cotton industry rejects blame for ailing Darling River


The critics “just believe we pump when it’s totally not true,” the farm’s manager told the Herald, declining to be named because of social media abuse being heaped on industry employees.

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Joe Robinson, the owner of Darling Farms, said “nobody likes to see fish kills”. On the other hand, his farm’s 2017 take of 700 million litres was a fraction of the 500 billion litres held in Menindee Lakes at time, he says.

For a tight-knit industry, such scrutiny and criticism is unusual. It also comes at time when poor crops – even the much-maligned Cubbie Station in Queensland will barely produce a cotton bale if any this year – means the sector has clout to push back.

‘Compliance problem’

Darling Farms is down to seven full-time employees, down from 25 in a good year. Both cotton gins in Bourke won’t spin this season, while spending by cotton firms is largely pared back to basic maintenance.

“The big challenge for us it get those people back in the district” when they leave, said Tony Thompson, a farmer who has run cotton farms in the Bourke region for a quarter of a century. Of the past 15 years, good ones “have been very few and far between”.

Mr Thompson, though, concedes his industry has offered grist to its critics, not least on the compliance front. Over the last decade, licensee inspectors visiting farmers had “become very rare”.

“The whole issue of transparency and compliance is a major part of the [industry’s] problem,” Mr Thompson said.

In the wake of claims of water theft, especially on the Barwon-Darling stretch of the river that passes through towns such as Bourke, the Berejiklian government had launched a series of inquiries.

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One of them created the Natural Resources Access Regulator, which tripled the number of compliance staff and has issued more than 200 advisory or formal warnings since its formation at the end of last April.

One such case involved a cotton farmer who had built structures over the Bogan River near its juncture with the Darling River that had “been in place for many years”, Grant Barnes, the chief regulatory officer for the regulator, said.

The farmer had agreed to “bring the structures into compliance” and was due to submit a report on when they will be removed by Friday, Mr Barnes said.

Rod Thompson, a former grazier in the district and now retired to North Bourke, said he had alerted authorities for years about unapproved walls and other works that had diverted water without licence onto the farmland. He even hired a plane “at mate’s rates” to fly over and film the operations.

The regulators had “waited for me to do all the hard work”, he said, at the Diggers on the Darling cafe, escaping temperatures that soared to 47.4 degrees on Thursday.

Royal commission report in doubt

Compliance about excessive water extraction and insufficient environmental flows has also been a focus of the South Australian royal commission in the management of the Murray Darling Basin, and the $13 billion plan to restore its health.

The manager of cotton farm, Darling Farms in North Bourke, stands on the bank of a dry irrigation channel looking out over the paddocks where cotton is grown.

The manager of cotton farm, Darling Farms in North Bourke, stands on the bank of a dry irrigation channel looking out over the paddocks where cotton is grown. Credit:Kate Geraghty

On Friday, the commission took the unusual step of releasing an exchange of letters with the Liberal government in SA, raising concerns about whether and when its report would be released publicly and continue to be made available.

While there is no legal requirement for the South Australian government to publish the report, “it would be highly irregular to fail to do so, and would reflect very poorly on those responsible for suppressing Commissioner [Bret] Walker’s findings”, Emma Carmody, senior water lawyer with the Environmental Defenders Office NSW.

“EDO NSW has been contacted by a number of clients on the Darling River who are concerned that the report will be buried until after the NSW election [in March] as it may contain unpalatable legal truths,” she said.

Highest return

Irrigation farmers said that criticism of the cotton industry ignored the fact they chose to plant the crop because it gave them the highest return.

“If we banned cotton, we’d grow the next most productive crop,” a cotton farmer from Goondiwindi across the border in Queensland, said.

Michael Murray, general manager at Cotton Australia, said Australian growers had continued to increase crop yields at 3 per cent annually for decades, placing it two to three times higher than the global average.

“We’re very product of the industry,” he said.

According to Cotton Australia, the average cotton farm provides jobs for more than six people. In non-drought years, the sector employed as many as 10,000 people.

The cutbacks from the dry spell were “repeated across many of the regions hit the hardest by drought”, not just in the cotton sector, the industry group said.

Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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