First up was Hilda Stewart, one of the national park’s Yorta Yorta rangers, talking about what the area means for its traditional owners. Then the group climbed on board the Kingfisher, which puttered through the waters of the Barmah forests, past red gums standing knee deep in flood waters, wetlands and a huge variety of water birds from Musk ducks to Nankeen night herons. We even saw some Caspian terns, on their long migration route from the northern hemisphere.
The red gums, wetlands and birds of Barmah National Park are under threat from over-extraction of water, mainly for irrigation. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is supposed to sort this out, but at this stage it looks like it won’t return enough water to the river to ensure their long term health.
Next we heard from John Pettigrew, a retired irrigator who’s a pretty pragmatic bloke. He says that the ability to buy and sell water has given farmers a whole lot more flexibility than they used to have, and while the Basin Plan will limit how much water can be used for irrigation, it won’t be the disaster for farming some people fear. Farmers are pretty good at adapting. They adapted to the last drought without much of a drop in their economic output, and are currently adapting to the much bigger threats of some farm products selling for less than the cost of production and others struggling compete overseas under a high Australian dollar. John’s convinced that farming communities will adapt to less irrigation water, and that it will give them the healthy river they need to keep farming. He’s not so convinced that they’ll survive the whims of the international market.
We headed back to Melbourne exhausted after a very long day, but satisfied. And ready to speak up when the draft Basin Plan is released in November, and demand that it gives us the healthy rivers which both red gums and communities need.