Drought water diversion warning

By Alana Christensen

Diverting environmental water to drought-stricken farms could result in a dangerous precedent for water rights, some irrigators and environmentalists have warned.

The caution comes after Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack announced support for a plan that would see drought-affected irrigators ‘‘borrow’’ environmental water to grow hay and fodder.

‘‘In times of emergency you have to look at all provisions on the table,’’ the Federal Member for Riverina said in Canberra on Thursday.

Under the Water Act 2007, some water is able to be traded by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder but only if it does not adversely affect the environment.

Mr McCormack’s suggestion, which was originally put forward by drought envoy Barnaby Joyce, would mean a change in legislation would be needed.

Speaking on ABC radio, former Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder David Papps said the proposal set a dangerous precedent for water rights to be shifted between the environment and irrigators however a government decides.

He said the idea should be ‘‘left alone’’ and work should continue on implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

But Speak Up Campaign chair Shelley Scoullar said food production and environment did not need to be in competition.

‘‘Mr Papps questioned the deputy PM’s views on climate change, which was an interesting twist on Mr McCormack’s efforts to get more balance into water management,’’ Mrs Scoullar said.

‘‘If we’re serious about addressing climate change through water policy, perhaps a priority should be addressing issues at the lower end of the Murray River, where the MDBA and governments are trying to find a fresh water solution for what was a naturally estuarine system.

‘‘Surely we should be looking at dual-purpose uses for every drop of water and ways to use our precious water resources to get the most crops and frogs from every drop.

‘‘This doesn’t have to be a farmer versus the environment debate. It should be all about the best possible management of our resources, and it’s unfortunate that some on the green side who want to be part of the debate cannot see and accept this basic principle,’’ Mrs Scoullar said.

Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder Jody Swirepik last month announced that 20Gl of environmental water will be sold in the Goulburn region, with the NSW Government also pledging to trade 15Gl of water to irrigators.

Irrigators in the NSW Murray region currently have zero general security allocation despite repeated lobbying from water groups.

National Irrigators Council chief executive officer Steve Whan slammed Mr McCormack and Mr Joyce’s idea, stating any help for drought-affected farmers must occur within the current water rules.

‘‘The CEWH owns water in exactly the same way as irrigators. We certainly support exploring opportunities to sell some of that water back into the market but in a way that is consistent with the existing legislation,’’ he said.

It was a view shared by Environment Victoria healthy rivers campaign manager Juliet le Feuvre, who said there were other ways of dealing with the current situation that did not involve taking water from the environment.