor economic decisions that destroy our environment and erode the very environmental assets that underpin our economy.
For a startling example of this we only need to look at the recent $150 billion cost to the US economy that came from the loss of bee colonies that resulted in massive losses in fruit and nut production and the need to import bees to replace those that had been naturally occurring.
Arriving in Mildura, it was immediately clear almost everyone in the area is in some way related to a “blockie” — the small-to-medium-sized irrigators that grow the wine and table grapes and dried fruit for which the region is famous.
I realised my analysis and conviction that the river was dying from overuse of water and as a result we must find water to put back into the river system, meaning taking water back from the very people dependant on this water for their livelihoods, was to be tested.
So what did I find? Many of these family farmers have had it tough for years, knocked around by the drought, commodity prices dropping, exchange rates increasing and the whims of consumer tastes. (One blockie I met had planted shiraz grapes first in 1967, before ripping them out and replanting numerous times over 40 years due to the whims of wine-drinking trends — can you imagine the value of 40-year-old shiraz vines now?)
So change is nothing new to these irrigators. They rely on their adaptive capabilities to weather the literal and figurative storms of farming in this tough country. The past decade has shown just how adaptive Australian farmers are, with the value of farm output across the Basin only barely dropping during a decade-long drought and employment continuing to increase in places such as Mildura despite massive reductions in water allocations.