This document is republished to give background dating from 2003 as the Victorian government began to take control away from citizens and locals over water, land and government, and to assume more and more control, in public-private associations. It was the beginning of overt attempts to promote private profit from induced scarcity. The induced scarcity was created by the government policy to grow Victoria's population and economic activities. At the time few Victorians had the faintest idea of what was going on. I was one of few environmentalists to question the authority of the government's actions.
Wimmera Mallee Water Piping Scheme and PipeRight Inc
(Originally published at home.vicnet.net.au/~aespop/spavicnews.htm in August 2003.)
Note that the environmental allocation of 1000 megalitres of water to the affected farmers (mentioned in this 2003 article below) has still not been delivered.)
Water privatisation and economic rationalism: impact on democracy and environmental values
The privatisation of water and economic rationalist schemes that alienate water from the land and aim for totally managed total redistribution for 'economic' objectives are disturbing. I am not convinced that efficiency is a value which can be prioritised over all other human values, nor am I convinced that this is the value that is really driving privatisation. Clearly water trading is being exploited by the rich for speculative purposes; prices are inflating from the same population and consumer growth push which drives up land prices.
SPA Vic recently responded [President and Vice President Sheila Newman and Jill Quirk in 2003] to an invitation by Culgoa members Audrey Mather and Glen Marshall to investigate the concerns about water allocations of a group of drylands farmers in Birchip. The farmers had formed a group called PipeRight to counter a proposal by Wimmera Mallee Water to enclose and control every drop of water in the area at what seemed to be substantial benefit to irrigators and little or no benefit but great cost, to Wimmera Mallee farmers, who would also be required to fill in 22,000 farm damns. The proposal seems largely driven by these past four years of drought, when the supply of water has been completely interrupted there for the first time in 96 years, according to PipeRight. Jill and myself feel that many of the farmers concerns are valid and I have included below information from PipeRight.
The Wimmera Mallee is where the famous stump jump plow and various inventions for pulling out mallee roots came from. Subsequently the results of these 'miracles' of human ingenuity became infamously associated with massive soil loss. This part of the Wimmera Mallee has been watered a century by over 17,000 km of open earthen channels dug by man with horse. Few Australians know of this outback wonder, although it is said to be the largest gravity fed system in the world. On a map the channels look like a complex uniformly spaced geometric maze, but one that covers 3 million hectares and occupies approximately 10 % of Victoria. The earthen channels provide water to 14 recreational and environmental lakes, 22,000 farm dams and 51 towns. The system runs South to North from the Grampians to the Murray River. For 2 to 4 months of the year it receives water released from twelve storage areas, of which the largest are the Grampians and Rocklands. The overflow goes to the Glenelg River. The water is used only for stock, domestic and environmental purposes meaning for trees and habitat that are not directly benefiting agriculture, including land for wildlife and land which has social value and also supports native vegetation and wildlife, for instance around recreational lakes.
Livestock form up to 34% of Southern Mallee mixed farming. When there is little water there are few stock. The bulk of farming is broad acre cropping, entirely reliant on rainfall, which is traditionally described as good for up to 6 years in ten depending on proximity to the desert. If it does not rain no crops are grown. High protein wheat for bread and high quality wine are two crops special to the area. None of the PipeRight farmers are feedlot farmers.
The descendents of the original selection farmers, who learned to farm this near desert land, surviving the government land clearing policies which led to so much damage, form a close knit community of highly skilled professional farmers with major investment in the land. Farms average 9000 hectares. They are like giant factories with many moving parts. Fuel comes by the tanker and machines cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But business and efficiency are not the whole story, of course. People remain on these farms because they also value the lifestyle. The lifestyle of farming communities depends greatly on open water on farm and in the community and on the natural amenity where plant and fauna have adapted to man made water distribution and have been preserved and enhanced in many places.
Many PipeRight farmer-activists have longstanding involvement in Land for Wildlife and Land Care. Much remnant mallee and black box dominating this arid red sandy country would rely on seepage or dedicated water from the man made system to supplement rainfall. In turn the vegetation keeps the soil in place and supports numerous native birds, some remaining native animals, and the potential for more. Given the vast area of the channel system the habitat in place is probably quite extensive.
Wimmera Mallee Water wants to bypass the open channel system with water transported via 7000 km of small diameter pipes using coal fired electricity at financial, environmental and social costs far outweighing some purported benefits which are arguably meagre or even non-existent.
The scheme would deliver to 9,000 service points and 40 towns. Four main trunk pipelines would transmit water continually to existing urban storages. This would be redistributed to farm tanks, stock troughs and households.
The project claims it would provide near full supply in 93 years out of 100, however the farmers of PipeRight claim that the current system has supplied them for 96 years out of 100. Much of the new proposal appears to rest on arguments based on the past 4 years of drought. An additional argument is that climate change may further reduce rainfall, however the new proposal would give much of the water saved from seepage to irrigators at a lower price than the dryland farmers would pay. According to the 'Business Case' of Part 5 of the WMW proposal, the Glenelg and Wimmera rivers would only receive new environmental flow if the farmers agreed to foot about 40% of the cost for the whole scheme! This plan, led by Government and undisclosed members of a 'business case' group (whose names arguably should be made public before any decision is made) seems to be a case for extension and intensification of development, based on that ideological excuse for greed of doing 'more with less'. Commercial in confidence is no excuse when water is at stake; this is a community issue and discussion must be absolutely open.
My feeling is that water should not be decoupled from land and that regions should be assessed separately according to their long term viability on environmental, agricultural and social grounds. I would not support allocating MORE water to irrigation or to extending irrigation to more land on current evidence. This is partly due to my mistrust of powerful irrigation lobby members, individuals and corporate, my horror at water speculation and the dangers inherent in trading decoupled water, and my impression that economic arguments for preferring irrigation are based on short term market considerations, concern for Riverina votes, (Wimmera Mallee only has one vote), and pressure from a corporate sector with little or no concern for Australians' quality of life.
"PIPE RIGHT INC.
The piped system for the Wimmera Mallee Region will cover 2.3 million hectares to achieve water savings of 93,000 megalitres.
PIPE RIGHT INC SUPPORTS THE PIPED SYSTEM OF WATER MANAGEMENT FOR THE WIMMERA MALLEE REGION.
The cost of the system is $300 million. State Government $77 million, Federal Government $77 million. Approximately 2555 Farms: $117.3 million (including on farm costs); 23,750 Urban users: 15.9 million DRYLAND FARMERS ARE THE LARGEST SINGLE CONTRIBUTORS TO THE SYSTEM.
PRESIDENT: K Barber Phone 54922426, Fax 54922786 helenbarber[AT]bigpond.com
Secretary: J Chivell Phone 53990528 Fax 53990539 Key areas of concern arising from the preliminary Wimmera Mallee Feasibility Study - June 2001 are:
Allocation of 83,000 ML of water savings mainly to the Wimmera and Glenelg Rivers . No allocation for farm dams, lakes and wetlands to sustain the flora and fauna away from river system . Inadequate flood management strategy when channels are filled in . No shire dams to provide habitat for birds and ground dwelling species and access for emergency water for fire fighting Pipe Right recommends a formal environmental survey of species in areas away from rivers
2. ON FARM IMPACT
The cost/benefit analysis of the Feasibility Study based on the Northern Mallee pipeline is not applicable to the Wimmera Mallee system . Benefits such as increased stocking rates, reduced cultivation time and increased production have limited benefits in our region .Improved water quality and security of supply will have varied benefits to customers. System must have the capacity to deliver water for present needs and future development
On Farm Infrastructure costs. Water to be delivered to farm boundary in 2" pipe . Farmer must have the facilities to store 3 days supply in peak periods . On farm costs for a property of 900 hectares is estimated at $46,800 or $52 hectare . Extra time and labour cost involved in checking troughs and tanks . Farmers should have the option of retaining a percentage of dams to help reduce infrastructure costs and maintain environmental, economic and social sustainability
The proposed allocation to irrigators is 29,000 ML. Allocation to all other customers is 27,000 ML. Pipe Right recommends a
. Tariff Review
A tariff review is sought to reflect the difference in cost between domestic and commercial water Northern Mallee customers pay a hectare charge of $2,02 and $560 ML... If half ML water is used per 256 ha the cost of water is $1570 per annum.
Government make a one off payment of $1800 ML with no future service fee or ongoing maintenance cost.
For fire purposes pipeline must be able to deliver water at 600 litres per minute . Pipeline is restricted to filling one tanker at a time . Who is responsible for paying for water for fire fighting purposes? . Who pays for large tanks for fire fighting purposes if they are necessary? . Shire dams have provided emergency water in the past. Shire dams could be important in the event of accidental contamination in the pipeline.
Pipe Right seeks 2 entitlements: Farm entitlement attached to the title of the property not saleable but transferable between block of the same ownership. Commercial Entitlement tradeable on an annual basis
RECREATIONAL LAKES/SOCIAL AMMENITY
Allocation of 2000 ML is insufficient to maintain the lakes in the region (allocation only for 3 lakes) . Lakes contribute to the environmental, social, and economic well being of the community . Capacity of the system must be great enough to fill lakes from empty and keep them topped up. The cost of water and maintenance of the lakes should be shared by tax payers. Some of the $3000 ML of water savings should be retained in our region. Piped system must acknowledge that dryland areas need water for social, amenity, recreation, economic and environmental purposes
Pipe Right recommends All lakes with facilities to be filled
4. ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
.The piped system must have the capacity to support existing agriculture and commercial industries. The capacity and flexibility for future value adding enterprises and intensive agricultural industries. System must be able to deliver sufficient water to all farms across the region . Failure to deliver sufficient water could devalue farms. Small towns could suffer loss of income if there is no provision for recreational water. Angling contributes $75 million to the local economy. The cost of water will be the limiting factor for the development of new industries. Stock and domestic Water may need to be replaced by a Farm and Commercial Entitlement to reflect equity in costs
5. PROJECT COST
.Farmers will be expected to contribute over 40% of the cost of the system must have equitable sharing of costs and benefits."
Many thanks to Glen Marshall and Audrey Mather, who attended to our every need and organised meetings with very hospitable local farmers. Audrey, at whose home we stayed, is also a member of the CWA and Glen was educated as an agricultural scientist and taught much of his life, in Australia and in New Guinea, finally retiring to Culgoa town.
"The Wimmera River is one that does not empty into the sea; it is entirely landlocked and its water has been over-allocated for many years, i.e., demand exceeds supply. Those who have travelled through this area will have seen that the water is distributed in open channels. To me, it follows that any technical improvement which conserves water should see that water kept in the river and not used for any further expansion of demand. The costs given in this piece suggest to me that the economic cost will be too great for farmers to bear and the scheme will not get up on these grounds. The figures are very interesting for if a technical solution to the problems of our much larger river systems such as the Murray/Darling are to be based on piping rather than open channel distribution, the economic cost is going to be high indeed." Dr John Coulter, SPA National Vice President.
The Regional context - Related 2003 Report
If State Government plans to upgrade rail services between Melbourne and Ballarat, Bendigo, Geelong and the Latrobe Valley perceptibly improve those services, then towns along the rail lines are all likely to gain population, both transient and permanent.? Land prices would then rise in these areas.?
Victorian government projections for regional areas probably greatly underestimate the rate of growth in the respective populations.
Projections from the Department of Infrastructure (DOI) [Now Department of Sustainability -ed.] and other planning bodies tend to link prosperity to population growth, because they measure everything with GDP, which is merely a measure of activity involving financial transactions. These transactions could be increasing national debt, as indeed are a lot of property and infrastructure projects, but they count as positive. At a per capita level we are dividing an increasing number of people into a type of economy that does not require much labor and which is selling low cost commodities on the world market.? Population growth in this kind of economy is not such good news except for those who own property and utilities which increase price with increased demand. It is in fact these people who are driving population growth in Australia.
Property development and construction directly benefit from population growth. The industries upstream from property are the suppliers of raw materials for building, such as mining and forestry, and the suppliers of processed building materials. The major downstream industries are the finance industries, such as banks and building societies, which rely on mortgages as a major source of profitable income and to finance other business investments. State Governments also earn billions each year through collection of stamp duties on property sales. Solicitors earn money from conveyancing and real estate agents, of course, rely on sales and rentals. The individuals and companies who stand to gain the most are possibly the big developer-building companies that own large land banks which they sell out in parcels of land to home buyers when demand is high. Many of these developers also have housing finance companies. Some build shopping centres and roads as well as houses. But speculation is big business and transnational corporations, like insurance companies, also invest in water, property markets and agriculture. The print media relies heavily on real-estate ads for income. The Murdoch and the Fairfax press both have property dot coms which market Australian real estate to buyers and investors all over the world.
Some organisations representing these major interests are the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Population Institute (Apop), the Housing Institute of Australia (HIA), the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the Real Estate Institute of Australia.
For most of the rest of us, rising land, water and energy costs contribute to inflation that is, they raise the cost of living. More population, especially in a deregulated industrial system, drives down wages. Since land is the basis of everything in our economies, rising land costs contribute not only to unaffordable housing, but they increase costs to business as well.
Home owners can sometimes capitalise on their assets by selling up and moving to cheaper outlying areas. Many may finish up in the large, medium and small regional cities and towns. Coastal and mountain areas are particularly attractive for people who are retiring and for whom the rising cost of living in the cities and the fall in superannuation value makes moving out good sense.
In the Victorian regions, population is generally less than the infrastructure provides for, since people have been leaving for decades. Here, the population growth which was bad news in the city, is probably good news for the country in a number of ways.
Although our commodity based economy has many drawbacks, regions that produce wood from plantations, such as those in the area around Bairnsdale, will have the added attraction of providing semi skilled and skilled jobs.
Parts of regional Victoria will experience population loss due to land degradation and pricing of water beyond a point where farming becomes profitable. The has already happened in Kerang, for instance. Some parts of Victoria, notably the Riverina for which population growth is predicted by DOI, may suffer population implosion if the Murray Darling River river system and the land it feeds degrades and industry flounders, as has been warned by numerous land and water ecologists in CSIRO and elsewhere.
Cost of food is likely to rise steeply along with the cost of water as competition between the demands of an increasing number of people and industrial concerns causes scarcity. Climate change also threatens to make dry areas dryer. The Hubbert Peak theory of petroleum production, widely subscribed to, predicts peak production of oil between 2006 and 2011, with a quite rapid decline in oil and gas supply after that.
What could this mean to the regions? Again, what is bad news generally for the cities is probably better news for the regions. If the cost of living rises due to competition for water and land, and if fuel becomes much less affordable, there would be a tendency to produce less and to rely on local markets. Life would be led in situ, with less travel and fewer organisations doing the same things.
Regional populations may be thrown back to judicious use of dryland farming in any areas which have managed to retain access to local catchment water, despite competition from corporate irrigators and water speculators. Caution inclines one to advocate maintenance of independent sources of water so that regions can maintain some self sufficiency if democracy further erodes and water is privatised. The cities will not have so many options, having covered their farmland with housing.
In the short term there are also what economists would term some positive indicators for regional areas. House prices could rise so that country people will have more chance of borrowing from banks. Currently city peoples' land assets are far superior items for negotiating finance. Recreational/health industries could have new population types to service and more customers with less mobility, due to age, reduced income and increased travel costs. Increased infrastructure demand in the short-term could lead to high demand for raw materials and to processing industries. New opportunities for jobs and business could arise from this demand and would attract a variety of new population types, including young people.
A regional town with a university able to attract international students, would be likely to attract both population and money and increase property values through rentals and sales. Current immigration policy encourages foreign students who take degrees in Australia to become permanent migrants, and this creates a heavy demand for rental and owner property. Universities currently vie to attract foreign students because they can charge them high fees and because of the flow on benefits to the property investment market. It would not be surprising to find that universities have made substantial property investments.
Feedback from a recent talk to YMCA regional managers was informative and confirmed that there were increasing trends of urban-rural migration, growing housing unaffordability in the regions and speculation by developers. For instance, in Phillip Island, where much of the population is social welfare dependent, I was told that land prices have recently quadrupled. Regional officers were indeed observing housing become progressively more unaffordable as speculators and people from the city moved in. Of great concern to regional officers everywhere was the shortage and cost of water and its effect on the ability to run swimming pools and recreational lakes.