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Impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on regional Australia

CHAIR —Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings in the respective houses. We do have a written submission. Are there any comments you would like to make in terms of your submission or additional information that you would like to give us?

Mr McCullough —I would love to, thanks. Thanks for coming up. It is not often you get the Standing Committee Regional Australia visiting rural Queensland. It is good to see that there is some focus back on rural Australia rather than the eastern sea board for a change.

The Condamine Alliance is a regional body. We have been heavily involved in water planning, even in my own personal life, in terms of what we do. We have been down this journey with the farmers for some time now, and I think the plan itself is a challenge for a lot of people to actually understand and to come to grips with. One of the shortfalls in the actual physical plan itself is understanding who is actually going to make the decisions. Often times when you go to public consultation events, the understanding is that the final decisions as to how this will be rolled out are going to be made by the Queensland government, not by the Commonwealth. The plan itself is a guiding document but the actual end result is by the Queensland government. The absence of conversation of where that is at needs to be brought to the fore so people can understand.

One of the other things I would like to back up is the mayor’s comments around getting some independence into some of this stuff. At the moment, the government is the regulator, the compliance officer, the planner, the monitor, and now they are going to be the arbitrator in providing environment flows for the system. I would contend that maybe it is time to bring some other independent arrangements into place so that we can provide that environmental flow monitoring to make sure the balance sheet is prepared. Also maybe we need to look at the social arrangements as well. If we are moving to a triple bottom line arrangement then you need some other parties in there to actually help understand and inform the communities about what the system is actually going to deliver.

The other thing I would also like to back up is Tony’s comments in relation to the system in which we are actually currently functioning. I can tell you a bit about the Condamine. There are roughly 2,000-odd water storages and 300 irrigation dams on the Condamine, and a number of dams. In terms of where our assets physically lay in the catchment, they lay in other places apart from where people have access to them. Maybe we need to think about better using those under the plan.

The other thing I would also like to make mention of is in our submission we alluded to the fact that the water plan itself does not take account of all the water. It only talks about specific components of it, so it misses some vital segments. A couple of those vital areas are stock and domestic bores which occur as a private right. There are roughly anywhere between 12,000 and 16,000 of those bores in the Condamine, all with the ability to pull a couple of megalitres of water. When you add that number up, it starts to become quite a large number. At the opposite end of the spectrum is another industry in the system, also extracting water out of coal beds which lie above the Great Artesian Basin, GAB. When you take into account how the system functions, you basically have a number of water arrangements that are not being accounted for in the plan. To have a better understanding of where the wins and gains are going to be, the whole system needs to be accounted for.

Chair, I would also like to back up your comments. I do believe we can provide a win-win situation. Some of the other documents, particularly the ones that come out of [NCAF 4:04:25], give some guidance on how to assist people to actually move through the process of adaptation. The first part of that is looking at self-regulation where you provide the opportunity for people to self-regulate. This has been done in the central irrigators group where they have actually done their own reductions without any sword hanging over their heads from government. I think we could move into self-regulation where you start to provide advice to people about how to actually physically do it, then move into active enforcement and then into civil action.

I think there are some guidance arrangements about the plan focusing on certain areas, particularly when you look at where the skill of investment is, in terms of the whole system. Maybe it is time to start thinking about how we actually assist farmers to better save water than what we are currently doing. By doing that, at least we can allow the system to better prepare itself.

The other major point I will make is that irrigation development has occurred roughly since the 1970s. It took the next 30 years through to the year 2000 when we had a moratorium in place to build an irrigation industry. From 2012, when this new plan is about to come down, to its major implementation in 2019 is a period of seven years where we will take an industry that developed over 30 years and all of a sudden cut it down over seven years. One of the things the plan can look at is how we actually exit out of the system, if we do have to exit. It can look at how we allow communities to readjust themselves over generations rather than over a single half-life time with these sharp drop-offs. I think there are some challenges around that. I would certainly like to answer any questions that the committee has in relation to our submission.

Mr Cloonan —I might just follow up on one point. Mr McCullough talked about the central irrigators and some of the benefits that are being accrued by self-regulation. In other areas we have noticed very low adoption rates in terms of water use efficiency programs that we have run. The issue there is a lack of understanding of the context of each of the irrigators. I think in any sort of planned rollout, we need to place more emphasis on really understanding the context of each of the irrigators. The water use efficiency area is probably a good one to work on to make a lot of gains.

Ms LEY —Where does your funding come from?

Mr McCullough —Approximately 85 to 95 per cent of our funding at the moment comes from federal and state programs that allow us to invest into the Caring for our Country program and the Queensland Q2 Coasts and Country program.

Ms LEY —Which programs, which departments and which major subprograms?

Mr McCullough —Out of the Commonwealth, it is the Caring for our Country program. We get an allocation as a base funding for our organisation to function, and then we bid in open grant arrangements for running projects that will deliver on that national plan. From a state level, there is a yearly bid arrangement where we bid to the Queensland government under its Queensland Coasts and Country program, where we can put up certain programs that meet the state priorities.

Ms LEY —I am not aware of Caring for our Country doing any recurrent ongoing funding for anybody.

Mr McCullough —There are two components in that. At the moment the programs that are aligned do not necessarily focus themselves back onto the water program. The main program we have been doing through the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is the native fish program, where we have a fairly successful river rescue program putting demonstration reaches in place. Currently we have a stretch of about 60 kilometres around the Dalby area that is now under voluntary arrangements.

Dr STONE —You stated that you had observed very low adoption rates of water efficiency measures. Are they in specific areas? To what do you attribute those low adoption measures? Is it to do with financial constraints, the knowledge of farmers, or the state of research and development and irrigation practice? To what do you attribute the low adoption rates on water efficiency measures?

Mr Cloonan —It is quite a complex issue, but simply it is about understanding the dynamics of water. There is a lot of data that is missing in terms of the scale of data we need to understand the systems and how they interrelate. While that data is missing, a lot of assumptions have to be made, and where data is collected, extrapolations have to be made from other data sources, that then makes it difficult to really get a handle on what is happening at the decision making scale, which is at the farm level. There is a sort of disconnect between where the data is and where the decisions are made. There is also a disconnect between the intensity of data that we need and the decisions we made. That is at one end of it.

The other part is the resources we need to get context specific knowledge of the individual irrigators to be able then to understand their systems well enough to be able to intervene with some new technology. We do not generally any more have the resources to be able to engage deep enough to be able to understand that. We run more information giving programs rather than really getting close to the farmers to understand what is really going on.

Mr McCullough —There is no doubt that, in order to invest in new technologies or new information, you need to understand the risks, and at the moment if you are a farmer, you would be very loath to actually want to risk a lot more money in something that may or may not bring you benefits. So, there has to be this shared risk arrangement. The best way to move forward is to understand how we can actually share the investment of that risk so we can get the best outcomes. As the previous speaker alluded to, we did a survey on the Downs testing out the irrigation dams, about what it would take to make them more efficient. There is no doubt that the investment to actually deepen those dams or to reline them to actually stop water drainage or water evaporation is a significant investment. The farmers cannot do it by themselves.

Mr SECKER —Who do you actually represent?

Mr McCullough —Our company is a not-for-profit company, a limited liability company, and we have a number of members including Landcare, environmental groups, water groups and catchment groups. Therefore, their membership is the people that I respond to every year at our AGM, so to speak. On the whole, we are also the custodians of the natural resource management plan that has been developed for the Condamine catchment. We run a number of engagement practices where we discuss a wide range of natural resource management issues, water being one of them, where we seek to have people come together and understand and agree on certain targets.

Mr SECKER —How much support would you have from the irrigators, for example, in the Condamine?

Mr McCullough —If I was to take a project proposal to the irrigator groups, I am sure we could sit down and have a conversation about how we would roll that out. These days you have to be very wary of people bearing gifts, because gifts have other side activities that you need to be aware of. Just rolling up and engaging groups is not the way to actually get proper engagement; you need to understand what they want, what you need to deliver, and you reach some arrangement. Then you can actually roll something out.

Mr SECKER —I do not think you have actually answered my question. How much involvement, how much support do you get? Are the irrigators right behind you, or are you quite separate from that?

Mr McCullough —From an organisational perspective, we are quite separate. We tend to work through the industry organisations. For instance, the program we ran with the dam seepage arrangement was through the central dam irrigators group. More often than not, we are likely to form a partnership with people as opposed to saying, ‘You are a member of our group’ or anything of that nature.

I do believe that organisations like ours and others have the ability to bring people to the table to actually make a change happen. We are more likely to be able to do that than government, to actually have the on-ground implementation. I think Ian alluded to that earlier, where they have their grassroots networks that they can actually get involved with too.

Mr SECKER —In the third paragraph of your one-page submission, you state that you have considered a scaled reduction in the diversion limit. Are you speaking on behalf of irrigators when you state that?

Mr McCullough —We can speak on behalf of our communities about massive changes in—

Mr SECKER —I did not ask about the communities; I actually asked about the irrigators. The reason I ask this is because irrigators in South Australia, for example, have said, ‘We would look at a scaled reduction of 10 per cent based on full compensation and so on’. I just need to know whether you have the irrigators’ support for that statement.

Mr McCullough —No, we never sought to seek their particular view on that statement.

Mr ZAPPIA —Does anybody actually monitor the amount of water that is currently held in the dams, or is it left up to the individual farmers to do their own monitoring for themselves only?

Mr McCullough —There are probably better qualified people here who can answer that, but my knowledge of it is that most of the storage dams have pumps and meters attached to them. They did a calculation a number of years ago about how much water is actually stored in those dams. There would be a database somewhere that would actually calculate, out of all the irrigation dams, how much water they could physically store.

Mr ZAPPIA —If an irrigator wanted to deepen his dams, what is the process to get approval to do so?

Mr McCullough —I would have to take that one on notice. I do not think I could answer that question, given my abilities.

CHAIR —As there are no further questions, are there any final comments you would like to make?

Mr Cloonan —No.

Mr McCullough —I think the encouragement is to find a solution to this, because previous speakers have also alluded to the fact that we are probably sick of going to plans and sick of going to consultations. We need to find a solution to this reasonably quickly, otherwise generations move on and we are no better off in providing for the next generation than we were for the previous generations. I wish you well.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. As I have said to the earlier people, a transcript of what you said will be provided to you. If you have any issues with that, or you need to give us any additional information, please do so. Thank you.

[4.17 pm]