A group of more than 100 concerned West Manjimup farmers in Western Australia’s South West are calling for a stop to the Southern Forests Irrigation Scheme (SFIS), fearing it will cause raised salinity levels in the Donnelly River and a trading scheme where water will be sold to the highest bidder.
There are additional concerns about 350 hectares of forest that will have to be destroyed to make the project possible and losing water forever, via the scheme, from the Donnelly River catchment.
Under the SFIS, a 15-gigalitre dam and 250km pipeline will supply about nine gigalitres of water annually to irrigate 1700ha of land – but only farmers making a financial contribution will benefit, despite government funding making up more than 85 per cent of the cost.
The Federal Government committed $39 million to the scheme just days before it went into caretaker mode for the election with the State Government providing $18 million and a private cooperative of 68 farmers also adding $10 million.
Calls for proponents of the scheme to hold a public meeting have been repeatedly ignored – and farmers with protest signs on their properties have received letters from the council threatening fines if they do not remove them.
Out of 458 farmers in the district, only have 68 have signed up to the scheme.
Local farmer and Don’t Dam the Donnelly member John Kilrain described the project as ill-founded and unfair.
“As things stand, the Warren and Blackwood rivers have salinity problems but the Donnelly River doesn’t,” he said.
“When you start taking water out of a catchment area, especially in the manner proposed, salt levels will start to rise.
“In 10 years’ time, we will find ourselves with all our rivers having salinity problems – do we really want to damage such a fresh, pristine waterway based on flawed data?”
Mr Kilrain said the SFIS was wholly reliant on Department of Water and Environmental Regulation modelling, rather than physical gauging stations.
“None have been put in place to accurately measure the water in the catchment area, despite the cost being less than $50,000,” he said.
“Under the SFIS, water can be taken from the river whenever the flow is above 20 megalitres a day – but when you remove the winter flush from a river you’re almost certainly going to have salinity problems in the future because the salt is no longer being washed back to the ocean.
“And adding fresh water to salt-affected land will only make the problems east of Manjimup worse – salt levels are already high and if they pipe water and put it on top, the salinity levels will go even higher and make the land unsuitable for production.”
The SFIS business case, which includes a cost-benefit analysis, has yet to be released to the public by Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan.
The farmer’s cooperative has only provided 2 per cent of its promised $10 million and will only deliver another eight per cent before the scheme’s infrastructure.
“That means there’s a potential $9 million black hole because any one of those 68 farmers could pull out at any time,” Mr Kilrain said.
“Questions need to be answered on who actually owns this pipeline and what happens if they get halfway through construction and run out of funds?
“Landowners who have not contributed will get no benefit so farmers in the catchment area are very concerned about the impact it will have on their existing operations into the future.
“The scheme is simply not fair or equitable in its current form.”
Mr Kilrain says proponents of the SFIS want to push the price of water as high as possible.
“Our government should be looking to assist farmers and orchardists to create produce at the lowest price possible so we can be competitive in export markets,” he said.
“I’ve yet to see one example of water trading being a success in this country.
“Water should be as cheap as possible to allow farms to flourish, which has a flow-on effect by creating greater employment.”
Mr Kilrain also highlighted the increased carbon footprint that would be created by the project, via the initial building of the infrastructure and continued pumping of water.
“The last thing anyone wants is for this to turn into another Murray-Darling Basin fiasco,” he said.
Greens South West Region MCL Diane Evers tabled a petition against the scheme to WA Parliament in June and an online petition currently has more than 3700 signatures.
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