Southern Forest Irrigation Scheme CEO Jeremy Bower with plans for the pipeline

It promises water security in a drying climate and millions of dollars in export earnings to the region, so why are so many farmers around Manjimup so opposed to the Southern Forest Irrigation Scheme?

According to the scheme’s CEO, Jeremy Bower, the opposition is mainly coming from West Manjimup farmers concerned that their water is moving from West to East and it’s all based on misinformed scaremongering.

The scheme proposes to dam a tributary of the Donnelly River to create a 15 gigalitre reservoir.

Water from that will be pumped down a 250-kilometre pipeline to the 74 farm business members to use on their land.

It’s a big local project worth approximately $80 million. 15 gigalitres is the size of 6,000 Olympic Pools, or enough to fill the MCG right to the top 10 times over.

290 hectares of land will be cleared for it, most for the reservoir, the rest for the pipeline. That’s roughly the area of 14-and-a-half MCG’s.

However, Mr Bower says that the scheme has been carefully designed by experienced hydrologists in the Department of Water and caters for environmental flows.

Science

“They’ve done the requisite modelling and monitoring and we have to trust career scientists. This is their job to understand the hydrology of catchments in the southwest – the tried and true methodology across Western Australia,” Mr Bower said.

“Their modelling is done out to 2050 and looks to wet, dry and medium scenarios, so we are confident because the modelling allows for dry years and for a drying trend,” he said.

“The allocation itself is that they first cater for the Donnelly river’s environmental flows, then the licenses that are already allocated in the district and then the scheme.”

He said that the dam site was chosen because it has been previously logged and was now mainly regrowth with some older trees.

However, Manjimup farmer, John Kilrain, says the Department of Water’s modelling is all wrong and the Department hasn’t admitted it.

“The Department of Water is clueless and all the farmers have had a gutful,” he said

He claims that for the last 10 years the 15 gigalitres the scheme needs hasn’t existed and there are easier and cheaper ways to supply the water.

He doesn’t trust the Department’s scientific work and says the peer review of the proposal was sent to an Eastern States environmental science firm who don’t know the area.

Mr Kilrain proposes an alternative scheme using unallocated water that he says would cost just $5-10 million.

He thinks the Southern Forests Irrigation Scheme is a water grab and the start of a water trading scheme.

“Water investment companies are ready to pounce,” he said.

It’s a claim that’s vehemently rejected by Mr Bower.

Members of the co-operative which owns the Southern Forest Irrigation Scheme can only trade water to other scheme members, he said.

To become a member of the scheme you have to be a landholder or lessee.

“If you sell your farm or your lease comes up, then you’re no longer eligible to be a member, therefore you’re no longer eligible for a water entitlement,” he said.

“There’s no situation where a company can just come in and buy and sell water.”

He said the rules were firm and had been formed by Co-operatives WA.

Because it’s a controlled, limited internal market, he said it wasn’t possible to alter the price of water outside the scheme.

He also claims it’s a more efficient and sustainable use of water, with minimal waste.

“This system is much more efficient because we’re only pumping what is to be used and if one farmer, for whatever reason … he doesn’t need water … he can trade it upstream or downstream to another farmer, so it’s always used to its best use, it’s not wasted.

He stressed that that’s more sustainable than the current system.

Mr Bower counters that there are no details or costings for Mr Kilrain’s alternate scheme, and it has ownership issues.

Green opposition

It’s not just local farmers opposing the scheme. The Greens are up in arms too.

Greens MLC Diane Evers claims the land clearing will have a significant impact on threatened ecological communities and disturb Aboriginal heritage sites.

She also claims a small number of farmers are getting a big benefit from a project which will be largely government funded.

State and Federal governments will be contributing approximately $58.8 million towards it.

She also criticises the decision-making process that led to its development.

However, Mr Bower claims hundreds of people were consulted since 2013-14, with meetings on farms and around Manjimup.

Local Member, Terry Redman MLA, supports the project and took it through Cabinet when he was in government and the Minister responsible.

“I absolutely recognise that there are tensions, particularly between the west Manjimup area who hold the view that the scheme is taking water that might otherwise be available to them, but the Department of Water has fundamentally refuted that,” Mr Redman said.

“Water is the new gold … one of the things that’s created the tension is the price of avocados, avocados went up and so people made a lot of money out of avocados, so everyone wanted to get into the avocado game, they went to get some water and an allocation, and it wasn’t there,” he said.

He said that demand for water has created widespread problems across the region.

He stressed that all farmers had the opportunity to be a part of the scheme and that those in it are mainly family farms, rather than corporations.

The plan is now going through a Public Environmental Review process with the Environmental Protection Authority.