Only a quarter of Government's $100m water for fodder delivered to farms

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Months after paying for much-needed water, farmers in the southern Murray-Darling Basin are waiting for the Federal Government’s Water for Fodder program to deliver.

Key points:

  • Only a quarter of the water promised in a $100-million drought deal has been delivered to farms
  • The subsidised water program was heavily over-subscribed by farmers desperate for water
  • South Australia says its waiting on a review before offering the Federal Government more water

Only 800 among the thousands who applied were granted access to the program which was supposed to deliver water to grow feed for drought-affected livestock.

Water was to flow from early December and so far just 26 of the promised 100 gigalitres have been delivered to farms.

Some irrigators who have received it said it was too late to get in a summer fodder crop.

The water was promised at a heavily discounted rate to irrigators after the Federal Government struck a $100 million deal with South Australia to ramp up its desalination plant to provide water for Adelaide.

That, in turn, allowed South Australia to leave water in the Murray River so that irrigators upstream, many who had not had access to water for two years, could use it on their farms.

The relief package includes more funding for councils and cheap loans for farmers and agribusiness.

The irrigators had to promise to use the water to grow crops for livestock after drought decimated fodder supplies across Australia’s east coast.

No water to deliver Water for Fodder

Stuart Schifferle, an irrigator on the West Corurgan system at Berrigan in southern New South Wales, is still waiting for his Water for Fodder allocation to arrive.

He is one of at least 30 farmers in southern NSW successful in the Water for Fodder ballot, but who cannot get the water on farm because of a lack of water in the irrigation channels to deliver it.

“It’s very frustrating. We’ve paid for the water, it’s all paid for, [we’re] happy to buy the water but we need to be able to get it,” Mr Schifferle said.

He said 3,000 megalitres were required to deliver the water to the 21 farmers waiting for their Water for Fodder in his district.

“Most farmers are pretty easy going, but I think there’s a few blokes hanging their hat on getting a bit of water because they desperately need a bit,” he said.

“I think they’re very disappointed the way it’s turned out.”

A further nine irrigators in the nearby Moira Irrigation District are waiting for their fodder water to be delivered.

A Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment spokeswoman said Moira would acquire the water it needed to deliver Water for Fodder, and that West Corurgan was “discussing options with its members”.

“As a condition of participation in the program, applicants were required to agree that they were able to pay for and receive the water,” she said.

SA says no commitment beyond 40GL

Federal Water Minister Keith Pitt has told the ABC that 100GL of water will be delivered under the program.

“My very strong view is we’ll deliver exactly what we said we would and that’s 100GL in the Water for Fodder program,” Mr Pitt said.

South Australia’s Water Minister David Speirs said the extent of his state’s contribution would depend on a review of the first 40GL which must be delivered by the end of the financial year.

“The release of a further 60GL is subject to a review which will take into account the effectiveness of the first round, water availability in the Basin, and South Australia’s water security,” Mr Speirs said.

Under the Water for Fodder program, $89 million will be provided by the Federal Government for the direct running of the desalination plant and a further $10 million will fund a South Australian drought initiative.

The energy-intensive desalination plant was little used before it ramped up production on December 2.

It is now producing up to 300ML of water per day.

Doubts over effectiveness of Water for Fodder

In southern NSW, Blighty sheep and cropping farmer Brett Frost has not received any irrigation water for two years.

“The ground’s dry and there’s cracks everywhere,” Mr Frost said of his farm.

But he decided not to apply for the Water for Fodder program because he did not think 50ML was enough water to make a difference on his farm.

“One splash of water over a paddock isn’t going to make the feed grow,” Mr Frost said.

“It’s a ‘feel good’ thing from the Government’s point of view, they can put out their media and everyone in the cities thinks they’re doing their best to get something out there.”

In Victoria, Kyabram irrigator Gino D’Augello said the oversubscribed ballot had created some division in his community.

“‘Why did you get it and I didn’t’ is very much something that’s out there at the moment,” he said.

Mr D’Augello’s application was approved and he said he was grateful to be a part of the program.

But he lamented the late delivery of water — almost two months after his application was approved — as a missed opportunity.

Mr D’Augello believed he could have harvested more fodder had the water arrived earlier.

The Government offered the water at $100 per megalitre, which Mr D’Augello described as a “huge” saving, given it would cost $700/ML on the temporary market for his district.

There have been 14 applications for the Water for Fodder program approved from South Australia, 499 from Victoria, and 287 from NSW.

While 26GL has been delivered to date, a Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment spokeswoman said “paperwork for another 7.65GL has been approved and sent to South Australia for processing and transfer”.

In the meantime, Mr Schifferle waits to see if his water will arrive.

“It’s pretty crazy, water is running down the river past everyone and out to sea and then comes back, we pump the salt out of it and sell it back to us. It’s just crazy,” Mr Schifferle said.

“If you were telling that story to someone in England they’d think you’re mad.”

A review of the Water for Fodder program is expected to be open for public comment soon.