Environmental water floods farm

By Sophie Baldwin

While NSW irrigators are still waiting for a general security water allocation in a drought year, authorities are sending billions of litres of water into a Murray River forest to create an artificial flood.

The Forestry Corporation of New South Wales said 30 billion litres of water would be delivered to about 4500 ha of the Perricoota forest over 60 days.

Lobby group Speak Up member Shelley Scoullar questioned the objective of the flooding and what the environmental outcomes would actually be.

She said it was difficult to stomach such a flood when southern Riverina irrigators faced their second consecutive year on zero allocation.

“With a lack of native wetland fish present anywhere in the basin, flooding the forest provides a perfect breeding ground for carp — data and modelling supports this,” Mrs Scoullar said.

“To get the most out of the water which has already been recovered, a multiple measures approach needs to be taken; just adding water was never going to be the silver bullet to ecological outcomes across the entire basin. Unless government start looking at non-water-recovery options then they are not serious about outcomes, they are only serious about sending water to South Australia.”

In a reasonable year with an irrigation allocation, David and Jodie Edgar’s Womboota cropping farm can produce about 3000 tonnes of grain and hay.

Facing their second year of zero allocation, the southern Riverina farmers say they will be lucky this year if that figure reaches 500 tonnes.

The farm, which has been in their family since 1974, backs onto the Perricoota forest and in a year where water use is so critical, they have to endure the sight of floodwater backing up the bottom end of their property.

About 30 billion litres of water is expected to flow through the Koondrook-Perricoota Flood Enhancement Works during the next couple of months — an environmental watering scheme constructed through the Living Murray Program to mimic a natural flood event.

About 12 billion litres of water has flowed through the site to date and water is already starting to flood onto the Edgar family's property.

“I might not know much but I know what is right and what is wrong — and in a year like this, it is very wrong,” Mrs Edgar said.

She said farmers were watching their crops die, the dairy industry was imploding due to the high cost and unavailability of water and last year was the third-smallest rice harvest in Australia — and the environmental water holder was pumping water onto a site that was flooded naturally in 2017 and artificially in 2015.

The Edgar family regularly visits the site and they said before flooding there were pockets of green grass, wattles flowering and the red gums appeared to be in good health.

“There is a swamp about 150-200m that is not regenerating because floodwater sits in it too long, the swamp is dead but the dry areas around it appear to be the ones that are doing better,” Mr Edgar said.

Mr Edgar said the changes government was making around water were happening too quickly and there had been no time for anyone to adjust.

“The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is causing so much damage to agriculture, our communities and the environment they say they are trying to protect. They appear to be prioritising the environment at the expense of farming and there has been no accountability or public acknowledgement of any of the many mistakes that have been and are being made,” he said.

Mr Edgar said he thought the Koondrook-Perricoota project was doomed from the beginning.

“We had consultants turn up at home in the planning stages with a map and they were telling us where the floodwater was going to go and to what depth — when I pointed out to them my fence line was under 1.5m of water I knew we were in trouble. Common sense has been missing from all of this from the very start.”

The couple is worried about the future of irrigation and what is going to come out the other side of all this mess.

The Edgars are just two of the 1000 farmers supporting the $750 million class action against Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

“There is such a huge imbalance and all it has been is just take, take, take and all from the one side, the side of agriculture.”

A spokesman from Forestry Corporation of NSW said 30 billion litres of water would be delivered to the site over 60 days, with more than 4500 ha, or 13 per cent of the total forest, expected to be watered.

The last environmental flood saw 26 billion litres released over 45 days.

“Flow parameters are determined each year to balance water availability and ecological requirements. We acknowledge we are in dry times, and we have adjusted our plans accordingly,” the spokesman said.

The Forestry Corporation maintains the Koondrook-Perricoota Forest hasn’t recovered from the combined impact of historical river regulation and the millennium drought, and restoring ecological function will take many years.

It said prior to the construction of upstream dams, the forest would have flooded regularly, even in dry years.

The Edgar family said without the construction of irrigation dams by our forefathers, there would have been many years when the river would have run dry and there would have been no water for anyone.

“You can’t turn back the clock and make things like they were generations ago,'' Mr Edgar said.

``Australia now has a population of over 20 million people and they need feeding.

``With forward thinking and constructive water management there should be enough water for agriculture and the environment.”