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.”

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