There is a part of Australia where the river runs high but the crops are dying, where farmers can see plenty of water but have no access to it, and jobs are hard to come by.
Despite local MP Sussan Ley defying her cabinet colleagues and calling for irrigators to have access to more water, the political pressure in this part of Australia is beginning to rub in ways not seen before.
With his elbow resting on a ute window, Chris Brooks says he cannot remember a year like it and the farmer from Barooga, in southern NSW, is matter of fact about his failed grain crops.
“It looks terrible. This whole area is decimated,” Mr Brooks said.
He will lose millions of dollars this year and believes “billions” have been lost by farmers — and those who rely on their produce — from Mulwala to Moulamein.
His property sits beside the Murray River, in the south-eastern corner of the Federal electorate of Farrer — a seat imposed on the national conscience by its former MP, National Party leader Tim Fischer.
Land that would normally provide premium grain crops has been harvested for straw.
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In its heyday, Farrer was home to some of the richest wool properties in the country and named for the father of Australia’s multi-billion-dollar wheat industry.
The surrounding paddocks don’t do justice to that heritage this year.
Mr Brooks stops the ute beside one of his failed canola paddocks. It is sparse, barely a few feet high and he hasn’t bothered to harvest it.
NSW irrigator Chris Brooks says the fact farmers have no access to water this year is not about drought, but poor management.
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At its centre, a huge pivot irrigator, responsible in good seasons for watering large-scale crops, sits unused and silent.
Irrigators here have received 0 per cent of their water allocation this year.
That means, despite their licence and entitlement, they have had access to no water for their crops.
In the past six months of 2018, inflows into the lower Darling and lower Murray were in the lowest nine per cent ever recorded.
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In an average season, irrigators here could expect to receive more than 85 per cent of their allocation by season’s end.
The system they rely upon stretches over 3,000 kilometres, more than three times the distance between Sydney and Melbourne.
It is a mighty piece of engineering, and the largest private irrigation system in Australia.
Mr Brooks is the chairman of the Southern Riverina Irrigators, a group that represents 1,800 irrigators.
He estimates as few as 5 per cent of them will turn a profit this year.
No water this year, Mr Brooks argues, is not simply the result of drought.
The Murray River, near Cobram.
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The tree line on the horizon marks the Victorian border, the Murray River.
Despite the images of the dribbling lower Darling River broadcast across TV screens in recent months, in this part of the world its sister river is flush.
Frustration is building
The Murray’s banks run high and the river is in good health.
So too the Victorian irrigators, who for much of the summer have received 100 per cent of their water allocation.
Further downstream South Australian irrigators also have access to a full allocation.
That irrigators in those states could receive their full entitlement, is a result of complex water sharing arrangements drawn up long ago.
In Victoria and South Australia irrigators soak up a high-reliability water share, while the New South Welshmen await what is called a general security allocation.
High reliability is generally a more expensive entitlement, which is allocated first and all-but-guaranteed.
What is left then makes up the general security allocation.
Compounding the angst for those north of the border, the Dartmouth Dam — a shared water storage between NSW and Victoria — for much of the past summer has been more than 70 per cent full.
For Mr Brooks, who recently pulled the Southern Riverina Irrigators and “funding to the tune of more than $60,000” from the NSW Irrigators’ Council, the frustration is building.
“We’re trapped between the blokes who are capturing water in the north and the guys in South Australia demanding an insane volume,” he said.
Barooga irrigator Chris Brooks wants a royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
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The results he sees are rising unemployment, “more than 70 per cent in some towns like Wakool”, and mental health issues.
“Mental health here is massive,” Mr Brooks said.
Mr Brooks hopes renewed attention on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, in part because of the mass fish kills, combined with this year’s state and federal elections, will bring change.
He wants a pause on the plan, and a national royal commission that includes both the plan and current water sharing arrangements.
“We need to get a message across,” he said.
Before the 2001 election, Mr Brooks said his family actively campaigned and raised funds for Farrer Liberal MP Sussan Ley.
This year, he is actively campaigning for independents.
He will back the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers candidate in the Nationals-held NSW seat of Murray and chairs recently formed Voices for Farrer — a group that hopes to emulate the success of Independent MP Cathy McGowan in the neighbouring Victorian seat of Indi.
“You need water to stay rusted on, and with zero water you have an uprising of people who are sick to death of what is happening and there are moves afoot to make our elected members — both state and federal — pay at the polling booths,” Mr Brooks said.
“A hell of a lot of people are going to support the independents.”
Assistant Minister Sussan Ley holds one of the Coalition’s safest seats, where water has become a hot-button issue.
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Many already have. At the last election, one in four Australians voted for the minor parties in the Senate, and more than one in eight in the House of Representatives — the highest level since the second world war.
Ms Ley, who holds Farrer with a margin greater than 20 per cent, said she was not surprised by the Voices for Farrer or a challenge from other independents.
In her Albury office, Ms Ley said she was acutely aware of the pressure water management was putting on her electorate.
Sussan Ley’s political career:
First elected to the western NSW seat in 2001
Holds Farrer with a margin of 20.5 per cent
Cabinet minister from 2014 until 2017
Resigned from the frontbench amid an expenses scandal
Promoted to outer ministry in August 2018
Supports a phase-out of live sheep exports
“Water is the biggest issue, it’s the one I and my office probably spend 75 per cent of our time on … even when the good times are here,” Ms Ley said.
Farrer stretches more than 125,000 square kilometres and takes in the centres of Griffith and Deniliquin.
When a draft basin plan was introduced, images of irrigators gathering in those communities to burn copies made national news and, for some, the anger remains palpable.
“We’re hurting under the basin plan and people are not happy with the circumstances they’re facing now,” Ms Ley said.
Last year, from the backbench, Ms Ley called for changes to the plan to allow environmental allocation to be used by farmers.
“A lot of people interpret this as taking water away from the environment; I’ve never said that,” Ms Ley said.
Hands off our water. Chris Brooks says irrigators are angry and ready to change their vote.
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Now a front bencher, and in the wake of the South Australian Royal Commission and mass fish kills, Ms Ley remains steadfast, telling the ABC more flexibility is required under the plan.
“If water for the environment, which often has a two to three-year watering program, is waiting in one of our storages, Dartmouth Dam for example, it could be borrowed by farmers in the meantime and then paid back,” Ms Ley said.
“It’s about sensibly using water, moving it to where it can be most useful, recognising the environmental allocation is locked in, and we’re not trying to take water away from the environment, but there are times when we can use it for growing food and pay it back when we don’t need it.”
But not all farmers want the plan tinkered with, doubting any more water would be granted to agriculture in a review of water sharing arrangements.
Rice crop second smallest since 1930s
Moulamein ricegrower Jeremy Morton said there had been enough reforms and enough reviews already.
“We know everything we need to know about the pathway forward,” he said.
“Royal commissions are expensive, we don’t know what the terms of reference will be … It’s potentially a dangerous pathway to go down.”
Mr Morton is also president of the Ricegrowers’ Association of Australia.
This year he expects the national rice crop will be the second smallest since the 1930s at around 50,000 tonnes.
It is a long way back from the 800,000-tonne crop two years ago, and the 620,000-tonne crop last year.
“It’s down to water availability,” Mr Morton said.
“We had a 100 per cent allocation two years ago, 51 per cent last year, and this year it’s zero.
“If it doesn’t rain the water doesn’t flow into dams, so the allocations are low.”
Paddocks that would normally yield high-value grain crops have been cut for hay, as farmers in southern NSW have no access to water.
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In the last six months of 2018, inflows into the lower Darling and lower Murray were in the lowest 9 per cent ever recorded.
“We could argue about the water sharing arrangements and whether they’re fair and equitable and whether the management of the water resources is actually good,” Mr Morton said.
“We’ve got some pretty high losses in delivering water this year, so that impacts on allocations. There are two parts to it, but it’s not raining much — that’s a significant factor.”
Being an irrigator used to mean you had an advantage over “dry land colleagues”, a chance to set yourself apart when dry times came.
10th largest federal electorate in Australia
Takes in Albury, Deniliquin, Wentworth and Hillston
Held by former Nationals leader Tim Fischer until 2001
Major industries: farming and food processing
Now, Mr Morton says, without water, people are angry and frustrated.
“We’ve got a really ugly scenario where we now have situations where we get a zero allocation — that never happened in the past.
“That’s basically because we’ve moved from a system where governments decided the allocation and understood that some people wouldn’t use all their water, to a market-based system and in a market-based system you cannot allocate water that does not exist.”
Mr Morton recalls, when he started school at Moulamein in 1972, he was one of 30 in the class.
“Now there’s about 40 children at the entire school, so we’ve had ongoing rural decline for the best part of 50 years,” he said.
“And then you throw in reform like the basin plan, and even water reform before that, on top of everything else that is going on, it makes it really difficult for people.”
“It’s a lot of adjustment, in a couple of generations it has been significant change.”
He too has felt the swell of momentum rising for rural independents, but so far remains unconvinced.
Federal Labor recently announced it no longer supported a ban on water licence buybacks, potentially allowing more water to be bought from farmers and returned to the environment.
The policy about-turn is at odds with Victorian Labor, and has prompted the NSW Coalition Government to threaten walking away from the basin plan.
Labor has also called to split the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, siphoning off compliance functions to a new national environment protection authority it has promised to establish.
While Opposition leader Bill Shorten said a Federal royal commission would be a last resort, the alternative government is signalling change is on the way should it be elected in May.
Water Minister David Littleproud (centre), meeting with Parkes MP Mark Coulton and NSW regional minister Niall Blair at Wilcannia, is standing by the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
ABC Broken Hill: Angela Bates
Anger over commission’s findings
Water Minister David Littleproud continues to herald the bipartisan support for the plan and is insistent it is lawful.
He has called for calm heads to prevail and for the plan to continue.
But Mr Brooks isn’t buying it.
“We’d be better off with an independent in a Labor government than what we’ve got now,” Mr Brooks said.
He says the basin plan is not working for farmers, the environment, or Indigenous Australians, and “a federal MP should have the balls to stand up and accept there is a need for a royal commission”.
“There’s been $13 billion of taxpayers money spent on this thing and it’s not right, it’s nowhere near right … that’s two Snowy Hydros worth of taxpayer dollars … I mean, pause the plan.”
The idea of a Federal royal commission does not sit well with Mr Morton, who remains furious about the SA commission’s findings.
“We’ve got a major public policy document, legislation, which, in the interpretation of the (South Australian Royal) Commission, is illegal because it considers how it affects people in communities,” Mr Morton said.
“For me, that is just an absolute disgrace, that we would have a public policy that, at its core, thinks we should not consider how it affects people and communities, that’s just obscene from my perspective.”
How that perspective plays out at the ballot box remains to be seen.