Parliament

Water policy - Matter of public importance

March 09, 2016

Matter of public importance

I am pleased to rise today to make a contribution on this matter of public importance, and I would like to thank the government for giving me the opportunity to speak on this matter.

I live in terror of drought, and I well remember the millennium drought.

Many seemed to have forgotten it.

Things that happen in the past are often easily forgotten, and as a reminder of how bad that drought was I took the opportunity to go through some of the Victorian Water Accounts reports during the drought just to perhaps remind members of what it was like at that time and what governments were saying at that time.

In the Victorian Water Accounts 2006–07 report the foreword says:

Low rainfall and severe drought conditions were major challenges for Victorians …

The 11th consecutive year of drought in Victoria saw water storage levels and stream flows drop to seriously low levels in many basins.

Water businesses, in consultation with the Victorian government, implemented their drought response plans …

Then the 2007–08 report says:

It was another year of low inflows and storages. Basic human needs for water were met through a range of contingencies and drought response plans implemented by Victoria's water businesses.

The climate of the last 11 years has resulted in a major reduction in stream flows and inflows into Victoria's major reservoirs, resulting in severe water shortages for communities and the environment across the entire state.

In 2009–10 the challenge of the 13th straight year of the drought is dramatically highlighted in the Victorian Water Accounts, which states:

The year started with water supplies and inflows at extremely low levels and ended with storages in a worse situation …

And:

In addition, the worst bushfires of the century directly affected water supplies in several towns and damaged many of the water supplies in our catchments …

It was a really difficult time, and governments were faced with the challenge of what to do about it. On my own experiences during that time, my family farm at Jerilderie in southern New South Wales had for years gone without water. When you are an irrigation farm, you have to have water to grow crops. Year after year we failed to grow crops, so the family farm was sold. That is by no means an isolated situation; all around us that was happening. So many farmers had to take the decision to move on because we did not know when the drought was going to end. After 13 years you just simply cannot comprehend that it might actually rain again, and the devastation in those areas was great, so that was a chapter of history that we had to close in our family.

A staff member recently told me the story of driving along the Northern Highway near Heathcote and seeing an empty dam and dead sheep — a whole lot of dead sheep around the edge of the dam that had been shot by the farmer because there was simply no water. She recalls being in the street with her utility loaded with hay and a farmer begging her to sell that hay to him for the remaining stock on his property.

Recently I was in Mildura where I talked with Stefano di Pieri, the well-known chef. He talked about a time in the drought when things were so grim, when things looked so dry and so awful, that he and his family purchased water to turn on the sprinklers on the nature strip in Deakin Avenue to make it look green and try to lift the spirits of people in the town, because people were really suffering. All members will know what the water restrictions were like. Melbourne was in a terrible state because of the water restrictions, and right across Victoria that was the way.

To me, this whole discussion is about risk management, and you have to manage these risks. We know that we get severe droughts, and we know that climate change is upon us. When I speak to farmers, they are very often the first to acknowledge that things have changed and to acknowledge climate change. In the mid-2000s a group formed in Shepparton called the food bowl group, and we could see what was happening in relation to water in our district, so a vision had to be created of what our district might look like — what the Goulburn-Murray irrigation district could end up like. Negotiations were conducted with the government, and out of that came the connections project — the Northern Victoria Irrigation Renewal Project (NVIRP). At that time the decision was to try to reduce the footprint of irrigation, because it was believed that many more farmers would leave the district, that they would simply not be able to maintain their farms and they would go. There was a desperate need for the whole economic and social value of that community to maintain at least a part of an irrigation district.

We had 4500 kilometres of open channel. They had seepage, they had evaporation and they had out-of-date irrigation practices. Here was an opportunity, and it was grasped. Our group negotiated with the government for ultimately $2 billion — $1 billion from the state, $1 billion from the commonwealth — for that project, which is now underway. That project has had its ups and downs. NVIRP has been subsumed into Goulburn-Murray Water — huge delays because of that. It has had problems throughout. It rained, and many more farmers who thought they would go decided they would stay, so we had this huge number of additional farmers now wanting to be connected to the biggest irrigation development and modernisation project in Australia, so it has got its challenges.

Only last week the Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water announced that she was appointing a project control group to manage the rolling out of the remainder of this project, because we are waiting on another almost $1 billion from the commonwealth for the finalisation of that project, which is the major investment that is occurring in our community. It is so important that the commonwealth continues with that investment and that that modernisation goes ahead — and hopefully on time and on budget.

The desalination plant and the north–south pipeline were really a part of that overall plan of water management. The goldfields super-pipe was happening, and Ballarat and Bendigo were without water. To me, this whole discussion is about sharing our water. When Federation commenced, the first major discussion about water was the management of the River Murray, so legislation was passed to manage the river, and in 1914 the very first river management agreement was executed, which 100 years ago was momentous. In 2014 the next agreement was signed, and it was a very different one, let me tell you, because it is all about water management, about the environment and about the sharing of water.

When the north–south pipeline was built, from the perspective of many of us in our community that was about sharing water. People I spoke to took the view that if Melbourne was to be without critical water needs for human consumption, then we were prepared to share the water in our storages for Melbourne. Similarly I do not doubt that if the reverse were the case — if we were out of water in the north, and the pipeline could be reversed — there would be an opportunity to send water back. In the south of the state we have the only facility in this state that is not dependent upon rain to produce water — that is, the desalination plant. Every city in Australia has a desalination plant — Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth. Perth has two, and the Perth plants are functioning, Adelaide still will not turn its plant on, and Sydney is relying on its plant.

I think it is essential that we manage risk and have preparations in place for what could come again. We saw it, we lived through it, we know how bad it is and how bad it can be — and right now we are back to some of the lowest water flows on record coming into our catchments. This could all happen to us again. It is a horrible thought, but it could happen to us again. I am not here to criticise either side of politics in this discussion. I just say there is some common sense in managing your risk, in having access to the infrastructure that you need to share water throughout the state. I think I have made my point very clearly in that it is about water sharing and it is about water going both ways. It is about water going to our small towns and our big towns. It is about managing our rivers and, with a growing population, finding another source of water that is not rain dependent, and thank God we have done that.

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  • Suzanna Sheed
    published this page in Parliament 2018-08-30 11:47:58 +1000