Murray-Darling Basin debate gives rise to new voices of desperation and despair

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Sick of watching Victorian farmers fail, shops close and real estate signs go up, communities in the southern Murray-Darling Basin are forming a range of new groups to fight for their survival.

By their own admission, no-one really knows what to do, but dissatisfaction with the basin plan is such that a number of organisations have been formed to try to do something before it is too late.

Drought, water market reform, and the introduction of high-value crops that can afford to pay more for water than traditional farms has seen water prices rise to a point where many farmers can not afford to irrigate.

Chair of the newly-formed Northern Victorian Irrigation Communities, Nick James.

“I think it’s a fact that the eyes never lie,” says Nick James from his home on the banks of Broken Creek, a tributary of the Murray River.

He leads a group of young farmers, business people and community members from northern Victoria which formed in the past week to push for change to the rules around the water market.

The group, Northern Victorian Irrigation Communities, is not calling for the whole Murray-Darling Basin Plan to be thrown out, but rather wants a lot of the rules and structures around the water market changed to make it fairer.

That includes a close look at carryover water which currently allows irrigators to keep water from one season to the next, more stock market-style transparency for water markets to understand who-owns-what water, compulsory water metering, and standards for the entire basin.

“We’re not looking for a short term fix,” Mr James said.

“We’re not looking for a good rain or some environmental water to come on the market. That’s just a bandaid to fix cancer.

Very little water has been flowing in northern Victoria this season and water prices have skyrocketed.

Groups shun traditional lobbyists

Traditionally, agricultural lobby groups have been relatively stable in the region.

Farmers pushed for change through well established channels of their state farming organisations such as the Victorian Farmers Federation, commodity groups like Ricegrowers Australia, or national bodies like the National Farmers Federation or National Irrigators Council.

But in recent years that has changed.

The amount of milk produced in the southern Murray-Darling is down by a quarter, the region will produce its second-lowest rice crop since the 1930s, and the spread of cotton has halted due to high water prices and a lack of water.

So farmers and community members, in despair, are calling for a paradigm shift, and into the void come new groups promising to change the region’s fortunes.

Wade Northausen is angry and wants the basin plan thrown out.

“This is a national state of emergency,” he said.

A group he is forming called Southern Basin Communities is holding public meetings to try and do something about water that he says traditional lobby groups have not been able to achieve.

Southern irrigators want water use standards for the entire basin.

He is yet another voice wanting a Federal royal commission established with hopes to scrap the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Speaking up for water

The traditional lobbyists are being forced to notice and recognise the force of the anger.

But when the ABC asked the president of Ricegrowers Australia, Jeremy Morton, whether the newer lobby groups helped or hindered the Murray-Darling Basin approach, he sat on the fence.

“To be honest it is a bit of both. They are reflecting the lived experience of those in that part of the basin right now,” he said.

“They’re angry, they’re frustrated, and these groups show how people feel.”

In southern New South Wales the Speak Up campaign has been bubbling along for a few years, was incorporated a year ago, and has started to get more serious.

They want Prime Minister Scott Morrison to acknowledge there is a problem in their community.

“I get phone calls nearly daily from people ready to blockade highways and march on Canberra. They are just so fatigued and frustrated,” said Shelley Scoullar, the chair of the Speak Up campaign.

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