Blog | 11th May, 2011

with rivers

There’s been a lot of water in northern Victoria in the last year and some of it has remained trapped on low lying land for months. This has been a big problem for farmers trying to access their land but has great potential for environmental benefits – after all, floodplains function as distributors and retainers of floodwater.

Now Victorian Water Minister Peter Walsh has set up a fund to buy back some of the affected land on the Loddon River with a view to reinstating an ‘active floodplain’. What does this mean and how can the money be best spent to provide benefits for farmers and the environment?

Our northern Victorian rivers are slow moving and meandering with broad floodplains which are often highly productive agricultural land. But because this farmland is on the floodplain, sooner or later the inevitable happens and a flood occurs. The floodplain absorbs and distributes flood water and provides for ecological processes such as water purification and nutrient and carbon cycling. The agricultural productivity of the land is also replenished, but the farmer is inconvenienced when his land is under water.

Minister Walsh’s $21 million assistance package for flood affected irrigators is a good start to reinstating an active floodplain for the Loddon River. The intention is to buy some of the flood affected land with a view to creating floodways so that water can move across the landscape rather than being trapped behind levee banks. Some of the purchased land will remain in public ownership while other areas will be resold for dryland faming or other uses. Allowing floodplains to function as floodplains will mean that rivers can flood more safely, and provide numerous environmental and economic benefits.

A vital part of reinstating floodplains is to have a good look at how the environment supports agriculture, for example through controlling salinity, and which parts of the floodplain are really suitable for irrigation. The CSIRO has done a lot of work in devising the so-called “traffic lights” approach to deciding where irrigation is appropriate and where dryland agriculture or ecosystem service provision are a better use of the land. When the approach is applied properly, CSIRO predicts increased value of agricultural production in addition to environmental benefits These principles are being trialed through projects like the Future Farming Landscapes project run by VicSuper that manage our landscape and its resources in a more balanced way. The state government should look to these when administering the proposed land buy-back to drive multiple benefits for the community and the environment.

There’s a key question about what happens to water rights in areas where the government is offering to buy land – if water is for sale it should be purchased as well and returned to our rivers as environmental flows. And about how the land purchase integrates with the modernization of the irrigation system that’s also going on in northern Victoria.

To learn more about the opportunities for a more sustainable future for northern Victoria, check out our River Rescue and Regional Renewal Discussion Paper here. And get involved in our campaign to save the Murray-Darling this year, forever, buy signing our petition or coming doorknocking with us on Sunday, 29 May.