The fight for a healthier Murray-Darling must continue

Sheep farmer Wayne Smith stands in the dry river bed of the Darling River on his property near Pooncarie

I’m a fifth-generation farmer. My family have run properties alongside the Darling/Baaka River for almost a century. We have watched as the once mighty river system that runs through the heart of our nation has suffered due to government mismanagement and over-extraction upstream.

I’ve always said the red dirt of home runs through my veins, and this connection to country fuels my commitment to fight for the health of its lifeblood, the Murray-Darling.

Recently, The Australia Institute published my research exploring one aspect of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan called the Off-Farm Efficiency Program, which was designed to return 450GL of water to the environment. The report analysed a list of project proposals that federal Water Minister Keith Pitt claimed formed “the core of our work” under the program. Worryingly, many of the projects on this list showed little or no prospect of returning water to the environment. Some involved extracting more water from the system; others included building and upgrading more than 1200 bridges in NSW irrigation districts.

The research showed that just 0.46 per cent of the 450GL has been recovered so far and the department is on track to secure just 13 per cent of that target by the 2024 deadline. Consequently, the report recommended that details relating to all of the projects be released publicly and that no funding be committed to any projects until detailed plans were revealed, including costings and estimated water recovery volumes. A very modest recommendation given the research findings.

Despite the report serving as a catalyst for Senators from all sides of politics – including government Senator Andrew McLachlan – to demand more transparency of the program during Budget Estimates, the minister chose to lash out at The Australia Institute rather than seek answers from his department. Mr Pitt claimed the research was “wildly inaccurate” without identifying any actual inaccuracies.

Attempting to pit research against irrigators is not going to do anyone any good, so we responded by offering the minister a briefing on the report. That offer stands, but two weeks later we’re yet to receive a call.

Interestingly, in the days following the publication of the report, the department’s Off-Farm Efficiency Program website has been updated and the proposals regarding bridges were removed – so it appears the minister definitely called someone.

In the meantime, I have spoken to a number of irrigator groups and community members. While we don’t agree on everything, we all recognise that money intended to increase environmental flows should only be used on projects that offer the prospect of genuine water recovery.

I’ll continue my work farming on the Darling/Baaka and fighting for the health of the river system that our community and this country relies on, but it is the minister who holds the livelihoods of regional Australians in his hands.

Kate McBride is a fifth-generation farmer and an Anne Kantor Fellow at independent think tank, The Australia Institute.

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