Water Buybacks begin: NSW Irrigators Council CEO on the impact 

The Federal Government begins the process of water buybacks from this coming Monday 15 July, launching tenders in the southern Murray Darling Basin seeking entitlements for up to 70 gigilitres.

The move has sparked significant concern among farmers and regional communities. In an interview on ABC Radio NSW Country Hour, NSW Irrigators Council CEO Claire Miller expressed strong opposition to the buybacks, warning of their potential to devastate local economies and inflate food prices.

Ms Miller argues that these buybacks will hollow out regional communities by driving up the cost of critical inputs, such as water, which in turn squeezes farmers' margins and pushes them out of business. "The federal water minister is targeting the most vulnerable regions and farmers," Ms Miller stated, highlighting that the most affected areas include the Murrumbidgee Valley, the New South Wales Murray, the Victorian Murray, and the South Australian Riverland.

She pointed out that ABARES (Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences) has already identified these communities as vulnerable, and the government's buybacks are hitting them hardest. According to Ms Miller, the government's entry into the water market drives up prices, as evidenced by last year's bridging the gap tender in the New South Wales Murray, where the government paid over 30% above the market rate for water.

Ms Miller criticized the government for ignoring warnings from its own agencies, including the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) and ABARES, which have both cautioned that buybacks will increase water costs for farmers. This, she noted, would particularly impact the rice and dairy industries, potentially pricing them out of the market.

While some argue that farmers could shift to dry land farming, Ms Miller dismissed this as a viable solution, pointing out the lower yields and reduced service needs compared to irrigated agriculture. She also challenged the notion that these buybacks are putting the environment first, arguing that despite significant water recovery efforts over the past two decades, the overall health of the basin's rivers remains poor. Instead, she advocated for addressing root causes of environmental degradation, such as European carp control, erosion, and cold-water pollution.

The interview also touched on the economic pressures facing farmers, particularly older people looking to retire and reduce debt by selling their water rights. While acknowledging their right to sell, Miller emphasized the importance of keeping water in production to support food and fibre growth and sustain regional communities.

Listen to the full interview: NSW Country Hour - ABC listen