It is also recognised that more work can be done to improve environmental outcomes for the Basin through the more innovative use of water already held by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) using improved scientific and technological knowledge and better understanding of water delivery throughout the system. Basin dairy farmers not only produce healthy and nutritious products that Australians enjoy, but dairy supports strong and connected communities across the Basin contributing $1.67 billion to the local economy and providing 19% of Australia’s fresh milk.
ADF believes that increasing water use efficiency both by the CEWH and by productive agriculture is essential to fairly balance environmental, economic and social outcomes across the Basin and the wider Australian community. The Basin Plan must be able to evolve and adapt to achieve environmental goals without serious negative impacts on rural communities and the productive agriculture industries which underpin them. Without the ability to adapt and evolve, the Plan will not be able to allow the use of new science and technologies by the CEWH to efficiently achieve environmental outcomes.
There is more to improving environmental health than simply increasing flows. An integrated catchment management approach sees the riverbank, water quality and aquatic life also being considered. In addition, creating habitat and supporting biodiversity are also important measures underpinning improved environmental outcomes. A focus on outcomes, rather than just adding water, would allow investments into areas such as feral animal control and would enhance outcomes for water already being used.
Past impacts attributed to the Plan have divided communities and created fear and uncertainty. ADF believes that Basin communities deserve greater recognition for the work they undertake and could do on farms to improve environmental outcomes in the Basin. Federal Government programs such as the Emissions Reduction Fund and the Agriculture Biodiversity Stewardship package aim to recognise and reward the stewardship of farmers in looking after their environmental assets. ADF believes the Basin Plan must adopt a similar focus in recognising the efforts of farmers in the region as environmental stewards.
2100 GL of water has been recovered under the Plan to date, with significant environmental outcomes achieved to significant sites across the Basin. These gains must be recognised and celebrated. Dairy farms have done much of the heavy lifting to recover this water which has come at a significant cost to farming communities across the Basin, with dairy businesses and value chains being disproportionately impacted through reductions in available water, increased water prices and buybacks.
The 2020 Independent assessment of social and economic conditions in the Murray–Darling Basin (the Sefton Review) found that ‘recovering more consumptive irrigation water will have significant negative impacts for some regional Basin communities, including NSW Murray and northern Victoria. It may also have significant negative impacts in the northern Basin communities where water recovery is likely to be targeted. These impacts will be additional to those that these communities have already incurred’.
For this reason, it is essential to implement rigorous socio-economic analysis before any further interventions are implemented, to ensure rural communities and productive agriculture are not negatively impacted.
Since the beginning of the Plan in 2012, there has been a 44% reduction in dairy farms and a 30% decrease in milk production across the Basin. With so many farmers exiting the dairy industry, processors have been left with underutilised infrastructure and the viability of infrastructure networks has been challenged. The Plan must not leave these communities behind. Support is needed to ensure primary producers can continue to produce food and fibre for the nation and for export. The loss of further productive capacity in the Basin is a direct risk to food security.
It must be recognised that rural communities are not all impacted equally by the implementation of the Plan. It is evident that some smaller rural communities have already been seriously negatively impacted and to date there has been little effort to redress this impact on businesses which have no water entitlements to sell. Real and effective consultation must be undertaken with Basin communities to understand the impacts and develop methodologies to compensate and create new opportunities within these communities.