As a result of irrigation, the Murray Darling Basin became Australia’s premier agricultural province – accounting for up to 40 per cent of the nation’s farm output. It did so while making the river system more pleasing and safer by creating a placid, ever-flowing river.
The farming benefits of the river having been achieved, green groups led by the ACF and acting under the umbrella of the “Wentworth Group” (founded in 2002 and named after the posh Sydney hotel where they met) started campaigning to suppress irrigation in the area. The group contained the usual suspects, including David Karoly, Tim Flannery, Martjin Wilder, Peter Cullin, Peter Cosier and were bankrolled by the heir to the Clyde Industries fortune, Robert Purves.
In attacking irrigation as the key to commercial farming on the Murray, the Wentworth group first claimed it was creating salinity and we had a stream of ABC programs (e.g here, here and here) purporting to demonstrate this. That furphy was unfounded and we hear little of it now. Salt was never a problem (the Darling is naturally salty) and it is easily remedied.
But economic vandalism gained a whole new focus with the greenhouse scare. This, coupled with the Millennium drought 1995-2009, brought intensified calls for reducing irrigation – The Garnaut Report even maintained that irrigated agriculture in the area would need to cease by 2050. The drought having broken, analysis of rainfall records shows it was just another episode in the endless volatility of the rainfall over much of Australia.
In addition to these claims about the need to cease irrigated agriculture and revert to nature there was a third rationale, a need to keep open the mouth of the Murray with constant freshwater flows. That policy actually seeks to defeat the natural state of the river, which is one of periodic oceanic inundation when river flows are low.
The outcome has been governments buying irrigation rights from farmers. At least two sevenths of the “high security” water has been bought, ostensibly for “environmental purposes”. This has obvious outcomes in bringing about reduced production.
One commentator on the Quadrant piece said, “It’s as though there is a conspiracy afoot in this country to stop people owning and operating viable farms.” What we do have is a loathing of commercial success when this involves use of resources combined with an ideology that the income we need comes automatically and is little affected by measures we take that involve inhibiting its creation.
The water rights were bought rather than simply seized from farmers. The irrigators sold freely and were therefore adequately compensated – indeed, where they retained a portion of their rights, the consequent squeeze on water availability has brought asset value increases. But the communities that benefit from the farming activities are seeing towns in decline and activities – the latest being rice milling – closing down.