Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Oasis country dying of thirst

SITTING where Australia's two greatest rivers meet, Wentworth lies at the symbolic heart of the Murray-Darling Basin food bowl.

There has been an irrigation industry there for more than a century, and the Wentworth Shire calls itself "oasis country" - a place where the brown waters of the Darling and the green waters of the Murray have enabled people to turn the desert into a garden.

The Perry sandhills outside town are a brilliant red, but the citrus and wine grapes are usually a brilliant green. Generations have grown up knowing nothing but full water allocations, and the most famous monument in Wentworth features a Massey Ferguson tractor.

The tractors are honoured for the epic role they played building levee banks to stop Wentworth disappearing under the mighty flood of 1956.

But no tractor will be able to drag the south-western NSW district out of the drought disaster it finds itself in today. For the first time, Wentworth irrigators are enduring the huge shock of a zero water allocation this year.

The irrigation districts of Curlwaa, Buronga and Coomealla are dotted with citrus trees under stress and vineyards that have already died of thirst. There are numerous for-sale signs. Some farmers are about to run out of water, some have avoided that fate by buying water at record prices.

Some have cut their citrus trees back to their stumps so they can get through the summer on survival rations. Some have chosen to sacrifice parts of their vineyard using chainsaws so there is enough water to maintain production elsewhere. It is a scenario locals admit they had never envisaged in their worst nightmares.

This summer, Wentworth irrigators have been given just half of the 52 per cent of their water allocation they had suspended last year when the severity of the drought was realised. They have also got critical water on a per-hectare basis until the end of March - just enough to keep plantings alive but not enough to produce a crop and an income.

Therefore, water that would normally sell for less than $100 a megalitre is now commanding more than $1000. The 430 Western Murray irrigators usually only use half the district's 61,000 megalitres of entitlement and sell water to other areas, but this summer $5 million worth has already been bought in.

About 25 per cent have bought water, but Cheryl Rix, the general manager of Western Murray Irrigation, said: "A lot of people haven't been able to borrow money to buy water. A lot of people are going to let 30 per cent of their farm go [to get enough water for production on the rest]. At the end of the day you have got to have a farm income."

The average farmer had about 35 per cent of their normal water entitlement, Mrs Rix said.

Dennis Mills has bulldozed eight hectares of citrus and chainsawed through four hectares of shiraz vines to get the water he needs to produce crops on the rest of his land....

Kevin Watson, a wine grape grower, has bought himself expensive peace of mind this summer. "I have spent $150,000 on water this year. I bought $75,000 worth of water last year."...

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