Confusion as farmers ‘underuse’ water in drought

 

Critically important water in the Murray Darling Basin is being "left idle" as confusion and fear contribute to a growing trend of farmers not using their full allocation.

Farmers' "puzzling" underuse of available water during the worst drought in living memory has prompted Water Resources Minister David Littleproud to issue a plea to states to help him find out why.

An industry report prepared for Sunrice this month found in the last 10 years the average Murray and Murrumbidgee standard irrigation water use alone had reduced by 1.6GL - more than three Sydney Harbours - annually.

Farmers are not using their full allocation of water from the Murray Darling Basin despite the drought. Picture: Toby Zerna
Farmers are not using their full allocation of water from the Murray Darling Basin despite the drought. Picture: Toby Zerna

The report by independent Victorian water industry consultants, RMCG, said far more water had been allowed to travel to South Australia than the Basin Plan ever intended.

"In recent times the available water appears to have taken a step change downwards, which appears to be much lower than anticipated, even allowing for climatic conditions, transfer of water to other crops and government water recovery programs," RMCG said.

Some irrigators have pointed the finger at low allocations, but the Murray Darling Basin Authority has found farmers aren't actually using all the water they're currently entitled to up to the sustainable diversion limit.

"Cap and transitional take reporting has shown a trend in under-utilisation (of water)," a communique from the MDBA said.

Mr Littleproud said it was up to farmers to decide how to use their water, but the authority's suggestion of "large volumes" of unused water was concerning.

"The water not being used could make a big difference to irrigators right across the Basin," he said.

"Right now every drop of water counts so it's puzzling to see it left unused."

"The states need to allocate water in a way that makes sure farmers get every drop they own."

Water Resources Minister David Littleproud will ask the states to help find out why farmers aren’t using all their water allocation. Picture: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas
Water Resources Minister David Littleproud will ask the states to help find out why farmers aren’t using all their water allocation. Picture: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Mr Littleproud said the Authority had made it clear they "wanted to see farmers use all the water" available up to the limit in the Basin Plan and hoped states would help solve the issue.

"I want to understand why there is underuse and if any changes are needed," he said.

"We need to get under the bonnet of this to find why it's going on.

"I will ask the states to work with me to find out why water was being left idle which would have come in handy for farmers during the drought."

As the drought continues to impact farmers across the state, governments and regulators have been on hand to ensure no one is taking more than their share, which could leave farmers wary of their entitlements.

Last month The Daily Telegraph revealed several farmers in the state's north west were unfairly identified in a MDBA report that implied they had illegally taken water from the river without any evidence.

The Darling River in NSW has almost completely dried up in some places, but further south there is water in the Basin available to farmers. Picture: Jenny Evans/Getty Images
The Darling River in NSW has almost completely dried up in some places, but further south there is water in the Basin available to farmers. Picture: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

NSW Farmers chief Peter Arkle said the "complexity" of different water rights across the state was challenging for many farmers and could result in the underuse of entitlements.

"I think trying to increase the awareness and skills of farmers to participate in the water market in a way that best benefits their businesses is really important," he said.

"Farmers need to be aware of their entitlements so they can make informed decisions about how to maximise the value be that by growing certain crops on their farms or trading entitlements elsewhere through the Basin."

Mr Arkle said more transparency in the water market would benefit every farmer and water user.

"This is a very precious and valuable commodity and it comes back to irrigation companies and governments to make sure everyone's aware how it is used," he said.

Meanwhile MDBA members have conceded the ongoing drought has made it difficult to continue planned "major" reforms to improve the long-term health of the river.

"(Drought) involves hard decisions by governments to limit water extraction and strengthen water sharing to secure the future interests of the community and irrigation industry as well as key environmental assets," their communique said.

"Communities are facing challenging times and will continue to need support to adapt to

new water management arrangements."

 

How do farmers buy water from the Murray Darling Basin?

Farmers can buy or lease a licence for water to grow whatever they want.

 

Why don't farmers always get the amount of water they paid for?

Rainfall and other data is used to decide how much water the Basin states - NSW, Queensland, ACT, Victoria and SA - get each year. States then share this between license holders. In a good year there is enough water for everyone, but in drought farmers may be allocated a smaller percentage of their usual entitlement.

 

Can a farmer sell the water they have?

Yes. Anyone can permanently sell their license to someone else. They can also temporarily lease their allocation for a season if they decide they don't need or want the water that year.

 

Who sets the price of water?

The value is different across different regions and types of licenses but the price depends on supply and demand. If a lot of people want water and there's not much available, the price goes up.

 

Why is there water flowing in the rivers that some farmers can't touch?

There are many reasons a farmer might be on "zero allocation" even though there is water in the river. Firstly, a certain amount of water is reserved for critical human needs and for environmental flows to try and keep the river system healthy. There is also an agreement between all the states in the Basin to send water over the border to make sure those down stream aren't disadvantaged. Finally, people with a license can decide to save part of their water allocation from previous years, which they can then use at a later date.