Waiting on water

Leeton: Separating land and water a mistake, says mayor


Life & Style
A summer sun rises over a rice field. Rice has been grown in the Riverina for more than a century.

A summer sun rises over a rice field. Rice has been grown in the Riverina for more than a century.

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Leeton's mayor doesn't mince words. "Without water, we are nothing," he says. "And there have been dire mistakes made dealing with our water."

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IT WAS 1967 when Paul Maytom first walked down Leeton's main street.

He'd arrived to pick fruit in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, which had been existence a little more than 50 years. The young man from Newcastle must have been impressed, because he never moved on.

Paul has now served on council for 32 years, and been mayor for 14, "I've seen where we've been, where we are and where we're going," he says.

To understand Leeton and its economy you have to appreciate the importance of capturing and delivering water to its irrigators. The town didn't develop gradually, it was purpose-built to accommodate a population that made its living from irrigation water, growing food.

Samuel McCaughey began irrigation at Yanco station at the end of the 19th century.

He built a private scheme of about 320 kilometres of channels to irrigate an area of 162 square kilometres feeding off the Murrumbidgee River.

The creation of Burrinjuck Dam in 1912 sparked the beginning of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. In 1914 Sir Walter Burley Griffin designed Leeton, as irrigation channels were being cut and reinforced to service blocks of farmland.

And then in the 1970s Blowering Dam was completed, pretty much the last of significant infrastructure to service irrigators.

There were the darks days of the 1990s, when the Leeton cannery, trading under the name Letona, went broke and shut up shop in 1993, leaving a huge vacuum in the town's economy. The cannery had employed between 160-180 people full time and critically as many as 800 jobs in the three-to-five-month canning season.

By 1993 receivers Ernst and Young estimated the company had amassed $43 million of debt, much of it owed to the State Bank of New South Wales. 

By that time Paul Maytom was deputy mayor, seriously engaged in his community.

Leeton's Mayor Paul Maytom says water trading threatens the diversity of the region, diversity that has been key to its survival.

Leeton's Mayor Paul Maytom says water trading threatens the diversity of the region, diversity that has been key to its survival.

"We tried to save (the cannery) but we couldn't," he said, "it was a huge blow because it wasn't gradual, it was just gone." 

What followed was a government tree-pulling program, the disappearance of much of the Riverina's stone fruit crop and with it the end of omnipresent cans of peaches in the larders of families across Australia. "Doom and gloom was certainly predicted and really as a community we had to get up and fight," says Paul.

"We got the feedlot in 1993/94 and also the abattoir, that created about 400 jobs and it helped fill the void, it helped us get back on our feet." Many farmers soon took to growing cereal crops to keep the feedlot operating. Since 2010 the feedlot has been owned by JBS and today has a carrying capacity of 53,300 head, directly employing more than 450 people.

That, backed by the region's ever-present rice crops, grapes and citrus trees and complemented in the past 10 years by cotton means irrigation still plays a critical role in Leeton's economy. "It's the ideal climate for cotton now," says Paul, and there are now three cotton gins in the Riverina.

And burgeoning walnut and almond industries have developed around Leeton, made possible by a changing climate.

"It wasn't considered the right climate to grow walnuts (nor cotton), but now it is," says Paul. In the past four to five years, the nut industry has grown exponentially, bringing permanent plantings.

The hulling and drying is all being done near Leeton and food processing continues to grow with Freedom Foods since 2009 creating "free from" breakfast cereals and snacks and creating gluten-free products.

"It's a sophisticated manufacturing company employing highly skilled people and it's looking to grow," says Paul.

Leeton Shire Council general manager Jackie Kruger says the western Riverina's economy is worth $2.4 billion to the state economy. She said aquaculture was an emerging industry and was adding value to water in the MIA. She said improved infrastructure was needed to service the region, mentioning WRConnect, a proposed major freight and logistics multinodal to service to western Riverina and the recent $64-million upgrade of the Griffith to Junee rail line.

She said really planners needed to consider the next hundred years and the growth of freight out of the MIA could not be allowed to develop in an evolutionary way, it had to be thoroughly planned.

It's a valid point. More than a hundred years ago the key infrastructure that allowed Australia's agricultural industry to grow was put in place. Now, with its $100-billion-a-year target more than ever efficient use of water is of dire importance to agriculture.

Have there been mistakes made? Yes, says Paul Maytom, the separation of water from the land to create a water market was a serious miscalculation. "The average person these days can't afford to buy water.

"There are now people holding water that don't use it and that's wrong, that's simply trading on people's misfortunes to builld wealth and power.

"Farmers, many of them immigrants, worked hard to build our region. Water with the land, that's how our communities grew, we must maintain that connectivity," says Paul. "Diversity has always been our strength and water trading can damage that diversity."

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