Irrigators ‘have to organise'

IRRIGATION farmers are at the sharp end of an invisible crisis threatening to divide the Gympie Region and affecting almost all our water use – urban, industrial, farming and environmental.

The urgency for irrigators comes in the form of new draft regulations which will affect their industry – and its relationship with the rest of us – for the next 10 years, or potentially forever.

Emerging water rights issues may also have particular significance for ex-Mary Valley land owners currently negotiating to buy back their former properties, with the prospect that irrigation rights (an important part of property values along the river) may no longer be attached to property, but might be retained by the government or sold off separately, even potentially to overseas interests.

Almost everyone needs to take an interest in the state government's new Draft Resource Operations Plan for Mary Basin water, according to two worried irrigation farmers at almost opposite ends of the Gympie region.

Phil Montgomery, of Jones Hill and David Burnett, of Sexton, are desperately trying to kick start a new organisation to represent irrigators and they warn that people concerned at Mary Basin water planning have only a few weeks to get their submissions in to the government.

“There's plenty of water, everything's green and the country looks beautiful,” said Mr Burnett. “So it's hard to get people to look closely at what could go wrong in bad times.”

Mr Montgomery says that irrigators have lost their voice in government administration, just when they need it most.

They are hoping today's meeting at Gympie Civic Centre will be the start of a new irrigators' group to replace the loss of the government funded representation under earlier regulations.

And they say the draft plan does not seem to include any water flowing over the Mary River barrage to provide environmental flows into the Great Sandy Straits.

They are concerned that, with separate ownership of water allocations, which can be traded, farmers in bad times might be tempted to sell their allocations and rent them back, with the possibility that the new owner might decide to use the water elsewhere instead.

With Gympie's population expected to double in the next 18 years, they predict that competing demands for water could lead to community division and antagonism.

“The ROP includes a 150,000 megalitre ‘Strategic Reserve,' but that only exists in times of flood.

“We'll be questioning that,” Mr Burnett said.

Both say it is a critical time for the future of irrigation farming in the region, coming just at a time when irrigators have lost their voice.

Former bulk water manager, SunWater, had included consultation with a funded customer group in its operations, but this had ceased under new rules, which place our region in the Bulk Water Grid, “along with the rest of the dams and irrigators in south-east Queensland, as a result of plans for the Traveston Crossing dam project,” Mr Montgomery said.

The new process does not include reference to any irrigator representatives.

“It is essential we form our own irrigators group in the Upper Mary River to replace this lost service. Unfortunately, we only have until October 22 to prepare our response. The worry is uncertainty about what the price of water will be and who will dominate the market.

“There is a risk that, because of good general conditions, irrigators might not see the urgency of working up a response to the ROP.”

Gympie Times

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