Senate inquiry hears of water anguish

A string of policy decisions has left Bourke farmer John Gordon with largely stranded water assets

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Bourke farmer John Gordon with his brother Andrew Gordon. A string of water policy decisions in the Barwon-Darling has meant the Gordons have been left with largely stranded water assets. Photo supplied by John Gordon.

Bourke farmer John Gordon with his brother Andrew Gordon. A string of water policy decisions in the Barwon-Darling has meant the Gordons have been left with largely stranded water assets. Photo supplied by John Gordon.

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Bourke farmer John Gordon gave evidence at the Murray Darling Basin Plan senate inquiry.

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Bourke farmer John Gordon, West Mooculta has had to completely transform his family's business following a series of policy decisions in the Barwon-Darling, which have left them with largely stranded water assets.

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"Our income base was 90 per cent irrigation and 10 per cent livestock, but over the last 15 years we have completely switched that around," Mr Gordon said, explaining they used to grow cotton but now ran Hereford and Santa Gertrudis cattle.

Mr Gordon was one of the stakeholders who gave evidence to the Commonwealth senate inquiry into the multi-jurisdictional management and execution of the Murray Darling Basin Plan (MDBP).

At a public hearing held in Moree last week, Mr Gordon told the committee that as part of the 2006 Barwon-Darling Cap Management Strategy, introduced in order for the valley to comply with the MDBP, irrigators had to give up a percentage of their water entitlements without any compensation. Mr Gordon relinquished 71pc of his allocation, 13,747 megalitres.

He said irrigators agreed to give up their entitlements on the promise that the NSW government would establish an open water market in the Barwon-Darling valley, as part of the separation between land and water.

However, the policy framework required for this to become reality did not eventuate until 2011.

"At a stroke of a Minister's pen there was a stripping of equity value off irrigation farms on the promise that there would be a water market created," Mr Gordon said.

"That promise fell over because policy mechanisms were never in place from Day One of the strategy being implemented.

"My experience was extremely traumatic, I felt I had strong water assets that were rendered useless due to the absence of cap policy framework."

Temporary trade restriction locks up carryover 

More recently, in 2018, the Barwon Darling Water Sharing Plan was amended to restrict the amount of water that could be temporarily traded from individual accounts - to address the potential cap exceedance.

Mr Gordon said this had effectively locked up water for people, like himself, who have a small cap share but a high volume of carryover.

"Again with a stroke of a pen we've been impacted," Mr Gordon said.

We're left with stranded assets.

"Those who offered up the most at the start continue to pay the highest price, while the Barwon-Darling still struggles annually to be cap compliant."

Attempt to sell water to the environment halted 

Mr Gordon has tried to sell water to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder but his application was denied after federal Water Minister Keith Pitt made the announcement that there would be no more buybacks in September last year.

"We did that to find out what the environmental trade value was but also because if we are to be realistic about climate change and there being less water to everyone in the future - we believe that if we get the environment right everything else will follow, but if it struggles we will continue to bang our head against the wall," he said

Minister Pitt stated that extensive consultation occurred before the decision on buybacks was made.

"The response from stakeholders was overwhelmingly in favour of ending water buybacks, which led to my decision to close the Water Efficiency Program earlier this year and divert over $1.4 billion to focus on off-farm water saving projects," Mr Pitt said.

The hearing was the first time Mr Gordon said he was afforded the time to present his family's experience to the government.

"Whether it's worth the time or not, the proof will be in the outcome of the review," Mr Gordon said.

"There needs to be some accountability for poor policy making and deliverance, the people that it effects should be justly remunerated or given the time to readjust their business models.

"People drive through our community and wonder where everyone's gone, it's too easy to blame drought but we can all manage and prepare for drought, what we can't prepare for is poor governance."

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