What is the plan for Basin communities?

Water reform: can be done without killing our communities?

Editorial
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The water situation has once again reached a Mexican stand-off, which could not only lead to buybacks if not handled carefully, but is already clearly hurting the diversity of our production, family farms and the sustainability our rural communities.

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Today's rally in Tocumwal, attended by irrigators angry about how water reform has hurt their communities, comes less than a day after the Australia Institute released a report that says the federal government's focus is out of whack with our communities.

The Institute's latest quarterly polling has revealed Australians care about feeding Australia, diversity of production and maintaining family farms (see p3).

The think-tank and research organisation therefore suggested these concerns were at odds with the government's agriculture policy, which emphasised overall production and agriculture's contribution to gross domestic product.

Last week in this column ("More to it than pure economics, efficiencies", p22), we explained that "with such a narrow focus on 'pure' terms, the federal government (then Labor and now Liberal/Nationals) has failed rural communities".

This was specifically in relation to water reform, but the same could be said about a lot of policy areas.

Right now in the Southern Riverina and Goulburn Valley, there are thousands of dairy cows being sold as herds are dispersed - a consequence of both water and milk pricing/competition policies.

As Blighty dairy farmer Andy Lostroh (see p12) explained, not only is he selling his herd, but when he picked up his local paper on Tuesday night he saw another four herds also offered for sale.

"They're not small herds either, they're all 300 or 400 cows," he said.

The flow-on to rural communities has become a serious and growing consequence of the the singular water target focus.

The collateral has become a means to the end, but what rural areas need is better community outcomes to be prioritised by government, the same as water recovery.

The water situation has once again reached a Mexican stand-off, which could not only lead to buybacks if not handled carefully, but is already clearly hurting the diversity of our production, family farms and the sustainability our rural communities.

The closest option that already exists is the caveat that none of the 450GL of upwater can be taken if it can be shown it will hurt communities. Whether this can work will come down to trust in the government living up to its promise.

One difficulty is there remains no plan for the future of the Basin communities, it's just all about the water.

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