Water inquiry hears grower fears of planting boom: Developing threat

Senior counsel assisting Richard Beasley and commissioner Bret Walker, SC, at the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission’s public hearing in Mildura. Pictures: Carmel Zaccone

Senior counsel assisting Richard Beasley and commissioner Bret Walker, SC, at the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission’s public hearing in Mildura. Pictures: Carmel Zaccone

UNCONTROLLED development poses a huge threat to existing Sunraysia farmers and the sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin, a public inquiry into water management was told in Mildura yesterday.

The South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray-Darling Basin was urged to consider ­whether planning oversight for major new plantings should be beefed up, amid concerns skyrocketing temporary water prices would send family farms out of business and decimate communities in the next drought.

The Mildura hearing followed the commission’s visit to Broken Hill, where concerns about the health of the lower Darling River and planned changes to the ­Menindee Lakes were emphasised.

Those topics were never far from the discussion at yesterday’s hearing, where irrigators and environ­mentalists found themselves in broad agreement over concerns about governance of the country’s largest river system.

Corporate lobby groups had too much influence over water policy, the commission was told, with concerns over governments' commitment to improving the health of the river system and the way the basin plan had been managed.

The Victorian Government came in for particular criticism for working against the Murray-Darling Basin Plan under pressure from the dairy lobby.

Swan Hill stone fruit grower Peta Thornton said basin communities were given a "confusing message" when told by politicians than the basin plan would destroy communities, while major nut plantations were springing up along the river.

Ms Thornton said it was unregulated development, rather than water recovery for the environment, that risked leaving communities high and dry.

"Developments are being allowed to go ahead without water at all attached to them," she said.

"They are going to be big players on the temporary water market, Now, that is a threat to my business."

Andrew Young, a vegetable grower and private diverter, said new large-scale plantings were reliant on full allocation of water.

He said commodity prices were likely to determine which irrigators were first affected by a water crunch when allocation became limited.

"We are concerned as irrigators that there is a catastrophe coming," Mr Young said.

"There has been a big movement of water use to this region – I live at Wemen and it is all around us."

Irymple table grape grower Frank Dimasi warned the increased pressure from new plantings meant the Murray risked a similar decline in its water security as the lower Darling.

Former Lower Murray Darling Catchment Management Authority chair Jim Wilton said minimum flows should be required at key points along the river to protect the health of the whole system rather than that of certain "icon sites".

"It's not something that's really addressed – how much water should go past your door to allow for the carrying capacity of the river, for the environment, for urban, for industrial? There has to be a figure," he said.

Senior counsel assisting the commission, Richard Beasley, SC, said the concerns about increased development were "probably most acute" in Mildura.

"It is something we've been thinking about, in that if you buy a block of land and you're going to put a house on it, either the council authority or the government will have controls about the height you can make your house and the floor space ratio and a range of other things but here you can buy a block of land and you don't even have to have a water share to be able to put in 50,000 almond trees," Mr Beasley said.

"There are issues about whether there should be better regulations in some way in a region and a country where water is a finite resource."

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