southern riverina irrigators lodge claim against m.d.b.a. alleging $750,000,000 losses.
Southern Riverina Irrigators Council alleges MDBA mismanagement responsible for $750m in losses
Irrigators have accused the MDBA of being reckless and grossly negligent in draining water from the Menindee Lakes in 2016. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP
Fury over water allocations has led irrigators in south-eastern Australia to file a class action in the New South Wales supreme court, seeking $750m in damages from the federal government’s Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA).
The chairman of the Southern Riverina Irrigators Council (SRI), Chris Brooks, alleges the MDBA’s negligence has led to severe financial losses for “thousands” of landholders in the country’s south-eastern food bowl.
“We lost $750m last year because we got zero water allocations,” Brooks said. “We allege it was the MDBA’s mismanagement of the river system that caused our losses. There’s plenty of water in the dams down here but, because there’s no water coming down the Darling River, our allocations are being sent to South Australia.”
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The claim accuses the MDBA of being reckless and grossly negligent in draining water from the Menindee Lakes in 2016 and discharging water from the basin knowing there would be little or none left for the southern irrigators.
It states plaintiffs suffered loss of cropping income, livestock production and loss of export markets and that water released from Murray River dams caused the river to overflow at chokepoints, causing spillages estimated at 860,000 megalitres.
The class action, coming in the final week of the federal election campaign, throws a spotlight on the crisis facing the Coalition government in its traditional bush seats, where voters are angry over what they see as continuing mismanagement of water.
Brooks is leading a lobby group that has raised $200,000 to back the election campaign of Albury mayor, Kevin Mack, for the safe Liberal seat of Farrer.
The current incumbent, Liberal MP Susan Ley, who holds the seat with a 20% margin, is now seen to be under threat.
Anger in the bush over alleged water maladministration has already seen the National party punished earlier this year in the NSW election, with the loss of two seats – Barwon and Murray – to the Shooters and Fishers party.
The water issue is a hot one in other traditional Coalition seats, including Mallee, Indi and Riverina.
Until now, focus on the Murray-Darling basin plan’s failings has been to the north, near the Queensland border, where the cotton industry has been accused of taking too much water.
Up to 2,000km of the Darling River, from Bourke all the way south to Wentworth where it joins the Murray River, has been virtually dry for months. The sad plight of the Lower Darling was highlighted over summer when millions of fish died at Menindee Lakes.
Now the crisis has shifted south to the Murray River, with farmers and irrigator groups claiming the main dairy production industry of the Southern Basin faces extinction within months.
“Australia has to ask itself if it wants a dairy industry in the basin or not,” Brooks said. “It will be all over if we don’t do something fast.”
Dozens of dairy farmers from the NSW and Victorian sides of the Murray River have lost their businesses this year. Many more face imminent economic collapse.
With no water coming down the Darling River – which used to deliver 39% of South Australia’s and 15% of southern NSW’s irrigation allocations – the Murray River now provides all of South Australia’s basin plan water entitlements.
“Dairy farmers are walking off their farms daily and the dairy industry in the basin is likely to be finished if they don’t receive an opening water allocation this June,” said Maryanne Slattery, senior water researcher for the Australia Institute.
“The water market is prioritising nut plantations, that are mostly foreign owned and won’t be productive for several years, over third, fourth and fifth generational family farms.”
Calls are growing to demolish hundreds of kilometres of irrigation infrastructure constructed across northern NSW and southern Queensland floodplains under MDBA oversight.