by PHILIP WHITE - This was published in The Independent Weekly in July 2008
It was politicians who put the soldier settlers up the River. Poor buggers would just get back from the battles and horrors they’d never forget and they’d send ’em straight up the river with a shovel, a bundle of cuttings and an irrigation permit. Mine the Mallee for sugar; turn the water into wine, export it at the price of Coca Cola. Since then, until now, nobody’s had a second thought about the River. Anybody’d think the Chaffey Brothers still ran the entire basin.
Kevin Rudd certainly isn’t running it. COAG isn’t running it. Mike Rann’s not running it. Karlene and Penny aren’t in the race. Jock Harvey might just as well run it. He’s the chair of the McLaren Vale Grape, Wine and Tourism Association.
Having just left a meeting with the Federal Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, The Hon Tony Burke MP, Jock had a big spray, like most of the rest us did, anywhere we could, after the COAG collapse.
“There widespread support for the Federal Government taking control of the entire Murray River system through the compulsory acquisition of all water entitlements and then re-allocating water on a sustainable basis similar to the approach advocated by the Wentworth Group and scientist Mike Young”, was Jock’s first salvo.
Then it just kept coming:
“We are specifically concerned that instead of acquiring water entitlements, investing in infrastructure and efficiencies upstream will ultimately result in expanded plantings upstream and less or no water in the river downstream”, he said.
“The imminent collapse of the Murray River system is a national emergency requiring immediate federal government action”, he said.
“The Coorong is designated as a World Heritage Area because of its importance to the world’s ecology, not just the ecology of SA”, he continued.
“As the southern reaches of the Murray River system die, so to will the Coorong. As one of the richest countries in the world, how Australia solves this crisis will have a dramatic impact on SA and Australia’s standing in the world community, and on our leverage in making and keeping international commitments.
“The Government has the power to take these actions under the Corporations Act and we believe they must act now', he concluded.
Former Labor Party Senator Chris Schacht was at the meeting too. He should be running the River. He’s smart enough to warn that “every Federal Labor seat in South Australia except one was vulnerable to falling at the next election if the federal Government did not take immediate steps to take complete control of the river system”.
Paul Clancy, Chairman of the Wine Grape Council, should be running it. He’s ballistic about the amount of new vineyard planting still underway, in the face of gross oversupply and dwindling water resources.
“These damned Managed Investment Scheme plantings are continuing apace!”, he said last week. “200 plus new acres at Loxton. 200 plus at Lake Cullulleraine. 1200 plus in the Barossa. 200 plus at Wentworth. 200 plus at Ballarat. That’s only the start. Where’s the water coming from?
“This drought and the irrigation restrictions are simply masking the massive over-supply of grapes”, he said. “This industry needs 1.6 million tonnes of grapes to meet current demand and projected growth. We grew 2.1 million tonnes in 2006 and the prices collapsed. How much water will be wasted growing another 500,000 plus tonnes of grapes we can’t sell?
“There is, pure and simple, no potential for the industry to absorb this over-supply. The whole world is awash with oversupply, and the exchange rate is dead against Australia selling into that full market. Industry and government can no longer turn their backs on the grounds that this is free enterprise at work and that market forces will address this problem.”
While the big companies are still urging further plantings, they admit there’s a big glut of chardonnay: big enough for the price of those grapes to fall to $300 a tonne. So what’s the new deal? Now they want people to plant pinot noir and pinot gris because they’re the new buzz words. Apart from a tiny proportion of the Adelaide Hills and the Southern Fleurieu, there is no land in South Australia suitable for these difficult cool climate wine types.
Calling for mass plantings of such varieties, as Foster’s seems to desire, is about as dumb as taking fresh water from Tailem Bend and piping it to Langhorne Creek. Given one full day of stiff sou-easterly, the brine and sulphuric acid waters of the lakes will be well beyond Wellington and slurping neatly into the intake of the new pipe. Another twenty four hours of wind and the lakes shandy will reach Murray Bridge, where the Mount Bold pipe does its slurping. Another day of wind will see the same poisonous muck entering the intake of the Mannum Adelaide pipe. Duh!