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Deadlock over water access for Riverina farmers threatens to spill over to legal stoush

Moyra Shields, Friday March 8, 2019 - 11:12 EDT
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Some farmers in the Hay district of the Riverina say the new Gunbar water pipeline scheme is inadequate for their needs and did not sign up. - ABC

A dispute between a group of farmers and a water authority over a $49 million Commonwealth taxpayer-funded water saving pipeline looks set to go to court.

The Gunbar Water pipeline replaced open channels near Hay in the NSW Riverina in January, as part of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, but some farmers say the new service is inadequate for their needs and did not sign up.

The farmers want an emergency channel delivery and say without it, thousands of stock are at risk of running out of water.

But the pipeline owner, Murrumbidgee Irrigation (MI), refused, saying the farmers knew the last time open channels would be filled was spring 2018.

The eight farmers, known as the Alternative Supply Group (ASG), argue they are entitled to a stock and domestic delivery and they have now asked their lawyer to commence legal action.

Alternative Supply Group chairman Paul Porter said they were facing a water emergency.

"People are in the most desperate situation, the most immediate thing is to actually get some water into people's dams so that we don't have an animal welfare disaster out here," he said.

"I can't believe what's been allowed to unravel here — we feel threatened," Mr Porter said.

Long-running dispute

For decades until this year, graziers on 310,000 hectares of the Hay Plain known as the Wah Wah district received water for their homes and stock via twice yearly deliveries into open channels, which could then be pumped into household tanks, farm dams or troughs.

But there were big water losses moving the water over more than 1,000 kilometres of open gravity-fed channels.

Murrumbidgee Irrigation said the new pipeline resulted in 9,000 megalitres of 'efficiency savings water' being transferred to the environment.

Thirty-four farmers signed up to the pipeline in 2016 and seven others took up government funding managed by Murrumbidgee Irrigation to put in alternative water supplies to the old channel system, but the eight Alternative Supply Group farmers did not sign up.

Mr Porter said many of the Alternative Supply Group members felt they had been bullied into going into something that they had told Murrumbidgee Irrigation, over a number of years, that they did not want to do.

Murrumbidgee Irrigation said it worked with the government and landholders for five years and rejected claims by the Alternative Supply Group that it had misled government.

The company said the pipeline was able to deliver to all landholders the allocation to which they were entitled.

Commonwealth urges mediation

In a letter on November 30, 2018, Federal Department of Agriculture Water Division First Assistant Secretary, Paul Morris, suggested mediation.

The senior water official told Murrumbidgee Irrigation and the Alternative Supply Group that he was extremely concerned about the lack of progress to find a mutually-agreeable solution between the parties.

"It will not be acceptable to the Commonwealth to have a situation where water users are effectively left without appropriate access to water."

A Department of Agriculture and Water Resources spokeswoman said the dispute now was a commercial matter between Murrumbidgee Irrigation and members of the Alternative Supply Group, who were customers and shareholders of Murrumbidgee Irrigation.

In response to a question about what the Commonwealth could do now, given the animal welfare concerns and stalemate between the parties, the spokeswoman said the RSCPCA was aware of the situation.

"It is not acceptable that the welfare of animals be compromised under any circumstances and we understand that the RSPCA is aware of the situation and is investigating."

In a statement, NSW RSPCA said its inspector had managed a report in relation to stock stuck in a dam at Gunbar and advised the landowner about their obligation to provide water for their 7,000 pregnant ewes.

The RSPC said while it understood that there was an ongoing issue about the provision of water to landowners in the area, there was no investigation underway.

Hopes farmers will still sign up

Gunbar Water is the new water authority set up to run the pipeline for the 34 farmers who signed up.

Gunbar Water chairman Don Low OAM said he hoped the Alternative Supply Group farmers would eventually join the pipeline.

"People have been offered buckets of taxpayers' money to do works on farm and they've done nothing," Mr Low said.

Mr Porter said 30 per cent of the funding for the eight farmers was not confirmed until early February 2019, more than a month after the pipeline began operating officially and he questioned how they could sign up without guaranteed money to do the work.

Mr Low said it was an awful situation for the once-close farming community.

"This is the worst thing in my lifetime; water is people's livelihood and we did what we thought was best for the whole community."

He said in a drought situation like now, the pipeline water was safer for stock to drink and they did not end up dying stuck in the mud around drying dams.

Mr Low said thanks to the pipeline his animals were enjoying clear, filtered Murrumbidgee River water instead of relying on farm dams that were now green.

"Everybody would die to have the scheme we've got," Mr Low said.

The lawyer for the Alternative Supply Group wrote to Murrumbidgee Irrigation last Friday requesting a channel delivery or face legal proceedings, but Murrumbidgee Irrigation is standing firm and legal action is now expected to commence.


© ABC 2019

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