Farmers feel abandoned in groundwater ‘snitch’

Calls to restore groundwater allocations as drought drags on


Dairy
Farmer Ruth Kydd at Finley, wants her groundwater allocation at her dairy farm restored as her family battles the drought and temporary water is unavailable. Photo by Rachael Webb.

Farmer Ruth Kydd at Finley, wants her groundwater allocation at her dairy farm restored as her family battles the drought and temporary water is unavailable. Photo by Rachael Webb.

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The high cost of the government groundwater grab

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In the middle of one of the worst droughts with water availability falling away by the minute, farmers above natural aquifers are seething as what they say was the unnecessary cuts to their groundwater allocations.

The stress of minimal compensation and what users say were inequitable reductions have led to depression, forced sales of properties and at least two suicides, The Land has been told.

Representations are underway to try and get the allocations restored – in some cases farmers lost over 1000 megalitres a year – as water users say it is now evident the science used to acquire the water was wrong.

Long running class actions have done little to solve the matter, with the High Court eventually deciding it could not rule the water had been ‘stolen’.

For water users in the Murray Valley it’s a battle over property rights as much as water rights. Meanwhile as stockfeed runs low, above ground water runs low, and there is hardly any temporary water available – there is an immediate source of water that could be restored “overnight” by a government decision, water users say.

Greg Sandford, Deniliquin farmer, and Chairman of the Groundwater Users Association, said that in 2008 the Commonwealth ordered the NSW government to compulsorily  acquire 68 per cent of  Murray Valley Groundwater entitlements. “Even though the majority or irrigators wanted an equal reduction the Commonwealth ordered that the cuts be made on a history of use model,” he said. 

“This meant only 10 per cent of entitlements taken received partial compensation, and the remainder received $0. This was known as the ASGE agreement. These entitlements were mortgaged as equity with the banks, so irrigators lost there equity in their loan, as well as the ability to generate income as they had lost their water.

“Some irrigators lost 85 per cent f their entitlements, 10 per cent of water taken received $400 compensation, 90 per cent received zero. The irrigators that invested huge amounts of capital in water efficiency projects were penalised as they had not wasted their water.

“How does a farmer go home and tell their family that they have lost their farm because they went further into debt to use water more efficiently? I do not know of another Govt in the world that penalises farmers for trying to be more water efficient.

I do not know of another Govt in the world that penalises farmers for trying to be more water efficient. - Greg Sanford, Chairman of Groundwater Users Association

“This has led to 2 suicides that I know of, as well as many forced sales, depression etc. the flow on effects to local businesses, towns etc has been huge.”

“Taxation provides the State and Federal Governments with the financial resources to enter a commercial market and acquire private assets of value. This was the case with surface water entitlements. The NSW government acknowledged it reduced irrigators’ entitlements to groundwater without paying full market value for them. Individual proprietary rights are fundamental.”

Related: Basin Plan pumping $1.5b into on-and-off-farm water projects

The loss of groundwater is playing out among the Murray dairy farmers who are outraged Victoria has given back much of the groundwater taken away in the Murray aquifer (known as aquifer 016), but NSW is sitting on its hands. The history of the issue predates the current Berejiklian Government. Only a few weeks ago Murray Nationals MP Austin Evans made representations to NSW Water Minister Niall Blair on the issue. It’s not entirely sure where the issue stands at the moment, but any resolution would be highly complicated as allocations were taken away in varying degrees depending on the farm history model. Mr Sandford said any reallocation should make it equal for all farmers – so they ended up with the same allocation. He said the CSIRO study in 2008 found that the water taken was not backed up by recharging data.

At Myrtle Park, Finley, dairy farmer Ruth Kydd, said many dairy farmers were cutting back their herd size because of the high costs of stock feed and the unavailability of water – ground and above ground. She said there was no temporary water available. It is also believed some groundwater is now trading at $1700 a megalitre on the market.

Mrs Kydd saw her groundwater allocation dropped from 1306 megalitres to 217 megalitres after the Government intervention. “We lost about 1100 megs with no compensation from the government,” she said. “Victoria has returned the water (the Murray aquifer runs across the border) because the facts weren’t right in the first place but the NSW Government has done nothing about it. That extra water is very important to us at the moment. We can’t get extra water. People just aren’t selling it.”

The Kydds have sold 400 dairy cows since July. The drought meant that they couldn’t grow a stockfeed crop during winter and the forecast is not good. “It will be a difficult time to come,” Mrs Kydd said. “If they could return the water that would be a big help – it’s just sitting there.”

In a submission, Mr Sandford said: “The problem with the current model is that it supports water inefficiencies and penalised water efficiency works. Groundwater irrigators were told via newsletters from 2001 that we were facing an across the board cut of 68 per cent.  My neighbour on Tuppal Station decided he could not keep growing rice if he lost 68 per cent of his water, so he stopped growing rice and spent $700, 000.00 on spray irrigation to bring his usage down. Because of this he lost most of his water and was not eligible for any compensation.”

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