Statement regarding issues raised on Four Corners

8 July 2019

The Coalition is proud to invest in water efficiency projects because they return water to the river system whilst protecting rural jobs and communities rather than decimating them as water buybacks do.  

It is unfortunate Four Corners did not mention this crucial fact.

The Coalition uses water efficiency projects instead of water buybacks to recover water because water buybacks mean less farm production, less harvesting and packing jobs in small towns, and less money spent in the local pubs and restaurants. Water efficiency projects began under the previous Labor Government, after it had bought back nearly 1200 GL of water and literally thousands of rural jobs were lost. The Coalition promised before the 2013 election to use water efficiency projects to recover water and we've delivered our promise.

The Plan has so far delivered 2100GL of water back to the river system with about another 500GL to go. 1200GL was recovered through buybacks mostly under Labor, 700GL through water efficiency projects and the balance through state government programs and gifted water.

Recovering large parcels of water from a company through water efficiency projects instead of effectively closing dozens of family farms in a small community through water buybacks is unarguably much better for those communities and the real families who live in them.

The water efficiency projects help farmers grow more with less water through projects such as replacing leaking old drains with modern pipes to save water, and as trade-off the farmer gives up some water entitlement which goes back to the river and is NOT available for purchase by irrigators again. Other common projects include installing “drip irrigation” to deliver dripping water directly to tree roots through a network of small pipes, to replace huge sprinklers or the flooding of entire paddocks.

Taxpayer funded water efficiency projects help farmers grow more with less water, and return water to the river system. This way the river, the farmer and the community all win - the river gets more water, the farmer produces as much or more produce and this protects jobs for the local community. If that farmer or company uses other money to plant other crops or buy other water; that’s up to them so long as all approvals are met. Australia is a free country.

Building a dam does not give a farmer more water entitlement.

Planting almonds, nuts or any other water intensive crop does not give a farmer more water entitlement.

Water entitlements are bought and sold on the open market and farmers are increasingly using them to grow the highest value crops, including almonds and other nuts as well as cotton. Planning issues are a matter for state and local governments. To suggest farmers are switching to high value crops because water is recovered through water efficiency projects is silly. They are switching to high value crops because they return more to the farmer.

Water efficiency works are subject to risk-targeted spot audits by the federal Department of Agriculture, which has also had Deloitte carry out a seperate audit. The Department began the process to audit a major irrigation company (Websters) a few weeks ago. Delivery partners also check infrastructure works.

Comparing the value of water at buyback to water recovered through job-saving water efficiency projects is comparing apples and oranges. Water efficiency upgrades cost more in the short term but save jobs in perpetuity. We’re proud we invest more to protect rural jobs – that’s our policy.

Some 95 per cent of the On Farm Irrigation Efficiency Program projects are worth less than $1 million, with average project size of $152,000 across the 1500 projects. These are almost all small projects involving small farmers, not big companies.

I have made unprecedented investments in compliance - $35 million for river water level sensors and satellite monitoring, $25 million for water metering in the northern basin, $5 million for river level video cameras and I’ve also created the first Northern Basin Commissioner – former AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty.

Regarding complaints about speculators in the water market, I announced in May the ACCC would investigate the water market and its functions and I will have more to say about this soon.

Background

The Murray Darling Basin Plan aims to recover about a fifth of the water farmers were using to give back to the river system. Nearly four-fifths of water recovery is complete.

Professor Grafton was invited to an expert review of return flows led by the University of Melbourne and commissioned by the MDBA last year, but did not attend.

The office of Minister Littleproud was not contacted for the Four Corners story.