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Fat ducks equal fat cows

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Tuesday, 18 April 2006


Incredibly in this age of increased environmental concern, there are currently no restrictions on stocking rates, or stock access to watercourses, and bird breeding sites are not protected on most privately owned land.

The Burrendong Dam was built in 1967. There is some evidence that there has been an increase in the overall number of water birds breeding during large flood events since 1986. Have the graziers, by running water down additional river systems, increased the number of potential breeding sites?

What about other indicators of environmental health? What is the state of the reed beds in the southern nature reserve: have they also migrated to private land? Upstream irrigators and Australian Geographic have documented the extent of overgrazing in parts of the marshes. Their photographs suggest the cattle would be having a significant impact on ground flora and fauna and water quality. But the data necessary to understand this impact is not being collected.

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It seems incredible that the flood-plain graziers of New South Wales should scream so loudly for water and be supported by committed environmentalists and both attract considerable media attention while issues of overgrazing are ignored and while they get their water for free.

Across Australia there is an expectation that we will all have to pay more for our water, and use water more efficiently. If the Macquarie Marsh graziers paid the same as irrigators for their average annual water usage, I calculate they would be up for $3.19 million this year and $7.55 million next financial year. Under current arrangements, however, they pay nothing and the water is delivered through levies, diversions and channels that crisscross the Ramsar-listed wetland.

The NSW Government has been provided with aerial photographs that show the levy banks blocking environmental water from reaching the nature reserve. Government officers have confirmed that at least one of these levies is legal and been in place for 15 years.

Government has a responsibility to determine whether or not it is in the best interests of the marshes to bulldoze the levies, or leave them in place. If most bird breeding is now on private land, because this is where the environmental flow is being channelled, then there should perhaps be some protection for the rookeries. Public monies should not be squandered on fattening cattle.

There will likely be more environmental flow allocations next spring. And the graziers and environmentalists may again scream that there are fewer birds breeding in the nature reserve. They may scream loudly for more water for the marshes and point the finger at the irrigators. The perception may be that the marshes are starved of water, while in reality it is just the small area of nature reserve that is dry, because yet another channel or levy may have been built pushing that little bit more water away from the reserve and onto private land that holds fatter cattle.

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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a senior fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs.

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