Water for Irrigation in St George

Thanks for sticking around tonight to hear the blazing insights I will have at a quarter past 10 on a Monday evening. I also want to thank the hard-working girls in the Whip's office, Charlotte and Bec. I know they are just as keen to hear those blazing insights.

I have racked up about five months in the job here so I suppose I am through probation. I have not had a performance review from you, Mr President, yet—not that I am complaining about that.

The PRESIDENT: "It can be provided."

I wait with bated breath. I often get asked: how do you find the job? How is it going? I often tell people the hardest part of the job is the travel and the best part of the job is the travel. I have been fortunate enough to travel around the great state of Queensland quite a bit in my first few months. It is hard because I am away from family but it is a great honour too because I get to meet new people and hear about their issues and try and do my best to do something about them.

I want to briefly outline a visit I made two weeks ago to Western Queensland. I went to Dalby, to Roma and to St George. All those places had their own issues and problems that needed addressing. I want to focus on St George tonight. It is a place I know relatively well, having worked for a former senator in this place, Senator Barnaby Joyce, who used to live there.

St George is undergoing a great change at the moment through the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. St George is a town that is built on irrigation. It is an area that God made to grow food and fibre. It has beautiful rich soils. Massive amounts of water flow through the Balonne River and bifurcate over the flood plains in that region. There are great engineering marvels that exist to capture that overland flow and to store it. They then grow crops of rock melons, onions, wheat and, of course, cotton. It provides thousands of jobs. There are about 5,000 people who live in that district that includes Dirranbandi and Hebel. There is an enormous amount of production. In some years up to $1 billion in agricultural production comes from that area.

But at the moment we are reducing the amount of water used across the Murray-Darling Basin including in this region and that is hurting some of these towns. We have always recognised that more water does have to go back to the environment but it does come at a cost. Under the Basin Plan, about 100 gigalitres of water has to be reduced in use from the Condamine-Balonne basin. That is a catchment that extends from just west of Toowoomba at Dalby all the way down to the border of New South Wales passed Dirranbandi. That will become more important as I talk about a few things.

The government has already acquired just over 50 gigalitres of water so we are about halfway there in that process. When I went out there are a couple of weeks ago, businesses were hurting because of that water acquisition buyback. They use about 400 or 450 gigalitres a year from the whole catchment. St Georges uses less than that. But 50 gigs has come from just below St George and St George and it has had a huge impact on the business in those areas. It is not the irrigators or the farmers that that I, my Nationals colleagues or former senator Joyce have the greatest concern for. It is not the farmers that are the issue. When they sell their water, they get a cheque. When they sell their water, they do so in a voluntary market which the government pays for. They can decide what they do with their lives after they sell that water. They can move to the Gold Coast if they like or they can diversify into other crops.

The people who get left behind do not have a water licence so the hotel owners, the tyre shop owners, the agronomists, the Elders store, do not get a cheque from the government, but their businesses rely heavily on the agricultural production that underpins the region. So when you take the water away and take the agricultural production away, you take the rug from underneath those businesses and that is why they are hurting.

I want to raise a few issues to note that I have also raised with the water minister, Senator Birmingham. He is very aware of these issues. When the former government put in place the plan, we in the coalition called for a cap on buybacks. Because of the costs of these buybacks from towns, we said that we should only buy back about half to two-thirds in water. The rest of the savings we should achieve through getting better and more efficient with water use, so we should line channels, we should laser level fields and we should deepen our water storages to reduce evaporation. All those things will still reduce water use and help the environment but they will also help keep that agricultural production there and keep businesses there. But of that 50 gigs that have been acquired from St George, only four gigalitres out of the 50 litres—less than 10 per cent—have come from those water efficiencies so far. The other 46 gigalitres have come from water buybacks and that is why these people are hurting. So there needs to be—the plan should be finalised by 2019—a greater emphasis in my view on the Condamine-Balonne region on those water efficiencies. That can happen. There is potential to do those things.

There is still potential to make deeper water storages. There is a dam there, which a lot of water is stored in, near St George, called Beardmore Dam. Its average depth is just 2½ metres—not much deeper than a suburban swimming pool. That leads to a lot of evaporation. You get about two metres of evaporation a year in those areas. So, if the dam is full at the start of the year and it does not rain, it will be pretty much empty by the end of the year in St George. Instead of storing it in the dam, you can store it in big ring tanks, which can be eight metres high. The ring tanks are basically above ground swimming pools, and they can build them up to eight metres high very easily, and that will cut evaporation. It will have a smaller surface area and save water. There are also things that can be done with the SunWater scheme there, and some more pipes that can be put in. We can also do things to shepherd water down—that is a very technical thing—but we can buy water upstream around Dalby and Chinchilla. Through the conversion and trading of licences right down the river, we can still get that water down to where the environmental assets are, and I want to talk briefly on those.

The reason we are buying the 100 gigalitres of water is to water two key environmental assets—the Narran Lakes and the Culgoa floodplain. The Narran Lakes are in New South Wales and the Culgoa floodplain is on the border between New South Wales and Queensland, so they are right down the bottom of that Condamine-Balonne catchment. It is a massive area. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has said in the past that the reason they need to get all that water around St George is that there are assets that they want to water near St George. There is no connectivity between what happens up at Chinchilla—which would be a good 300-odd kilometres away at least—and what happens down at the border.

In saying that, when the plan was signed, I remember very vividly the argument that all this water had come from down there apparently, and the chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Mr Craig Knowles, promised the people of St George that not all of the water needs to come from St George. The vast majority of it does—he said about 80 per cent does—but there is the potential to get 20 per cent from upstream. While that water may not get down to the border easily, it is still needed to help the macro and microinvertebrates that exist in the upper Condamine-Balonne system. That has not happened so far. There has been no water acquired from the upper Condamine-Balonne system. In my view, in accordance with those promises and assurances given to the people of St George, that should happen now, in the last few years of the plan.

The final thing we can do, which will be explored in the 2016 review of the plan, is better environmental watering; to water the Narran Lakes and the Culgoa floodplain. We can become more efficient at doing that as well. These areas are large floodplains, and, yes, we could water the environmental assets by sending the water down the river, but that would be a lot of waste, because a lot of that water then spreads over those floodplains and evaporates or seeps into the ground. Instead, we could, in a more targeted way, direct that water or buy water at certain times to make sure that we do not need as much as 100 gigalitres to get the same environmental impacts.

If we do all of those three things—concentrating on more water efficiencies, getting some water from the upper Condamine and also improving environmental watering—I think we can minimise any further impact on St George. I want to see that town survive. It is a great little town. It has six or seven doctors who live there, and it is a beautiful place for fishing. There is waterskiing, but I did not get a chance to do that. There is a beautiful river. I hope that we can help these communities survive and thrive in inland Australia, and the only way they are going to do that is by continuing to do what they are best at, which is growing food and fibre. There are not going to be thousands of jobs in ecotourism. They are not going to be able to diversify into local government or other issues. The only thing that is going to sustain that town is using the soil, sun and water that God has given us to grow food and create jobs.

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