A devastating story of poor water policy

By Sophie Baldwin

A TRIP up the Darling River as far as the country town of Brewarrina in north-west NSW has left former Campaspe councillor and retired farmer Greg Toll fearing for the future – not just for agriculture but for the many rural communities here and along the way.

Many were in crisis and most laid the blame on lack of water.

‘‘The worst thing about the whole water issue is that it is putting so much pressure on farmers and, in particular, young farmers,’’ Greg said.

‘‘Many have only just been able to scrape together enough money for their land, there is no question of being able to afford water which means they are reliant on the temporary water market – and where prices are sitting today, they are already not feasible.’’

Greg said high water prices had the potential to wipe out entire industries.

‘‘The problem with having water at a price only certain industries can afford is extremely dangerous for agriculture as a whole.

‘‘What happens when that industry tips over? Once farmers leave, they are gone forever. Where will our food and fibre come from in the future?’’

Greg said rural Australia was in crisis.

He firmly believed some environmental water should be returned to agriculture.

‘‘We need to have somewhere where we can grow and conserve grass to help keep stock along the eastern seaboard alive,’’ he said.

‘‘We can grow anything in our region; we just need water to do it.

‘‘When you see water being sent out to flood the bush for the second time in three years, you really do shake your head.’’

He said he knew years ago once water was disassociated from land that agriculture would be on a slippery slide to disaster.

‘‘It has all come to a head now. I know we have had the millennium drought thrown in there but water must be allocated and controlled so much better than it is today.’’

As a retired farmer, Greg has always had a passion for agriculture.

He recently took a two-week trip with wife Marg following the Darling River.

He covered 3200km and the trip was all about seeing firsthand the devastation the loss of water has had on communities.

‘‘I spoke to four mayors and five councils. I tried to talk to as many locals as I could and everyone, everyone, was concerned about their communities,’’ Greg said.

Brewarrina mayor Phillip O’Connor said cotton growers had bought A class water licences which allowed them to continue to pump from the river, even when water levels were really low.

‘‘We both agreed there needs to be a trigger point on the river before people can use water to grow cotton – they are sucking the life out of everything.’’

He stayed at one bed and breakfast on a sheep property.

‘‘The wife told me her husband has been getting up at 3am every single morning so he can handfeed his 15,000 sheep.

‘‘He is 65 years old and doesn’t get back inside until after dark. Over the course of a year he has spent $750,000 on feed.’’

Greg heard similar tales the whole way along his trip.

‘‘I was at Wilcannia and a nice lady ran the service station. They are currently spending $10,000 a week to feed stock on their 20,000-acre property on the Darling River – their son was also running a trucking business to supplement their income.’’

Greg said the water quality along the Darling was terrible and, in places, it was green and smelt mouldy.

‘‘Water is not being managed properly. There are so many distressed people – shops and banks are closing, schools have low numbers. The drought is getting worse, people are destocking and water policy is not supporting our farming community.’’