Letters to Eureka Street

Beyond the Act

Paul Martin’s ‘Caught in the Act’ (Eureka Street, November 2003) is a misleading article, mainly because of what it doesn’t say. His approach to water reforms, by examining selective parts of the Victorian Water Act only, is extremely limiting.

There is no acknowledgment of the tremendous changes of attitude in the water industry that have occurred in the last ten years and especially in the last couple, driven in part by the drought. No mention of bulk entitlements, caps on water extraction, Living Murray or the current green paper from the Victorian government. There is no mention of the Catchment Management Authorities, established over the past decade to oversee river health. There is but scant mention of other pieces of legislation and of agreements, such as the Murray Darling Basin Agreement (which governs water distribution between four states), that are equally important.

Some of the points Paul Martin makes are contentious. He states that a person has a right to take water, free of charge, for domestic and stock use, with the implication that farmers are over-using the system. What he fails to say, however, is that landowners in irrigation districts have a set entitlement and have to pay for such use. Under the Act, the relevant water authority has the power to charge, a fact Martin overlooks. In addition, anyone with a bore must have it licensed and a fee is payable. Frontages to waterways or lakes are leased and a fee is payable—even if no water is available.

The irrigation system is and has to be self-funding. Irrigators pay for their entitlement and for the delivery of the water. That is, they pay both for water as a product and for the infrastructure that delivers it. Paul Martin quotes delivery charges of $122,647 as being beyond the environment’s capital resources and a reason why environmental allocations are not used but sold off. These charges apply only when the irrigation system is running at full capacity. Government has refused to fund delivery charges and expects some of the water to be sold, especially in a drought. However, I agree that provision needs to be made for society, via the government or a community levy, to pay for these delivery costs.

It is interesting to note Paul’s concern with the Kerang Lake environmental allocation. Most of these lakes are kept full as part of the irrigation system. There is a requirement that this continue under the Ramsar Convention*. The considerable evaporation from the surface of these lakes is debited against irrigators as bulk water charges. So farmers, through their payments, are financially supporting environmental flows in this respect.

Paul Martin touches briefly on the need for structural changes in agriculture. Economic forces are already altering the balance between agricultural enterprises. However, change is not as simple as it would appear. In creating new farm products ‘more reflective of economic and environmental realities’, much is needed: physical changes to farms, technical knowledge, finance, plus major structural adjustment to the irrigation systems and most importantly to rural society. Care must be taken to achieve the best outcome. Agriculture is often seen as the enemy of the environment. The reality is it has to be compatible. Good farmers see agriculture as part of the environment. One day the public might, too.

Geoffrey Laity
Kerang, VIC

*The Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971), better known as the Ramsar Convention, is an international treaty that focuses on the conservation of internationally important wetlands.

 

 

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