Australia Must Balance Healthy Rivers With a Need for Growth, Crean Says

Australia must balance returning water to the nation’s river system with the “human cost” to farming communities, Regional Development Minister Simon Crean said as the government faces a backlash to proposed water cuts.

“I can understand the anger,” Crean, who also serves as local government minister, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio today. “We do need to take the heat out of this.”

Water flows to farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin, home to almost half the nation’s farms and producer of most of Australia’s fresh food, should be cut by 27 percent to 37 percent to protect the drought-prone region, according to a report issued by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority last week.

Parliament will start an inquiry into the water proposals, chaired by rural independent lawmaker Tony Windsor whose support the Labor minority government needs to stay in power, after water officials held meetings with farmers who oppose the cuts to irrigation. The inquiry will report to parliament in April, Crean told reporters in Sydney yesterday.

“What we want to do is to take what the guide relating to water flows suggests the science means and balance it with the human cost,” Crean said today.

Some 5,000 farmers and locals confronted water officials in the New South Wales town of Griffith yesterday where boxes of the authority’s report were thrown on a bonfire, the ABC reported. One resident threw a large toy horse’s head in a show of contempt for the process, according to the ABC. A day earlier, a copy of the report was burned in protest at a meeting in the town of Deniliquin in the state, ABC reported.

An Open Mind

The science behind the proposals needs testing and the authority has an “open mind” on water intervention, Mike Taylor, chairman of the authority, told ABC radio earlier today.

Parliament’s inquiry will enable a “valley by valley” approach, Crean said. “The people on the ground, the stakeholders who know their communities, know the challenges, know the opportunities, they’re the ones we want to engage.”

The government should buy 3,000 gigaliters to 4,000 gigaliters of water to be fed back into the river system, the authority said in its report. The diversions would see the value of irrigated cotton production fall by 25 percent in the basin. Rice and cereals production would drop 30 percent, dairying 10 percent and horticulture would decline by less than 5 percent, according to the report.

About 93 percent of the nation’s fresh food comes from the region, which accounts for A$15 billion ($14.9 billion) worth of crop and livestock exports, according to government figures.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard should consider water efficiency, underground storage of water and the diversion of water into the basin because the social and economic costs of the current plans are high, Windsor said yesterday.

To contact the reporter on this story: Marion Rae in Canberra at mrae3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Iain Wilson at iwilson2@bloomberg.net

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