Bundaberg farmers forced to irrigate like it’s the 1999’s after 22pc allocations announced

Irrigators on the Bundaberg water supply scheme are coming to terms with their recently announced allocations (AA) for the 2021-22 water year.

With recent rainfall recorded across the Wide Bay region over the weekend, some growers were rewarded with widespread falls and inflows into their on-farm dams.

The rain arrived just after Sunwater released a statement on Friday July 2, announcing medium priority allocations for the Burnett sub-scheme, other wise known as Paradise Dam, are 22 per cent.

Medium priority allocations for the Kolan sub-scheme (Fred Haigh Dam) are 98pc, while high priority allocations for both sub-schemes are 100pc.

The AA for Bundaberg growers is slightly higher than the 14 and 17pc prediction Sunwater released back in June.

A spokesperson for Sunwater said the 2021-22 water year allocations cannot decrease as dam capacity levels reduce.

“It is important to note that should inflows occur allocations can increase to a maximum of 100 per cent, as they did during the 2020-21 water year,” the spokesperson said.

“We understand the significant pressure drought conditions are having.

“Over the last 24 months the Burnett has seen some of the lowest rainfall on record for the region. Across the catchment, prevailing dry conditions have impacted all Sunwater water storages.

“Sunwater is hopeful the rainfall forecast in coming days delivers inflows to water storages in the Bundaberg region, and provides a boost to the announced allocations.”

Sunwater said it will continue to work with customers to ensure there is as much water available as possible for irrigators and the community.

Bundaberg businesses feel impact  

Irrigators and business owners in the Bundaberg region fear the district will be plunged back into the economic stagnation of the 1990s and early 2000s after the formal release of the announced allocations.

Local business owner, Tony Denton, Adds Up Engineering, has operated an engineering business in the Bundaberg region for 23 years and employs almost 20 staff.

Mr Denton said he remembers how tough it was in this area before Paradise Dam was built back in 2005.

“In the 1990s and early 2000s, in particular, things got really tough due to low water allocations for local farmers,” Mr Denton said.

“To learn that in 2021 farmers have been given an AA of 22pc, it’s like a bad dream”.

“My business relies on building equipment for farmers. If farmers are struggling it puts a lot of pressure on my business to keep my 20 staff in a job.”

Mr Denton paid $1.4 million in wages last year including pay roll tax, but if things continue to slow down he fears jobs will be lost.

“People may not realise it yet, but Bundaberg is about to go through another tough time because the low water allocation farmers are receiving from Paradise Dam will have a big impact on local jobs and local spending,” he said.

“To be brutally honest, jobs will be lost in my business if farmers stop ordering new equipment.”

AA HISTORY: This graph showcases the historically low announced allocations which Bundaberg growers from 1995-2003 faced.
 AA HISTORY: This graph showcases the historically low announced allocations which Bundaberg growers from 1995-2003 faced.

Back to the future for farmers

Local agribusiness lawyer, Tom Marland, is running the class action against the state government over the mismanagement of Paradise Dam.

Mr Marland said the AA from Sunwater feels like a scene from ‘Back to the Future’.

“Sadly, local farmers will be forced to irrigate like they did in 1999, when the AA in July was just 20pc,” Mr Marland said.

“Local records show that from 1995 to 2002 the AA in July were between 5 and 35pc, with the exception of 1996 when the AA in July was 50pc.

“Growers are going to experience major income losses on a 22pc AA and those are the kinds of losses we will be seeking to claim in the class action”.

Future Drought Fund investments for Queensland

Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management David Littleproud and QLD Minister for Agricultural Industry Development and Fisheries and Minister for Rural Communities Mark Furner said the Future Drought Fund programs will support farmers and regions to build resilience to future droughts.  

“The $9.85 million Regional Drought Resilience Planning program supports partnerships of regional organisations, councils, communities and farmers to develop regional drought resilience plans,” Minister Littleproud said.     

“The plans will identify how to manage through droughts by finding ways to build resilience across agricultural sectors and allied industries. 

“Planning will be community-led and owned. It will bring regional knowledge and perspectives, along with the best available evidence and data. 

 “Australian farmers manage uncertainty daily and the business of farming is becoming more challenging,” Minister Littleproud said.

“The $16 million Farm Business Resilience program will give farmers access to subsidised learning and development opportunities to meet these challenges. 

“The program will take farmers’ knowledge and skills to the next level in risk planning, natural resource management, and personal and social resilience.

“It will also support farm business planning and access to experts and one-on-one advice.

“The Australian Government welcomes Queensland’s partnership in these important Future Drought Fund initiatives.”

Queensland will benefit from $4.4 million in Future Drought Fund funding for Farm Business Resilience and $1.8 million for Regional Drought Resilience Planning.  With Queensland’s contribution, total funding for the Farm Business Resilience Program will be $8.4 million, and for Regional Drought Resilience Planning $4.7 million.

Mr Furner said the Farm Business Resilience Program would benefit Queensland farm businesses in the grazing, cropping, mixed farming, sugar cane, dairy and tropical horticulture industries.

“The program has two elements; firstly, skills training will be offered for drought, climate preparedness and other business risks facing primary producers through an expansion of our Drought and Climate Adaptation Program,” Mr Furner said.

“Secondly, the Farm Management Grants Program will provide a rebate of 50 per cent to a maximum of $2,500 to primary producers towards the cost of developing a Farm Business Resilience Plan for their property.

“The Regional Drought Resilience Program will see plans developed in key drought prone regions that rely heavily on agriculture.  The program will be integrated with the regional plans being developed through the $2.7 million Queensland Strategy for Disaster Resilience.

“We’ll assist local governments to develop regional drought plans which builds on their existing resilience plans, or those under development. This approach will bring consistency around drought and natural disaster plans,” Mr Furner said.

For more details visit the Australian Government Future Drought Fund webpage agriculture.gov.au/fdf

The most current drought maps are available at https://www.longpaddock.qld.gov.au/

Water allocation uncertainty swirls around Paradise Dam, sparking mental health fears

Bundaberg irrigators have gone from having one of the most secure water sources in the country to one of the most unreliable, sparking mental health concerns.

Cane farmer Judy Plath said growers in the Burnett River Scheme were struggling because of decisions about Paradise Dam and water allocations.

“Sadly, in the last couple of months, I’ve had four different farmers talk to me about suicide, which has been quite confronting,” she said.

“Basically they’re grappling with so much uncertainty, so much unknown.”

Sunwater released 100,000 megalitres of water from Paradise Dam in September 2019 and has since reduced the spillway by almost six metres to address structural and stability issues.

A decision on the dam’s future is yet to be made, with the report by Building Queensland due to be handed to the state government by the end of the year.

“There’s been all this talk about the safety of people in Bundaberg … and very little talk about the safety of farmers in terms of their futures — their emotional safety and emotional health,” Mrs Plath said.

A woman speaks at a rally, flanked by people holding colourful placards.
Judy Plath (center) says reduced water allocations are putting extra stress on irrigators.(ABC Rural: Megan Hughes)

Reduced allocations loom

Many growers invested in tree crops – including macadamias and avocados – because of the security provided by Paradise Dam.

Mrs Plath said growers had gone from averaging 90 per cent of the announced allocations every year since 2010 to perhaps 16 per cent in the next financial year.

“A lot of growers won’t be able to plant crops,” she said.

“For others, like macadamias and avocados, they’re incredibly vulnerable to losing those trees, because they won’t have enough water to see them through.”

Wallaville citrus grower Will Thompson, lived in the Riverina, in New South Wales in 2015, said 15 farmers took their lives over a six month period because of their water allocations and the lack of security in the Murray-Darling Basin.

He fears growers in the Bundaberg region will face added pressure to pay back debts despite having a reduced yield.

“People need to talk to their agronomists and talk with their water retailers to come up with a plan now, before July 1, when new allocations kick in,” Mr Thompson said.

“Be on the front foot to come up with a game plan so they can actually manage their trees or their small crops as best they can.

“Don’t be afraid to actually put your hand out for help.”

Training for industry

OzHelp will hold wellbeing and suicide prevention workshops in the Wide Bay Burnett later this month.

Mrs Plath said it would help to educate people within the agriculture industry on how to identify someone with mental health issues, including depression.

“Those four people who have openly talked about suicide with me, I’ve been caught off guard,” she said.

“This workshop is designed to up-skill people to recognise the signs, then to know what to do for the next step.

“I’m really keen on this workshop to learn how to handle these difficult situations.”

We can’t afford to be the frog waiting to boil

There’s an urban legend that says if a frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.

The legend works as a handy metaphor, describing the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of sinister threats that arise gradually rather than suddenly. It’s a metaphor commonly used to explain our response to climate change and global warming.

It might give some hope knowing the urban legend, started with some experiments in the late 1800s, has since been proven to not be true. The frog will jump out if it can.

This week reporting by the ABC has highlighted the impacts of climate change on the peanut industry, famously centred on Kingaroy in the South Burnett.

Periods of hot, dry weather and changed summer rainfall patterns have pushed the dryland harvest in the region back by two months, to May or June, if a crop has been possible at all.

This is a trend, of harvest periods shifting and productivity impacts, that has been most commonly reported in the wine grape industry but is being witnessed right across horticulture.

In response peanut production is shifting to regions where irrigation water is available, including Bundaberg, North Queensland and the Brisbane Valley.

Moving towards more secure water is no doubt the rational response, but there’s also a risk the frog is instead jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The Bundaberg irrigation scheme, after three years of drought and despite recent rain, will likely start the water year in July with allocations of no more than 30 per cent. A lack of rain and water released to make Paradise Dam safe means there is now more horticulture established than water available to grow it.

As our food production becomes more geographically concentrated around irrigation, it is clear greater water security is required in these schemes.

Growcom continues to advocate for a return as soon as possible of full capacity to the Bundaberg scheme, if not Paradise Dam itself. We also support relief from charges for those unable to access their full allocation.

And we welcome confirmation from Professor Ross Garnaut, chair of the independent panel appointed by Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to review the proposed Bradfield Scheme, that they’ll also be taking a broader look at future water security and use across the whole state.

If we are to grow regional wealth and jobs, before this review is complete the Queensland government must start building and telling a positive and compelling story about the productive potential of our water resources.

Bundaberg farmers welcome recent rainfall but face grim growing season past July

BUNDABERG growers have welcomed recent rain across the Wide Bay region, after months of dry conditions.

Recent rainfall has resulted in an increase of 30,000 megalitres to Paradise Dam since March 15, with more than 12,000ML of this water flowing into the dam last week, taking the overall capacity of the dam from 27 per cent to just under 45pc.

However, due to the dam wall being lowered, the capacity of the dam is based at the lowered dam wall height, not the original volume, therefore the true capacity is actually 22pc.

Additionally, Ned Churchward Weir downstream of Paradise Dam, received 10,000ML since March 15.

Farmers facing low water allocations

Bundaberg Fruit & Vegetable Growers managing director Bree Grima said while the recent rainfall has been a welcome sight, growers are anxiously awaiting their announced water allocation for July onwards.

“Our current water allocations are good but these are only guaranteed until June 30 and many producers have already used up their allocation,” Ms Grima said.

“If growers are faced with low water allocations come July, they will be required to make very difficult decisions regarding planting crops and potentially staghorning trees.

“Now that the dam wall has been stabilised, we need the full capacity returned to provide water security and confidence for the region’s agribusinesses.”

“If growers are faced with low water allocations come July they will be required to make very difficult decisions regarding planting crops and potentially staghorning trees which essentially takes them out of production for a number of years. “

Bundaberg lychee, macadamia and sugar cane grower, Jamie Hansen, is worried the inflows are not enough to increase water allocations after July.

Mr Hansen said he invested in permanent tree crops based on the water security that Paradise Dam offered.

“Based on Sunwater’s prediction graph, after these recent inflows, I’m planning on have less than 25pc announced allocation in July this year,” Mr Hansen said.

“That means I’ll be working on a hand to mouth existence, waiting from week to week for rain to see if I will have enough water to see the crop through.

“I’m now in a situation like my Dad was in back in the 1950s and 60s, praying for rain and being unable to plan ahead.”

Bundaberg agribusiness lawyer Tom Marland, who is leading the Paradise Dam class action against the state government, questioned Sunwater’s way of quoting the dam’s capacity.

He said it has created a lot of confusion among growers and the wider community.

“In October 2020, Sunwater started using the lower ‘interim’ volume of the dam as the ‘full supply level’,” Mr Marland said.

“Sunwater are hoping for more rain to fill the reduced capacity of Paradise Dam, but considering we have now seen the end of our traditional wet season for this region, the chances of flooding rains are pretty low.”

Paradise Dam is approximately 20km north west of Biggenden and 80km south west of Bundaberg. Picture: Sunwater

Sunwater to reassess water allocations for 2020-21 season

A Sunwater spokesperson said it would reassess the available announced allocations for this water year.

“It is promising to see good rainfall across the state and Sunwater is pleased some landholders in Queensland will have received water for their storages,” the spokesperson said.

“It is too early to tell whether recent rainfall will have any impact on announced allocations for next water year (2021-22).

“Sunwater understands the importance of water security certainty to the Bundaberg region and is doing all it can to ensure there is as much water available as possible.”

Bundaberg farmers raise $1 Million for Paradise Dam class action

Wide Bay farmers and business owners have raised $1 Million to fund a class action against the Queensland Government and Sunwater.

This comes two weeks since the class action over the remediation of Paradise Dam was ramped up, after revelations farmers in the Bundaberg region could be facing historically low water allocations before July.

The troubled Dam has been in the headline since September 2019 when Sunwater announced they would be releasing 100 000 ML from the Dam, in order to lower the wall of the dam, due to safety concerns.

An independent review into the root cause of Paradise Dam’s structural and stability issues in May last year found the dam’s primary spillway apron width to be ‘completely inadequate’.

 Bundaberg growers who are dependent on water from the Bundaberg Irrigation Scheme have held recent meetings to discuss plans for fast tracking the class action. Picture: Sunwater

 Bundaberg growers who are dependent on water from the Bundaberg Irrigation Scheme have held recent meetings to discuss plans for fast tracking the class action. Picture: Sunwater

The Bundaberg region farming community has engaged with one of the world’s leading dam safety experts, Dr Paul Rizzo, to provide a second opinion on the future of the dam.

Tom Marland, Marland Law, is leading the class action on behalf of the farmers.

Mr Marland said after a number of shed meetings held throughout the region recently, farmers have raised over a million dollars to fund a class action.

“The support for this class action has been overwhelming actually,” Mr Marland said.

“I think the recent news from Sunwater that the dam is expected to be empty by the end of June this year has really galvanised this farming community into action.”

 Bundaberg lawyer Tom Marland, Marland Law, said the class action focused on the alleged negligent management of Paradise Dam and misleading conduct by the Queensland government.

Local farmers have had averages of 85 per cent water allocations from Paradise Dam in the past, but growers are now fearing that could drop significantly to 30 per cent.

It is feared Paradise Dam could be empty by the end of July 2021, unless the catchment receives serious rainfall, sending shock waves through the local farming community.

Mr Marland said restoring the dam is paramount to the Wide Bay community.

“After endless delays from the State Government and no news on the horizon about the dam’s future, farmers really see no other choice but to take the State Government to court for losses and damages associated with their decision to lower Paradise Dam,” he said.

“Based on the losses we’re measuring, we expect this class action to be in the Billions.

“At the end of the day, farmers don’t want a cheque from the government, they want water”

The Queensland Government and Sunwater would not comment on any potential legal proceedings.

Marland Law is aiming to have documents filed by the end of May and will be seeking the first court hearings in June 2021.