The absolute failure of water and land management in Australia’s agricultural sector is starting to look like a slow-motion, out of control train-wreck in progress. While the Coalition Government is trumpeting a new ‘drought policy’, in reality, it is more of the same of what led us into this mess in the first place, while offering no acknowledgment of the failure of ‘market-based’ management of our natural resources or likely future climate scenarios.
Already the responses of the Coalition Government to the dire water shortages across much of the country, with nothing to alleviate the rapid demise of the lower Darling as an ecological system, show they have no new ideas, or rather are unwilling to contemplate others. Following revelations by Four Corners in July that huge amounts of public money are being given to irrigators to expand their operations in the Murrumbidgee, now we hear the catchcry, “build more dams!” emanating from the National Party headquarters. This way it is claimed, more overland flow can be captured so that water will be available for towns and downstream users in times of drought.
This time the intention is to target “higher rainfall” areas of the state, the proposed Upper Mole River Dam in the Border Ranges and the new Dungowan Dam on the Northern Tablelands of NSW. As well, the government announced a $650 million upgrade for Wyangala Dam, upstream of Cowra on the Lachlan River.
This dam focussed strategy has been advocated before, going back to the Coalition’s Dam Task force in December 2011 and have been underway ever since. The Australia Institute claimed that at least $200 million has been spent on dam upgrades prior to the latest round of announcements. Investigations by Four Corners earlier this year showed Websters Limited received public money provided under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’s $13 billion water infrastructure scheme, some $4 billion dollars, resulting in more land being cleared and more massive water storages in the Murrumbidgee.
As scientists such as Richard Kingsmill and Maryanne Slattery have pointed out, this would just add further strain to the natural river system by removing yet more overland flow. These also have to be placed within the context of our complete failure to maintain a regulated and managed floodplain storage system, with most structures now un-regulated, particularly in the Northern Basin.
As the National Party elite gathered to announce the new public works for the proposed Dungowan Dam, the fan-fare was about outlining the future benefits to the community of the dam and who would be the benefactors and investors. The Northern Daily Leader reported that Barnaby Joyce stated funding for the project has, “… been talked about as a three-way funded project between the state and the feds, with some from the growers, "The main beneficiaries are said to be Tamworth’s water supply, the environment and ‘downstream users".
But as there aren’t many people growing anything at the moment, one has to ask, who are these growers that are investing (and presumably benefiting) in these dams? Further investigation has showed that the location of the dams are in catchments where substantial investment in agricultural enterprises has recently occurred. The Dungowan Dam will be placed in a relatively pristine area of the upper catchment stream, Dungowan Creek, which joins the Peel River near Tamworth. From here the Peel flows into the lower Namoi Catchment, historically a prime agricultural area which has seen considerable cotton development.
Some have suggested that one of the main beneficiaries of the Dungowan Dam will be the Tomato Farm at Guyra, part of the multi-national Costa Group following concerns about its future water supply earlier this year. But 2018 was a big year for purchases from the big end of town, as reported in the Land, including in the Northern Tablelands, the Barwon and Namoi Valleys, for properties that are historically cotton or beef producing.
Notable is the acquisition by Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting of ‘Sundown Valley’ and ‘Gunnee Feedlot’, part of her expansion into the Wagyu Beef / feedlot sector, primarily for the Asian market. She also bought the 3,234 ha ‘Glendon Park’ at Armidale for her beef enterprises for about $14 million. Another corporate player, Stone Axe Pastoral, also bought up a number of properties last year including the 2,145 ha ‘Glen Alvie’ at Ebor for around $17 million and another $4 million for the nearby 784 ha ‘Alfreda’.
The Land reported that Stone Axe is also the lessee of two significant New England properties acquired in 2018 by the listed Rural Funds Group, ‘Dyamberin’ for $13.4 million and ‘Woodburn’ for $7.1 million, all apparently for Wagyu beef production. Stone Axe is also in partnership with Gina Rinehart and John Dee with their beef investments in feed lots and Wagyu export operations in Warwick, Queensland.
Here we see clearly how the government is playing favourites in their plans to ‘drought-proof’ the nation. Stone Axe has received significant investment from the NSW Government, amounting to $3.3 million dollars, to assist their Wagyu operations at ‘Glen Alvie’ near Ebor.
This money was sourced from the NSW Government’s $150 million ‘GO NSW Equity Fund’, launched in 2017, along with fund partners First State Super and ROC Partners, the latter a Sydney- and Hong Kong-based funds manager. The other notable sale on the Northern Tablelands recently was the improved 1,500 ha ‘Tenterden Station’, west of Guyra, reportedly sold by Ray White Rural for $17m (with water entitlements) to a family from Queensland, whose identity was not released to the media.
In the Lachlan Valley, no doubt expecting to benefit from improvement to the Wyangala Dam, are the recently purchased ‘Jemalong Station’ and ‘Jemalong Citrus’ at Forbes, and ‘Merrowie’ at Hillston to offshore investors, including Optifarm Pty Ltd, a Netherlands-based investment company, for more than $115 million.
The other new dam which is listed to receive large amounts of funding is on the Upper Mole River near Tenterfield. The benefits of this dam however are expected to the electorate of Parkes. The Mole River flows into the Dumerasq, which feeds into the Barwon River, another area of intense agricultural development, including irrigation. Many of the storages currently holding water are found in this part of the country, as exposed ‘unintentionally’ by the Murray Darling Basin Commission recently.
Another recent big investor in irrigation and grazing properties is hedge fund billionaire Sir Michael Hintze, who has significant land holdings in NSW through a number of companies, particularly MH Premium Farms which has bought extensively in the Northern Basin and in the southern highlands. Some 40 properties are now managed by Richard Taylor (brother of Angus) of #watergate and #grassgate fame. Richard manages Future Farms and Angus still retains an interest through another shelf company.
At the same time of the Coalition’s 2011 Dam Taskforce, it seems Hintze started buying irrigation properties in the upper Murray-Darling, ‘Gundera-Red Camp’ on the Namoi River at Wee Waa and three properties he aggregated west of Walgett on the Barwon River (Mourabie, West Mourabie and Bynia).
Hinze then picked up ‘Boolarwell’ at Talwood in 2014 on the Queensland side of the Dumerasq River. While it may be co-incidence that Sir Michael started investing at the same time the Coalition were putting their ideas down about a future full of dams connected by pipes, is it a co-incidence that all five properties mentioned could seek to gain from both the new dams at Dungowan and Upper Mole?
It still remains to be seen where the dam investment frenzy will go to next, but given the pattern of recent land investments, it seems that the government is backing a future for irrigation and intensive beef production. It’s a shame that these two types of production are perhaps the most water intensive. Given the current levels of community despair at the deteriorating environment and levels of agricultural production under the current conditions, many would say these investment priorities are at odds with a sustainable future for our communities and environments. It is certainly at odds with any sense of community transparency or a climatic future where there is likely to be less rain to go around.
However, none of these issues seem to figure prominently in the current Coalition’s thinking.