By Jeremy Sollars
Primary producers from farming districts east and north of Warwick have called on the Queensland Government to withdraw a directive to install irrigation meters until they have been fully consulted, at a public meeting held at the Swan Creek Hall today, Thursday 18 July.
More than 900 producers with irrigation licences across the Upper Condamine River catchment – including those in the Warwick and Glengallan areas – were gobsmacked to receive letters out of the blue from the Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy in the last week of June advising them of new restrictions on their use of irrigation water for crops, effective Monday 1 July.
The department gave them the choice of irrigating either on Tuesday or Thursday nights only or else install a water meter to monitor their water use, with fines of up to $217,000 potentially applying if found to be in breach of restrictions.
Furious at the lack of notice and formal consultation several hundred affected producers attended today’s public meeting, organised by former Deputy Mayor Ross Bartley, himself among those affected.
A unanimous vote was taken to write to Natural Resources, Mines and Energy Minister Dr Anthony Lynham demanding the metering plan be revoked pending full consultation, citing the current drought conditions.
Mr Bartley told the meeting the farming community locally accepted metering was “inevitable” but said producers had a right to be consulted on their introduction.
Irrigation metering is gradually being introduced across Queensland in line with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and southern states.
Mr Bartley previously told the Free Times it was his belief the government has an “ulterior motive” to place a “dollar value” on every litre of irrigation water used in Queensland’s farming sector.
He told today’s meeting dairy producers and vegetable growers were the hardest hit by the new restrictions as they required more regular use of irrigation water than two nights per week to keep their operations viable than those growing supplementary fodder for livestock, who also stood to be affected detrimentally.
Locally-based officers from the department told the meeting they apologised for the short notice given on the metering plan, claiming there were no local irrigator groups they could contact easily.
But Clintonvale dairy farmer Lawrence Ryan disputed this, saying he has been a member of an active water users group in his district for 30 years and that local producers had been “brushed off” by the department.
Mr Ryan said producers should consider a “class action” over loss of production if the government refuses to back down on delaying the introduction of metering, and said the government’s approach amounted to a form of “bullying”.
The departmental officers also told the meeting producers could request a temporary exemption from the metering plan to allow them to conduct their farming activities without interruption while they installed meters, which was likewise disputed by Wickham Farms spokesman Haydn Lamb.
Mr Lamb told today’s meeting the company had asked the department for an exemption after being given only a few days’ notice to install metering and was refused.
He said Wickham Farms had no choice but to go ahead and install metering on their irrigation country at Clintonvale, where a young onion crop has recently been planted and with the directive placing 12-month forward supply contracts at risk.
Mr Lamb said onions “can’t be watered at night or they will freeze” and said around 40 direct and up to 85 indirect jobs were dependant on the company proceeding with its planned growing operations.
“We don’t need the blanket pulled out from under us with just a couple of days’ notice,” Mr Lamb said.
Local State MP for Southern Downs James Lister told the meeting he had made representations to Mr Lynham on behalf of producers and while the minister had “apologised” for the lack of notice and consultation Mr Lynham had given no indication the metering directive would either be revoked or placed on hold.
Comment is being sought from Mr Lynham.