DO IRRIGATORS risk losing Federal Government funding of $1 billion for the second stage of the Northern Victorian Irrigation Renewal Project?
It's a fair question given the bagging the project received in the metropolitan media last week.
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If the weight of public opinion swings far enough against NVIRP, Federal Water Minister Penny Wong will have the excuse she needs to back out of the Federal Government's $1 billion commitment to the second stage of the project.
Just a fortnight ago, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists called on the Federal Government to divert money from its $5.8 billion irrigation infrastructure fund, $1 billion of which is earmarked for NVIRP stage two, into buying irrigators' water for the environment.
Even the Victorian Auditor General seems to think the Victorian Government should have considered buying irrigators' entitlements to secure Melbourne's water security.
Sure, the NVIRP project has been rushed, involved complex negotiations that led to lengthy delays. But the criticism dished out in the past 10 days has been far from balanced.
One of the most bizarre criticisms came from irrigators who said their bore would probably run dry as a result of NVIRP's channel lining program.
Doesn't that mean the bore is being fed by unmetered irrigation water from a leaky old channel? Is that fair to other irrigators?
Then we had a conspiracy theory about former Federal Labor Party MP Neil O'Keefe and his company Sustainable Soils and Farms gaining "valuable assistance" from NVIRP consultant Colin Findlay, who passed on a sealed letter of offer to buy Leitchville irrigator Keith Robertson's farm.
The whole theory hinged on SSF negotiating to buy out Mr Robertson's neighbours' farms and making a "windfall" from the sale of water from these properties.
Mr O'Keefe told The Weekly Times that SSF had simply purchased more than 3500 megalitres of water entitlements with the four farms and was selling off 70 per cent of the entitlement to the Murray Darling Basin Authority's Living Murray initiative for less than $2400 a megalitre.
He said the sale was hardly a windfall. He said NVIRP also paid SSF $1.06 million for decommissioning 7km of channels, which was in line with what other irrigators received.
Mr O'Keefe said Mr Robertson had initially told SSF's agent, Ken Oliver, he was not interested in selling. He said later on it appeared Mr Robertson had changed his mind and asked Mr Findlay if SSF was still interested in buying.
"What came back to us was that Robertson was having second thoughts," Mr O'Keefe said. "He'd realised his neighbours were selling their farms and asked Col Findlay if we (SSF) were still interested."
Mr Findlay said he was simply acting as a messenger after Mr Robertson expressed a desire to sell and then subsequently rejected the offer.
Mr Robertson said he was annoyed by the whole process.
- Peter Hunt is a senior Weekly Times reporter