THE politics of drought are set to ravage McLaren Vale – a world leader in viticultural water conservation.
Vignerons are reeling from Water Security Minister Karlene Maywald’s shock announcement that mains water allocations have been slashed 35% from February 1st.
“We’ll lose between 350 and 500 hectares of Australia’s most valuable vineyards”, said Derek Cameron, chairman of the McLaren Vale Growers’ Council. “That’s well over $60,000,000 loss in five years.
“The real insult is that this is being inflicted on Australia’s most efficient and productive irrigating vignerons” he said. “All our mains water is from our Myponga catchment – we use no Murray water. We have no channel irrigation; no sprinklers – everything’s on highly efficient drip with the most advanced monitoring systems available. And because we waste no water, and irrigation is absolutely minimal, a cut of one third is disastrous.”
Mr Cameron explained that his growers fully appreciated the value of water. They’d happily paid the $1160 per ML going rate, and had perhaps naively supposed the imposed hike to $1650 next July would involve some surety of supply.
“Murray growers pay from $75 to $400 per ML”, Mr. Cameron said. “They yield between $1100 and $2500 income per ML applied. If they paid mains rates they’d run at a loss. We average $13,660 to $17,000 income per ML. We’re sustainable.”
In a scenario eerily akin to Labor’s disastrous ’80s Vine Pull Scheme, the cuts will destroy smaller, super-premium McLaren Vale growers, many organic, who supply international figureheads like Grange, Eileen Hardy, and Dead Arm, while broadacre chemical regime irrigators of cheap bulk industrial fruit survive.
“At least that Vine Pull was voluntary”, Mr. Cameron said. “95% of those to go this time will be profitable family-owned vineyards smaller than 40 acres … people who’ve struggled through five years of drought and low payments, without the wherewithal to connect to the recycled system.”
Jock Harvey, chairman of McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism, said the cuts showed a frightening lack of government understanding of McLaren Vale.
“We’re 80% of the way through a 22 year plan to totally drought-proof our district”, he said. “By 2012, we will be the first premium grape region in the world to be economically and ecologically sustainable in this way. So this is devastating. Imposing this on such marginal electorates is political suicide.”
McLaren Vale growers have instituted and paid for the oldest and most successful underground water management system in the state, recharging their aquifer by at least 2000ML per year. They have funded the largest network of reclaimed water use in Australia, providing 40% of irrigation demands with recycled water from the southern suburbs.
Intensive work with local State MP Leon Bignall last year saw both state and federal governments allocate funds to assist more small growers switch from mains water to the recycled network. The immediate construction of a winter storage dam would reduce the flow of Christie’s Beach effluent into the Gulf, and reroute 1000ML of mains irrigation back into Adelaide’s drinking supply by 2012.
“This plan we’d engineered with Leon – who’s been a big help - would have reduced mains water irrigators by 80% within four years”, Mr. Cameron said. “We’d be back to 95% in five years. To destroy these irreplaceable heritage vineyards when they’re finally about to switch completely to recycled water just doesn’t make sense.”
“I understand there’s only so much water in the bucket”, said Leon Bignall. “But this is disastrous for the south. We’ve lost Mitsubishi. Now McLaren Vale. We’re meeting Karlene on Wednesday to get this fixed. These growers deserve acknowledgement and reward, not punishment. Unlike the overhead sprinkler regime up the River, these blokes are world leaders in water conservation.”