By Jared Owens for The Australian
Precious irrigation water is languishing in Queensland’s state-owned dams because high electricity prices are preventing growers from running their pumps, jeopardising efforts to prepare farms for looming dry conditions.
Despite persistent drought across much of Queensland, dams managed by the state’s SunWater corporation delivered only 55 per cent of water entitlements last financial year.
This followed successive power price hikes for irrigators totalling 17.4 per cent over two years, which helped lift state-owned power companies to a $1.7 billion profit in 2017-18.
Queensland Farmers Federation water adviser Ian Johnson said high power prices were making it tougher for farmers to prepare their properties for drought.
“We are expecting the drought to increasingly impact on the large irrigation schemes located in eastern Queensland over the coming seasons,” Mr Johnson said.
“Farmers can manage for droughts if they are able to make use of water when it is available. Electricity prices are making it very difficult to manage water use in better times.”
Liberal National agriculture spokesman Tony Perrett said “eye-wateringly high” rural power prices would see dam water evaporate rather than be used for agriculture.
“We know that when it comes to agricultural production, more water means more production, resulting in jobs and prosperity for regional communities — especially during times of drought,” Mr Perrett said.
“It’s time for this Labor government to step up and take action on ensuring our water is being used productively to grow the food and fibre that supports rural and regional Queensland.”
Labor stopped agricultural power tariffs from rising this financial year and will spend $464 million subsidising regional power prices to match prices in Brisbane.
“Farming and irrigation customers are encouraged to contact Ergon Energy, who can provide free advice on the best electricity tariff for their business needs,” Queensland Energy Minister Anthony Lynham said.
“The government also has committed $10m towards extending the successful Energy Savers Plus Program. The program is being delivered in partnership with Queensland Farmers Federation to support 200 farms with a free energy audit and funding to help improve their energy efficiency and reduce their operating costs.”
Federal Nationals MPs Keith Pitt and Ken O’Dowd want the state to go further and mandate a one-third cut in electricity prices for agriculture through a dedicated “food and fibre tariff”.
John Russo, who has farmed near Bundaberg for almost 50 years, said he paid $100,000 each year for electricity, mostly to water the peanut, hemp and sugarcane crops on his 300ha farm at Childers. “With power costs going up, we can’t sustain what we’re doing. And no one seems to care,” Mr Russo said.