Australia

These NSW farmers have been forced to stop production as they're running out of water

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This is part of a series of reports from communities along the Darling River which have been impacted by water mismanagement and drought.

Australian farmers are desperate to negotiate compensation claims with the Federal Government after halting production because of low flows down the Darling River in New South Wales. 

Ten families living along the lower Darling have been negotiating handing back high-security water licenses to the Commonwealth but have been forced to turn off the taps before a deal has been struck.

Rachel Strachan lives at Tulney Point Station and said it’s going to be hard watching the almost 90-year-old crops die.

Rachel Strachan
Farmer Rachel Strachan has had to halt production.
Aneeta Bhole/SBS News

She lives with her partner Steve, neighbouring her in-laws who have passed down the farm for generations.

“It's a heartbreaking situation to be in,” she told SBS News. 

“My father in law, he goes, 'oh I haven't worked my whole life to have the government take this away from me for no nothing', so we're fighting to try and at least be compensated for what we're giving up.”

Ms Strachan
Rachel Strachan's father-in-law Laurie is devastated to see his farm stop production.
Aneeta Bhole

Ms Strachan said under the Basin Plan, releases from the Menindee Lakes will be higher and longer than before.

She said a similar situation in 2016-17 and no subsequent inflows is what has caused the river to become dry in parts.

Ms Strachan
Ms Strachan said under the Basin Plan, releases from the Menindee Lakes will be higher and longer than before.
Aneeta Bhole

“We have run out of water for our high-value citrus, stone fruit, wine grapes and table grapes a year before we should have,” she said.

“We’ve never run out of water before, and in previous dry years we have used carry-over water and some limited groundwater to sustain our permanent plantings.

“This is why our trees and vines have survived and been productive up until now.”

No place for horticulture 

She said she understands removing horticulture from the lower Darling will free up water for stock, domestic and environmental use. But the decision hasn't been easy.

“At the moment citrus and wine grapes are booming so it's the worst time to be coming out of the industry, but I don't think we have much choice in the matter,” she said.

Alan Whyte
Alan Whyte is disappointed an arrangement hasn't been made.
Aneeta Bhole

Alan Whyte is also among the families who have had to stop production.

"It's a downer how else do you describe it?" he said.

“In 2014 the New South Wales government warned with changes to the Basin Plan there would be no future for permanent plantings like citrus in the region.

“We've been working with them for five years, we had a business case put together with them in 2016, it went to Canberra and it's still there.”

Generations not returning to the land

Along with the water issues, farms including Ms Strachan’s are also bracing for warmer and drier conditions this summer.

Drought has already hit large swathes of Australia's east coast including Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales.

Menindee pub the Maidens Hotel is a place locals go to get away from the stresses of the daily grind. But the topic of drought is inescapable.

Regional insurance broker Peter Wise, who stopped in on his way to farms in far-west NSW, said the unrelenting dry is having a major impact on generational farms.

Farms along the lower Darling
Ten families run the six farms along the lower Darling.
Aneeta Bhole

“The kids have gone away to boarding school they're encouraged to take on apprenticeships and get a job,” he said.

“They meet their bride-to-be and they come home and Mum and Dad have been hand-feeding sheep and cattle for four years, how do you encourage your son or future daughter-in-law to come home? You can't.”

But Ms Strachan said the sacrifice will hopefully give her kids a place to come back to if they decide to return to the land to work. 

Ms Strachan with the last crop of fruit to be picked.
Ms Strachan with the last crop of fruit to be picked.
Aneeta Bhole

“This is a time where people need to demand 'yes, we have to have a healthy river system',” she said.

“We don’t have environment and we don’t have community, so I think we need to start reversing that.

“We have to get the balance right because I can’t leave this farm the way it is environmentally for the next generation, that would just be criminal.”

Ms Strachan grows citrus, stone fruit, wine grapes and table grapes.
Ms Strachan grows citrus, stone fruit, wine grapes and table grapes.
Aneeta Bhole

'Worth the sacrifice'

Ms Strachan said an assessment of each of the value of plantings, cost of removal or irrigation infrastructure, provision for loss of annual income, and the commercial cost of high-security water licenses are being completed.

“We hope this will be in the coming weeks,” she said.

“In July, Minister Littleproud said he hoped that an agreement could be reached by November.

“We’re also hoping for this, as it has now been dragging on for nearly five years.”

Drought has already hit large swathes of Australia's east coast.
Drought has already hit large swathes of Australia's east coast.
Aneeta Bhole

Federal Minister for Water David Littleproud told SBS News "to ensure a fair process, water licence purchases are independently negotiated by the Department of Agriculture" and at "arm's length from the government". 

The Department of Agriculture has not confirmed when negotiations will take place but said it would be once the information is assessed.

“The Australian Government aims to negotiate an agreement with the Lower Darling Horticultural Group as soon as possible,” a spokesperson said, adding "the extreme, dry conditions being experienced by horticultural producers are due to the lack of inflows to the river because of the drought". 

“Water use in catchments occurs in accordance with state legislation and water sharing plans or water resource plans,” they said.

“The NSW Government is responsible for the management of water in the north of the state.

“The Australian government is working with the NSW government to secure or convert A-class licences in the Barwon–Darling, upstream of the Menindee Lakes and is funding NSW to implement its Healthy Floodplains Project to enable NSW to licence and control floodplain extractions and improve watering of key environmental assets.”

SBS documentary Struggle Street returns this month to highlight issues of disadvantage in rural and regional Australia, including drought. Watch Season 3 on Wednesdays at 8.30pm. Episodes will stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast.

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