Farmers take water buyback fight to the streets to keep communities alive

Farmers take water buyback fight to the streets to keep communities alive

Tractors and protesters have taken over the main street of a southern New South Wales town to show opposition to proposed water buybacks as part of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Key points:

  • Organisers claim thousands of people attended rallies in Griffith, Leeton and Deniliquin
  • Legislation before the Senate will allow the government to purchase water to help recover 450GL for the environment
  • Irrigation communities fear the buybacks will hurt local farms and businesses

Tuesday’s rally, along with others in Leeton, Griffith and Deniliquin, involved local councils, businesses, farmers and lobby groups.

Farmer John Bisetto said taking more water away from irrigation in the region would hurt those who remained.

“I have a sickening feeling in my gut, we’ve been through this for so long, so many times,” he said. 

“If they go ahead with what they’re going to do, it’s going to destroy the region.

“We’re stuck here with no water, we can’t grow a crop, we’ve got land that’s worthless.”

John Bisetto says land will be worthless without water.(ABC Riverina: Conor Burke)

Organisers claimed there were more than 1,000 people at the rally in Griffith and 600 in Deniliquin and Leeton.

They protested against legislation that would give the federal government more scope to buy water directly from irrigators to meet the basin plan’s water recovery targets.

Placards read “water buybacks hurt communities”, “Basin plan bites the hand that feeds us” and “No farms, no water, no food” while community leaders made impassioned speeches to the crowd.

Organisers claim there were thousands of people at rallies in Griffith, Leeton and Deniliquin.(ABC Riverina: Conor Burke)

Widespread impacts

Irrigator Glen Andreazza said taking water away from agricultural production would not just impact farmers.

“You take enough blood away from a human and they will die,” he said.

“We take enough water away from an irrigation community, that community will die.”

Griffith Mayor Doug Curran said even one farmer selling their water entitlements had a knock-on effect.

“There’s a cost to get the water along that channel system, and if you remove one or two or three, the cost is still the same, so the other farmers have to bare that increased cost, which potentially makes them a willing seller,” he said.

“Removing productive water is akin to death by a thousand cuts because it might not have the effect then and there, but down the line you will lose industry, lose confidence, lose population and that will have a decline on our community.

Doug Curran says water buybacks are “death by a thousand cuts” for basin communities.(ABC Riverina: Conor Burke)

“The bill should not allow for voluntary buybacks as a first course of action.”

The legislation, called the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill, is due before the Senate by the end of the year, with the government requiring the support of either the Greens or Coalition senators to pass it.

Opposition to buybacks

The protest was not the first time Riverina communities had shown their opposition to water buybacks.

Copies of the guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan were burnt in Griffith in 2010.(AAP: Gabrielle Dunlevy)

Images of the guide to the plan being burnt by protesters in Griffith in 2010 became a symbol of opposition across the basin.

Mr Andreazza said the anger was still there but irrigators were tired of the fight.

“They’ve lost confidence in the government, that they’re going to do the right thing,” he said.

“I think they’re just going to come along and take it without any consultation, without any remorse on what could be left behind what could happen.

“So people are tired, and they’re sick of fighting.”

The $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan was legislated in 2012 and aims to have the equivalent of 3,200GL of water stay in the system for the environment, an original Bridging the Gap target of 2,750GL and an additional 450GL of water. 

Glen Andreazza says irrigation communities might die if there are further buybacks.(ABC Riverina: Conor Burke)

The former Coalition government limited the amount of water that could be recovered from buybacks in 2015, amid concerns that it was hurting irrigation-dependent communities.

It was also agreed in 2018 that the 450GL of extra environmental water could only be recovered if it did not have any negative socio-economic impacts.

But the federal government began buying water again this year and the legislation, currently before the Senate, will allow for voluntary water purchases, not just infrastructure projects, to recover the additional water.

Environment Minister Tanya Pilbersek said the government would be looking at a variety of ways to meet the additional 450GL target, including “on-farm and off-farm efficiency projects, voluntary water purchase and other options”.

“Where voluntary water purchase does have a socio-economic impact, transitional assistance funding can be provided,” she said.

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