6 December 2011
A tomato farm in Rochester was one of the farms in the Murray-Darling Basin region to receive a visit from opposition water spokesperson Senator Barnaby Joyce last week, as part of a three-day trip to talk to farmers following the release of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
Senator Joyce said he was looking for feedback from residents about their issues.
‘‘We are trying to get for the government some real details because at the moment they’ve just got this ‘hitchhikers guide’ to the basin,’’ he said.
Speaking about Mark Hill’s tomato farm, he said it had state of the art yields and irrigation systems that were competitive on a global scale.
‘‘We have to compete against China, with China’s wage rates, China’s occupational health and safety standards and we are trying to compete with one hand tied behind our back,’’ he said.
He said the government’s current approach would have a dire impact on the future of some irrigation dependent towns.
‘‘The Murray-Darling Basin produces almost 50 per cent of Australia’s fruit and over 90 per cent of our tomatoes,’’ he said.
‘‘One day the dollar will depreciate and that will force food prices up for everyone,’’ he said.
He was joined by Member for Murray Sharman Stone, Senator for Victoria Bridget McKenzie and Campaspe Irrigation owner Denis Moon.
Ms Stone said that the politicians visited irrigators, members of local government, orchardists, dairy farmers and horticulturalists to show Senator Joyce what they had achieved in those areas.
‘‘If the plan is delivered, as currently proposed, we would have massive job losses,’’ she said.
‘‘We would not have the water security that underpins our food manufacturers.’’
Friends of the Earth Murray-Darling water campaigner Jonathan Lanauze said he was also unhappy about the draft plan as it did not give back the minimum requirement of 4000Gl to sustain a healthy river.
‘‘There will be no jobs or farms on a dead river,’’ he said.
He said 4000Gl was a conservative figure and they were already taking a risk by agreeing to this amount.
‘‘There is a very high risk that it won’t solve the problem we are facing,’’ he said.
Ms Stone, however, said the Murray River was very healthy now.
‘‘The river was unhealthy in the 10th year of drought, well, you could say it was unhealthy or you could say it’s what naturally happens in Australia,’’ she said.
‘‘On any measure of the species that are now represented and how effective the re-growth is, I challenge you, is the river substantially less healthy than it was before the drought?’’
Mr Lanauze took up this challenge and said it was.
‘‘For anyone to suggest that the river is in a healthy state is just laughable,’’ he said.
‘‘The most reputable ecologists, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation all recognise that the river is in full decline,’’ he said.
He said 90 per cent of native fish populations were left within the Murray-Darling Basin and without intervention the figure was likely to fall 5 per cent in the next 40 to 50 years.
He also said blue green algae levels naturally present in Basin rivers had been increasing since the 1970s, due to prolonged periods of low flow.
‘‘When this dominates the water and is highly toxic, you can’t drink the water or use it for stock,’’ he said.
Mr Lanauze said most fish required flooding to breed.
‘‘Below certain volumes, certain parts of the ecosystem don’t work,’’ he said.
Campaspe Irrigation owner Denis Moon said he would like to invite environmentalists to visit the area for them to see how the land was farmed and how water was used.
‘‘If some of these people making the decisions for all our futures were to come out here and see what’s been happening, what’s being done and how it’s being done, it might make things a little bit different,’’ Mr Moon said.
‘‘Same goes for the environmental groups that sit back and think we are splashing water all over the place with no regard for the environment or anyone else.’’
But Mr Lanauze said he was aware that farmers made an effort to use less water and many were willing to acknowledge they could sell part of their water rights back to the rivers, as they did not need it all.
‘‘I think our farmers are very good at working with less water,’’ he said