BASIN PLAN: 'Last hurrah'

DISTRICT residents from both sides of the Murray River have endorsed an ambitious push to stop the continuing implementation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

About 250 people voted unanimously at a meeting in Barham on Tuesday for a motion to "pause the Basin Plan."

Wakool food producer John Lolicato addresses the public meeting.

Wakool food producer John Lolicato addresses the public meeting.

It is the first of a series of planned meetings to rally "people power" to fight for what one speaker described as "a matter of survival" for Basin communities.

Roughly a quarter of the meeting participants were from the southern side of the border, responding to a call by a coalition of New South Wales municipal council, irrigator and community groups known as the Murray Regional Strategy Group.

The proposal calls for a five-year halt on further water acquisitions, during which time a comprehensive review of the Plan would be carried out by independent consultants chosen by affected regional communities and state water ministers, with the Plan to be reintroduced only when agreed by the communities.

Driving the new campaign are irrigators John Lolicato and Darcy Hare from Wakool, north-east of Barham, one of the areas hardest hit by water buybacks, which have seen a once-rich irrigated farming drained of jobs and population over the six years the plan has been in place.

"This is our last hurrah," Mr Lolicato, the chair of the Wakool River Association, told the meeting. "[We have to] send a very clear message to government and to agencies that we cannot continue the way it's going, because our regional communities will collapse."

While Mr Lolicato acknowledged that some communities and individuals were doing alright under the Plan, its overall impact was "devastating", and years of engagement and advocacy through official channels had failed to deliver relief for affected communities, who had been badly let down by their political and industry representatives, he told the meeting.

"As forecast by communities when the plan began in 2012, the social and economic consequences in some communities have been horrendous - eg job losses of up to 76 per cent and water recovery of up to 50 per cent. Our peak advocacy groups and politicians have let our communities down badly, especially in the NSW Murray and Goulburn regions, where we've done the majority of the heavy lifting," he said.

The large gathering heard, and took part in, a searing critique of many aspects of the design and operation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, from the alleged bureaucracy and secrecy surrounding it, to a claimed lack of flexibility, the failure of water savings projects like at Menindee Lakes, the belief that political imperative is driving unnecessary environmental water delivery to South Australia, and complaints about forest flooding and increased risk of property flooding caused by excessive volumes of water being run through the Barmah Choke.

A five-year pause in the Plan's implementation would allow authorities time to "prove the benefits" with the 2100 gigalitres of environmental water they had already acquired, before acquiring more, Mr Lolicato said.

The proposal already had the backing of about 1800 irrigators across the Murray Valley and "a fair bit of Victorian support as well", Mr Lolicato said. 

The organisers are planning to build grassroots support through a series of meetings around New South Wales and Victoria, including in Deniliquin, Echuca, Mildura and Swan Hill, with the longer-term aim of addressing an identified public relations problem in urban Australia.

"We need to get our urban public to start to understand what's happening," Mr Lolicato said. 

"The next part of the strategy is to get our urban cousins on side."

Speaking after the meeting, Wakool Landholders Association chair Darcy Hare said that recent reports on the Murray Darling Basin Plan, particularly that of the Productivity Commission, highlighted significant problems that need to be addressed.

"We can't have it continue to roll into 2024 and have all the devastating impacts it's had continue - economically, socially and environmentally," he said.

Mr Hare said that political representation at both State and Federal level was "a key part" of the current strategy.

The irrigator community in the NSW border electorate of Farrer had selected Albury mayor Kevin Mack as their candidate of choice in the Federal election, he said. 

Mr Mack will reportedly run as an independent in the seat against sitting Liberal member, Sussan Ley, who is Assistant Minister for Regional Development and Territories.

The meeting unanimously voted for action to Pause the Plan.

The meeting unanimously voted for action to Pause the Plan.

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