Water Policy Challenges

The announcement that allocations have lurched forward another 7% in the past fortnight has been greeted with groans from our increasingly frustrated irrigator community. This super cautious creeping policy is hard to comprehend.

It’s no big secret; many irrigators are desperately worried about securing enough water for the 2019/20 growing season. Storages are low. Water prices are sky high. The word drought in one form or another pervades almost every news broadcast. Media reports confuse worried minds. Sleep is eluding some. Faces are grim. Families are nervous.

Lessons learned by irrigators after the Millennium experience have barely had time to sink and “it’s on again”. For winegrowers who’ve survived the prolonged over-supply, a result of shabby, investor driven policy, it’s a particularly bitter pill to swallow. Grape prices have improved modestly over the three recent vintages. Values have returned to previously unsaleable vineyards. But for now, and into the foreseeable prices being paid for water are making it difficult for some winegrowers to compete in the newest market: the water market.

Most will agree the MDB Plan is not perfect policy, but it must be given its full time to show it can work. Some are calling for a Royal Commission into the administration and operation of the plan.

The fact that investors with no connection to land and no irrigation business, can freely trade water is confounding. If building massive dams and channels to evaporate and soak up the Hay Plains is “best practice” in water use efficiency, that’s equally confounding.

Policy making is always difficult when there are competing interests. It’s often the case; those with deep pockets influence policy more than those with deep convictions towards best practice, sustainability and regional well-being.

To have any hope of influencing policy makers, we must be well organised and prepared to articulate these concerns in a clear, coherent way. The recent formation of the Water Forum was largely to assist Riverland horticulturists to listen to others’ points of concern, to speak with one voice, clarify issues and influence future policy and to do so with some urgency; making amendments where harmful or unintentded consequences are not delivering intended benefits for regional communities nor the environment.

Several issues raised to date are:

  • Can horticulture groups in the region support the Almond Board of Australia’s call for a moratorium on all new water licences for greenfield irrigation developments, pending a review of system capability to support such new developments.
  • Can the ACCC accelerate Minister Littleproud’s call for an inquiry into the irrigation water trading rules including trading by non-water using investors

The illustration below, showing the horticultural demand for water to 2027, downstream of the Barmah Choke, highlights the need for an urgent assessment of short, medium and long term capabilities of the system .

If you have a particular irrigation issues you want clarification on, please email your thoughts to Riverland Wine.

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