Farmers in Tasmania’s south-east put development on hold as climate changes and new water is knocked back

Farmers in Tasmania’s south-east put development on hold as climate changes and new water is knocked back

The future of some farms in Tasmania’s south-east are shaky after a federal government decision to knock back funding for new water for crops and livestock.

A new multi-million dollar irrigation scheme would have bypassed Hobart’s drinking water system and provided new cheaper water, but it all hinged on 150 million dollars from the federal government to be announced in the budget.

The Coal River Valley faced a long, dry summer with a lack of rainfall continuing.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

The federal government’s funds would be 50 per cent of the project costs with the state and irrigators funding 25 per cent each.

The $301 million dollar scheme would tap into Lake Meadowbank in the Derwent Valley and merge three existing irrigation schemes, bypassing infrastructure used for drinking water.

It was expected to be a sure thing — until it wasn’t.

Viability of businesses under threat, producers say

Sophie Milic recently took over her family business in the Coal River Valley. She says a predictable price of water is vital.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

Sophie Milic, from the Coal River Products Association, said it would have a big impact on local businesses.

“It will absolutely threaten the viability of many businesses, if we can’t get good irrigation water that we can rely on, and that we can essentially predict the price of and be able to build that into our business model,” she said.

Dairy, strawberries, cherries, lamb, walnuts, apricots, and wine operations have had to work with water restrictions in the past, as well as unpredictable pricing.

“We’re relying on a stopgap solution at the moment, which is using TasWater, so essentially, drinking water, which is not ideal, and the cost of that is set to keep increasing.

“We can’t run businesses paying that amount of money for irrigation water.”

Cherry grower Nic Hansen says the ground at his orchards is ‘bone dry’ and entirely reliant on irrigation.(ABC News: Mitchell Woolnough )

Cherry grower Nic Hansen has more than 80 hectares of cherry trees on his property on Hobart’s eastern shore. 

He says the results of climate change daily, and that he was planning to buy new water entitlements.

“The rainfall is just so low, there’s no runoff, the ground is bone dry, and we’re relying 100 per cent on irrigation,” he added.

“Last year here at Old Beach we only had 146 millimetres (of rain) from the first of January to the 28th of September.

“This year, we’re tracking exactly the same, exactly the same,” Mr Hansen said.

“I mean, that’s nuts.

“It’s very frustrating for us as orchardists and farmers that the politicians continually espouse growth in Australian agriculture, and yet in the same breath knock this back.”

Ms Milic says producers are currently reliant on a ‘stopgap solution’.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

Also reeling are farmers in the dry Jordan Valley — home to dairy, sheep, and vineyard operations.

Dairy farmer, Ben Geard appeared visibly shocked by the budget knockback.

He’d been hoping to shore up water for his herd of Green Glory Holsteins.

“It’s definitely taken the wind out of our sails… and it’s not something we need at the moment, things are tough enough as it is, we didn’t need that bad news, that’s for sure,” he said.

His property relies on water from the Jordan River but in summer it rarely runs and runoff has been minimal in the past six months.

“Maybe we didn’t make enough noise, maybe we were too comfortable in the fact that Tasmanian Irrigation hadn’t been knocked back before,” he said.

Farmers in the Jordan Valley, also in Tasmania’s southeast, are similarly reeling that the irrigation scheme wasn’t funded.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

Changing climate to hit eastern, southern Tasmania hard

Scientists have confirmed what these farmers already know, Tasmania’s south-east has been particularly dry.

“We’re getting less rainfall, and we’re getting more water loss, so farmers are essentially hit with the double whammy,” said Associate Professor Matthew Harrison from Tasmania’s Institute of Agriculture.

And the science is predicting it will keep getting dryer.

“You could say that the impacts of climate change are everywhere, but eastern and southern Tasmania in particular will be regions of the state most impacted by the changing climate over the next few decades,” he said.

Bare walnut trees growing in the Coal River Valley over winter.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

“The rainfall signal is difficult to predict, but generally speaking, forecasts project less rainfall in spring and autumn, and greater frequencies of extreme events, particularly drought.”

He supports more irrigation projects.

“We’ve got lots of water, we just need to trap it,” associate professor Harrison said.

“Once that water is there, we can use it in whatever way we like for high value, premium cropping products, and that I think would be our niche,’.”

Tasmanian Irrigation will resubmit its business case but it’s not sure when.

Producers doing what they can to get through conditions

Karen Stewart is hoping to open a cellar door and vineyard in the near future. But for now, she’s battening down the hatches.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

Time waits for no-one.

Farmers in the Coal Valley are expecting price rises from TasWater.

New vigneron Karen Stewart will batten down the hatches, she believes others will as well.

“In 2019, we planted 11 hectares of vines, and we only did that because we could access the irrigation scheme,” she said.

“We’ve got plans for another 14, 15 or so hectares, we’ve got that marked out on the plan, but we wouldn’t go ahead with that unless we had the surety of cheap water.

“They’re not going to invest because they’ll be too scared that the prices will get beyond their reach.”

Karen Stewart is still progressing work on a cellar door and vineyard, and is hoping she’ll be able to open it in the near future.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

TasWater says it will announce its water prices to Tasmanian Irrigation soon.

“The current discussions are about moving towards a price that is fair for all TasWater customers.

“Long-term our strategy is for Tasmanian Irrigation to lessen and ultimately cease the need to rely on our treated drinking water,” customer and community general manager Matt Balfe said.

The Government Business Enterprise did not rule out further water restrictions in the future.

A spokesperson for the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water said the government had “deferred” making a decision on the Tasmanian government’s request for a $150.6 million contribution through the National Water Grid Fund “at this time”.

They said the federal Minister for Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek had “met with Tasmanian Irrigation this week” and that the federal government was “continuing to work with the Tasmanian government to further understand the project”.

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