The trouble with water

AT MILKING time there is a job for everyone. Young Luke, a fearless four, wants one too. Then he sees his chance. As his father herds more Friesians into the stalls, Luke grabs a plastic pipe and charges over to cows in the holding pen. Like a little emperor, he stamps the ground with his new-found staff to get them moving. They part around him placidly, their big brown eyes mild and unquestioning. Here, man and beast understand their appointed places, and man — however small — has dominion.
Luke knows the drill because he has watched it every morning and evening from the time he was a baby, parked in his pram, off to one side. His father, Jeff Broad, working down in the dairy’s “pit”, has known it all his life too. He is a fifth-generation dairy farmer. Broad’s job at this time of day is in the low passageway between the two rows of stalls; he’s in the basement and cows are on the first floor. The machinery chugs steadily in the background but his own rhythm is irregular: he reaches up to snap vacuum cups on udders, detaches them when the cows look ready, squirts them with antiseptic. He’s in gumboots and an apron, and spatters suggest he needs them both. Mucky business, this, in every regard except the result: luscious, creamy, foaming, it looks like nothing ever poured from a supermarket carton.
Ruth Broad is tending to the babies. She scoops up fresh milk to pour into feeders for the calves in the nursery, a corrugated iron lean-to. They nuzzle her with soft noses and raspy tongues. These are the heifers and they will be kept for the herd. In a separate pen with their mothers are the boys; they will be sold as soon as their navels dry out, in three or four days. She checks their eyes for signs of ill-health. “The rim on the bottom of their eyes gets swollen and their eyes sink into their heads when they’re not doing too good,” she says. “That’s when you give them electrolytes.”
This is the busiest time of year for a dairy farmer, and the Broads have another 60 calves to come from their herd of 280 cows. But the twice-daily demands of milking always have them rising in the dark and then working through what in most families would be dinnertime. They bought the farm from Jeff’s father, who had bought it from his uncle, who had settled here after riding around the district on a bicycle in the 1930s looking for just the right place. He settled on this lot at Nanneella, 15 minutes’ drive from Kyabram.
Jeff has lived in the same house all his life. “You know what they say about some of these farmers?” laughs Ruth. “All they do is shift bedrooms!”
Jeff is a man of few words. Asked what he likes about farming, he says, “Your own boss. Just out and about. Being outdoors.”
Ruth teases, “Tractors!”
After 12 hard years of drought, the Broads and their four children and families like them should be sitting pretty this year. But now they find themselves facing a new kind of trouble, one that many farmers across south-eastern Australia fear threatens not only their own livelihoods, but the very existence of their communities and their whole way of life: water wars.
Kyabram is part of the Murray-Darling Basin, a vast irrigation district that stretches from Queensland down to New South Wales through Victoria and on to South Australia. Here in the wide brown land, water is wealth. The 2500 dams and weirs on the Murray River and the thousands of channels that run off them have spread that wealth among the farmers and country towns of three states. But now the river is dying from the mouth and authorities want to return water to its flow. That means taking it back from people like the Broads.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority this month released a basin plan guide that proposed taking back up to 37 per cent of the water from farmers in the Goulburn region. A study by auditing firm Marsden Jacob Associates suggested this might well kill not just Kyabram but Cohuna, Stanhope and Numurkah; a second study — by independent banking consultant Adrian Rizza — warned that eight other towns might not survive, including Robinvale and Mildura.
The proposal to take back between 3000 and 7600 billion litres a year across the basin has unleashed a tide of apocalyptic fury in irrigators. “You have hurt my wife and family, you sons of bitches!” roared one local at a meeting in Griffith, NSW. Another asked if the basin authority intended to bankrupt rural Australia, and a third threw a fake horse’s head at authority chairman Mike Taylor. Protesters burned copies of the basin plan guide.
Taken aback by the response, authorities quickly responded. A federal parliamentary committee chaired by independent MP Tony Windsor will spend six months inquiring into the economic impact of the proposed cuts. The basin authority has said it will research the social impact.
It’s not enough for the 90 farmers who turned up to a public meeting in the historic local theatre organised by the shire council in Kyabram this week. “We are the environment, and other people are destroying us,” said one, to loud applause.
Farmers are not just enraged but bewildered and, underneath it all, wounded. They feel they work hard to be frugal with water and other resources and that they changed their practices radically to cope with drought but now are being attacked as “environmental vandals”. They are outraged by assessments that assume less water is fine because they managed to keep producing despite the drought — assessments that do not take into account those who went bust, or the enormous debt many went into in order to keep going.
Perhaps most importantly, the environmental arguments make no sense to them. Rural Australia is a heartland of climate-change scepticism. Jeff Broad is among the few who acknowledge, warily, that the rivers might need better flows, but many can’t believe a river that looks fine to them is struggling to survive. Farmers in Kyabram view climate-change science as rather like the tooth fairy: a foolish fantasy for those who like to believe it and not something sensible people waste time on. There’s been a drought and droughts break, they say confidently; it’s just natural cycles.
“Not many believe in climate change,” says Ruth Broad. “We don’t know anyone who believes it.”
Says Jeff, “It’s a dry period.” His father, Keith, also sitting at the kitchen table, tells of an international meeting in which “hundreds and hundreds of scientists say they haven’t got enough evidence for it”.
For them, water that runs into the sea is a waste. Says Ruth in disbelief, “We haven’t got very much water and we’re getting a bigger population. We can’t just tip it down the river. We’ve got people that need food.”
A survey last year of 1500 farmers by the Victorian Department of Primary Industries found that while 88 per cent acknowledged that rainfall and run-off had declined and 62 per cent agreed the state was experiencing more high pressure systems, only 30 per cent accepted a link between greenhouse emissions and global warming. Despite this, many were taking action that would reduce emissions or store carbon on their farms, such as tree planting.
Talking to farmers in Kyabram, it is clear they see themselves as custodians of the land and holders of its history. They refuse to discount the evidence of their own eyes, and they resent townies and boffins claiming to know better. At Kyabram’s public meeting, state MP Paul Weller said, “We shouldn’t accept that the environment is a big disaster.” He said the salinity in the Murray was now one-fifth of what it was in 1983 and that it had far more fish and invertebrates and much clearer water. “When I went to school, there were paddocks in our area that were bare with salt that are now green with trees . . . [They] have to acknowledge that the community has done a wonderful job of improving the environment.”
ANOTHER local jeered at scientific climate modelling: “You put something into a computer and let it tell you something at the end, and what it tells you depends on what has gone in . . . It means all the figures they are supplying are really vague and probably false.”
Other farmers said this was always a river that had had dry spells. They told of years in which locals had been able to picnic on the dry bed of the Murray, and one quoted explorer Charles Sturt writing of the river’s “putrid series of saline waterholes . . .”
Aren’t these the benchmarks of its natural history, they asked? Isn’t it overshooting the mark to want flows at the mouth of the Murray nine years out of 10? “It didn’t have that before white settlement,” claimed one man.
There was also fierce resentment at what is seen as a “water grab” in which vote-hungry politicians are diverting country water to city folk via the north-south pipeline and the desalination plant. “Why should 10 per cent of the population have to pay for 100 per cent of the population?” asked an angry woman.
Between the greenie and the farmer there seems almost no common ground. Paul Sinclair is healthy ecosystems programs manager with the Australian Conservation Foundation and author of The Murray: A river and its people. He says Professor Ross Garnaut’s figures forecast that with less rain as a result of global warming, “under business as usual, we are looking at 92 per cent less inflow into the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin over the next 100 years”.
He warns it is rural people who will be hardest hit by more extreme weather such as droughts and storms and by the spread of diseases such as dengue and Ross River fever. “Farmers can think what they want and that’s their right, but it’s about more than what farmers think. Sticking your head in the sand means you fail to exercise leadership to help your community.”
As for the river looking fine, he says farmers don’t have a helicopter view of the overall system: “One of the great truisms of the river is that if you are in Albury, you don’t know how it is at Echuca, and if you are in Echuca you don’t know how it is at Swan Hill.”
Sinclair has a litany of disasters to recite: the Murray contains only 10 per cent of the native fish it had 100 years ago and many of its redgums are dead or dying. Ninety per cent of the basin’s floodplain wetlands have been destroyed and 20 of the basin’s 23 rivers are in poor or very poor condition. Vast stretches of the Murray have already collapsed. Two-thirds of the Coorong, at the mouth of the Murray in South Australia, has been devastated by overuse of water: “Rivers die from the bottom up. The consequences of over-extraction [there] are obvious: increased salinity, acid sulphate soils and no water for irrigators no matter how big their water licences are. For example, there used to be 23 dairy farming families around the Lower Lakes. Now there are three.”
Closer to home, “the Lindsay-Wallpolla islands, near Mildura, look like someone has detonated a nuclear bomb. It’s a system, so it won’t all die at once, but bits of it are under great stress.”
Sinclair says it is not valid to use local lore to compare today’s dry spells with those of a century ago or more. Back then the river was more resilient because it was not broken up by thousands of weirs and dams: “The river is like a boxer in round nine of 10 rounds. The river those people are describing hadn’t even got into the ring.”
There is, however, one point on which Sinclair and the farmers are agreed: it was appalling that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority released its detailed environmental proposals without mention of the effect they would have on the human elements of the environment, other than a cursory (and widely derided) estimate that the changes would lead to only 800 job losses. For rural people who already felt abandoned by government and marginalised in the debate, the report was evidence they had been entirely erased from the calculations of distant, hostile powers-that-be.
Sinclair groans when asked about the insensitivity of the process: “The performance of the MDBA has been like watching someone walk slowly into a metal fan. I thought, ‘My God, what are you doing?’ ”
Rural researcher Professor Margaret Alston, head of Monash University’s department of social work, had a similar reaction. She received an early copy of the guide and after she flipped through it her first question was, “Where are the people?” She says, “You will find information about birds and frogs but you won’t find a word about children. I was very uncomfortable that it was a socially blind document.”
AND HERE is where the woundedness comes in. Hurt as they might be by what they feel are assumptions about their environmental recklessness, that is not the main fuel for the fury of farmers around Kyabram. There is a deeper vein of resentment and fear that has spurted like lava to the surface: the pain caused by 10 years of drought. Rain has turned the grass green but has done little to ease other hardships that will be with them for a long time.
Money is tight, so tight. Many had to borrow large sums to see them through; for dairy farmers, no rain meant little or no irrigation, which meant they could not grow crops to feed their cows. Buying in fodder is hugely expensive. “It could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for the largest farms,” says Jenny Reuther, who has relinquished her herd but not her links to the industry.
The drought forced most into ugly decisions of one kind or another. “Some people have said they want to keep going on the farm but others have said, ‘I don’t want to go into any more debt. I don’t want to erode my equity any further by continuing to borrow.’ ”
Many have left and their absence is felt by those who remain. The public meeting was told that the primary school in Stanhope had dropped from 140 students to 50, and many houses were for sale. Bob Winwood, a farmer outside Kyabram who has switched from dairy to beef, talks of a 20-kilometre road that in the 1990s was a sea of black and white cows. Now, “There’s one dairy farm at the top of it and then I don’t think there’s another one right through to the end.” He fears further water cuts “will just devastate this area”.
Deputy mayor and dairy farmer Neil Pankhurst estimates the Goulburn Valley has lost 60 per cent of its dairy farmers in the past decade and is producing a billion fewer litres of milk than at its peak in 2002-03. He warns of the risks for other rural industries if farms are hit any harder, listing milk factories and canneries in the region that depend on farm produce for work.
He says people were stunned and despairing when they heard the latest proposals piled on top of their existing problems: “There’s just so much uncertainty.”
Businesses are worried too. John Bacon has been in the mower and motorcycle shop on the main street for 32 years. He says the drought was purgatory: “The farm market was cut in half or less. So many businesses just survived by a little bit. Many had to tip money back in to keep going. At one stage one in five shops were empty.”
That’s because in a country town everything depends on the profitability of the farms: “If you pull out that bottom rung, it all falls down — the price of properties, the number of doctors and teachers.”
Then there are the private losses. People will tell you quietly that depression is on the rise, with all its sad sequelae, including family violence. Others have lost confidence; that fabled rural resilience is wearing thin. Local counsellor Allannah Jenkins says, “Communities where we had significant people who were enthusiastic and driven to nurture and drive that community have become exhausted.
We are seeing a lot of loneliness and isolation because communities are so fragmented and the people who are left are worn out and no one is stepping up to the mark.”
She uses government funding and donated goods to organise “pamper evenings” for women and “blokes’ barbecues” for men. Children are affected too. Alston says there are country schools where teachers set up anger management classes for children who were bringing the family tensions into the classroom.
The government has said no one will be forced off the land. There is $9 billion for the modernisation scheme and farmers can apply to have their water rights bought back by the government whenever a “subscription” is opened. “Farmers call it ‘the lucky dip’,” says Jenny Reuther.
She and her husband missed out the first time round and are hoping for a second chance to sell just part of their water rights, so they can retire debt but their farm stays workable for others.
Alston has been talking to rural people since 2001. She found gender differences in the family debate about whether to sell back their water rights. “Often it’s women who are going off-farm to source income that’s needed to get people through the next few years. It wasn’t uncommon to come across women in their 60s and 70s who were holding down full-time jobs, some of them in Melbourne. For a lot of them, buyback looks like a get-out-of-jail card.
“But for men, selling water meant revisiting the whole idea of who they are. Who are they if they are not farmers? In a small minority of cases, women were seriously considering leaving because it was just too hard to keep supporting that notion of the male farmer. They just wanted to move and have a dignified retirement.”
There is sympathy for those who put up their hands because the prevailing view is there are no “willing sellers”; people sell because they are financially pressed. But both those considering leaving and those who plan to stay are worried about what it will mean for their communities.
Peter Costello, Tongala farmer and United Dairyfarmers of Victoria district president, says farms that have sold out are now covered in weeds and pests, posing problems for neighbours. He also fears that if more than a third sell out, those left behind will have to share the cost of water between them: “I would expect the water price could double.”
Those worries seem a long way away as little Luke Broad swings on a farm-gate pointing out the smallest calf on the farm. The shadows lengthen across the paddocks and birds flock, chattering, to their nests in nearby trees. Their day is over long before the Broads’ is.
Jeff and Ruth plan to go to the protest meetings but are not as concerned as many of those around them. Their property straddles a “backbone”, a large water channel. They are doing their sums and hope to sell some of their water back to finance improvements to the farm that will make them more water efficient. They don’t want to see 37 per cent of flows taken from the region, though.
“The dirt in our area is rubbish without water,” says Ruth Broad.
Whether their family will see a sixth-generation dairy farmer depends on many factors, not least of which are the outcome of the basin plan and the ambitions of their children. Luke doesn’t want to be a dairy farmer, he admits shyly. What does he want to be? “A racing-car driver!”