Looking beyond policy

By Southern Riverina News

A directive from NSW Water Minister Niall Blair to get clarity around the extent of water losses in the Murray system has been described as ‘‘a turning point’’ for the irrigation sector.

It was instigated following representations by Murray Irrigation Ltd.

MIL chairman Phil Snowden, in acknowledging the positive move, said: ‘‘To Niall Blair’s considerable credit he is the first minister to look beyond policy and delve into practicality.

‘‘He is formally recognising that water has both a monetary and social value and his intervention is a turning point for our sector,’’ Mr Snowden said.

At MIL’s recent annual meeting Mr Snowden estimated there had been ‘‘an operating loss in excess of 200,000 megs in the last three months’’ which was worth ‘‘about $80 million in today’s water market, never mind the regional value and hardship this waste is causing’’.

In a letter to Mr Snowden last week, Mr Blair said that following representation from MIL he had ‘‘requested the Department of Industry – Water provide me with all facts around losses in the River Murray’’.

‘‘I have asked that this include the numbers of the losses, where these rules are attributed to and how we can better attribute these losses now and into the future,’’ he said in the letter.

‘‘Upon receiving this urgent advice I will commence discussions with other jurisdictions on how these losses can be better shared to reflect the causes.

‘‘I understand the frustrations of your organisation and your members and as I have said as recently as August when the agreement to use the Mulwala Canal was announced between Murray Irrigation Limited and WaterNSW, it is critical that the system is run as efficiently as possible.’’

Mr Snowden said for almost a year MIL had been encouraging government to apply the rigours of irrigated agriculture management to the management of operational and environmental water.

‘‘Mr Blair has now provided a very strong recognition of that simple but critical approach. We entered into a canal agreement to get efficiency into the river system ... Mr Blair and the Federal Minister (David Littleproud) hailed the agreement at the time and this undertaking is an extension of that objective,’’ he said.

‘‘Every megalitre of water lost is a megalitre of water denied every farmer who has invested in irrigated agriculture — the Minister has recognised this and should be congratulated.’’

Concern with water losses was an issue raised by Mr Snowden at the recent MIL annual meeting.

At that meeting he told shareholders there was ‘‘considerable waste in the delivery of water in the river system’’ and that ‘‘the changed characteristics of water entitlements owned by the government in how they are being used and delivered is having a material impact on our allocations’’.

He said MIL would ‘‘work with river operators and environmental water holders to maximise the efficiency of the entire Murray system’’.

‘‘We want to lead by example in offering solutions. We cannot expect efficiencies in the system if we don’t help to identify them where we can,’’ he said in his annual report.

While the Department of Industry Water undertakes a comprehensive assessment of loss rates that it says ‘‘will take some time’’, farmers have purchased more than $750,000 in water in the region in the last week

The department’s manager of water allocations Brian Graham late last week confirmed the assessment project is underway.

The Minister has asked for the numbers of the losses, the rules to which they are attributed and how losses could be better attributed ‘‘now and into the future’’.

Murray Irrigation chairman Phil Snowden says the sector has three distinct buckets of water — productive, environmental and system delivery — and the managers of each must be accountable for what is now a multi-million dollar commodity.

But while the Minister’s directive has spurred the department into an audit, Mr Snowden remains concerned that many farmers who planted summer crops expected to have an allocation based on probabilities issued by the department.

‘‘If the audit uncovers demonstrable losses, these need to be recredited urgently into general security,’’ Mr Snowden said.