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Water bought, but not delivered: irrigators -

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KERRY O'BRIEN: They're often painted as voracious water users, but many drought hit irrigators
across the Murray-Darling Basin are now paying for water that's not even being delivered.

At the top end of the Basin, cotton farmers around St George in south west Queensland complain
they've been charged tens of thousands of dollars for water they say doesn't exist.

But the Queensland Premier argues the charges are vital for the maintenance and management of water
infrastructure. Anna Bligh insists irrigators are merely paying the proper price for a resource she
describes as "liquid gold". Mark Willacy reports from St George.

For the past two-and-a-half years, these fields have given up nothing but dust and despair. The
unrelenting grip of drought has squeezed the south-west Queensland district of St George harder
than just about any other part of the country. And for cotton growers like Scott Armstrong, it's
left once productive fields to bake under cloudless skies.

SCOTT ARMSTRONG, ST GEORGE COTTON GROWER: Right now, normally, would be about peak production time.
There'd be crops growing in every field around us that you see. There'd be pumps running, there'd
be water flowing through the channels. It's just an absolute hive of activity and a hive of
production, and yeah, what we see now is basically just dust.

MARK WILLACY: But if the drought isn't hurting enough, Scott Armstrong and his fellow irrigators
complain they've been hit with massive bills for water they say they haven't received.

SCOTT ARMSTRONG: And on our little farm in the last 18 months, I've paid over $168,000 for water
that doesn't exist.

ANNA BLIGH, QLD PREMIER: These are large businesses and they have very large commercial costs. So I
think to a lot of people that sounds like a lot of money, but it is part of running a very large

MARK WILLACY: But Scott Armstrong says his business hasn't run for two years because of the
drought. For a start, he's only receiving 5 per cent of his water allocation. The problem is, he's
still being hit with 95 per cent of his normal water bill.

The bills are being levied by Sun Water, a Queensland Government owned corporation. They're split
into two parts, part A is for the management and maintenance of water infrastructure. Part B is
charged on the actual volume of water used. It's the part A component which has one prominent St
George local hopping mad.

SENATOR BARNABY JOYCE, QLD NATIONALS: This is theft. I mean, what else is it? Is there another term
when someone who's in a position of power over you, extracts a payment out of you knowing full well
they can't deliver? People, they notice the fact. They say, "Look, these fellas were willing to
send us to jail for querying the council amalgamation decision. They've got form in being absolute

ANNA BLIGH: I think people can ask themselves this question: Barnaby Joyce is a member of the
Government that introduced this policy. This policy of charging the real cost of water was
introduced by the Howard Government of which Mr Joyce is a member. It seems to me just a little
coincidental that he's suddenly got upset about this policy in the middle of a federal election
campaign. Where was Barnaby Joyce when his Government introduced this policy?

MARK WILLACY: The Queensland Premier says the charges paid by irrigators are needed to maintain and
manage infrastructure such as pipelines, channels and dams. But in St George there's anger at what
many are calling a drought tax.

SENATOR BARNABY JOYCE: $170, $180,000 a month coming out of this town us jobs. And $170,000,
$18,000 a month coming out of any block in Brisbane would create an absolute riot. It can't go on.
Ultimately what happens is houses start to close and be sold off.

MARK WILLACY: Rohan McDougall runs a tyre and automotive parts business in St George. He says the
Government's water charges are trickling down from the irrigators to his business.

ROHAN MCDOUGALL, ST GEORGE BUSINESSMAN: I say we're seeing a lot of people being laid off around
the place and, you know, that's not only are we not seeing the turnover from these farms because
they're not moving, we're seeing hundreds of vehicles driving out of town and, you know, we sell
tyres and parts. For every 100 vehicles that's 400 tyres and 1000 parts we're not going to sell.

MARK WILLACY: Anna Bligh says St George irrigators signed up to the water pricing arrangements that
are meeting with Government only last year, and she maintains they rejected a compromise deal.

ANNA BLIGH: There was a proposal put on the table in those negotiations that there should be
reduced charges in times of drought and higher charges in times of plenty. The irrigators resolved
not to go down that path.

MARK WILLACY: Fed up with paying for water they say they're not getting, irrigators around St
George are banding together to fight the State Government.

JAMES THOMAS, COTTON GROWER: I've had bills here for $35,000 and I've used, in one account I've
used 100 megs and I got charged $14,000 out of that one account bill.

GLENN ROGAN, COTTON GROWER: Most of us are scratching towards the limit of our credit. I believe
that we're the only people that have got to maintain the infrastructure.

JAMES THOMAS: That's owned by government.

GLENN ROGAN: For the State, that's owned by the Government.

SCOTT ARMSTRONG: As a group we've decided, you know, enough's enough. We're going to make a stand
and say, "Look, we just cannot continue".

MARK WILLACY: And that stand is to refuse to pay their water bills.

SCOTT ARMSTRONG: We've got no alternative. We have to, as a group, withhold payment of this
account. Because it is extortion. It is Government sponsored extortion of the farmers in the worst
drought ever recorded.

MARK WILLACY: But the Queensland premier is urging irrigators to talk rather than act.

ANNA BLIGH: If all of the irrigators came together and wanted to reconsider that issue, then, of
course, we'd look at it. We're not unreasonable people. But of course it would have to be through
an agreement with all of the irrigators and an agreement facilitated again by the Queensland
Farmers Federation.

MARK WILLACY: As he checks pumps that have been idle for two years, Scott Armstrong may have no
choice but to default on his latest water bill.

SCOTT ARMSTRONG: I've got another account, right now, for $32,000. I have no idea how to pay that.

MARK WILLACY: It's been several years since the harvesters have hauled up a decent crop around St
George. With the window for planting closing fast, few irrigators have the stomach to risk another
failed crop, especially given the state of the nearby Beardmore dam.

This dam is fed from a catchment the size of Victoria and for the past 40 years it's sustained the
cotton industry around St George. But for the last couple of years it's been at less than four per
cent full, meaning no cotton crops around here at all.

SCOTT ARMSTRONG: You know, I understood we lived in a community where governments used to help you
when you're down, They'd pick you up when you're doing it tough, and they'd give you a hand until
you can get back on your feet, until the river fills again, until these channels and these fields
start producing again. I understood we lived in a community where you got help from the Government
through the tough times. We are not seeing it from the State Government, and if anything, we're
seeing the worst, we're getting a kick in the guts. And it's a kick in the guts when we're down,
and that's what makes us mad.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Certainly not mincing words. That report from Mark Willacy.