THE coronavirus on the back of a drought has highlighted "everything that is wrong with water reform" in the Murray-Darling Basin, according to Leeton shire mayor Paul Maytom.
Councillor Maytom said he was at the end of this tether when it came to getting a fair deal for irrigators in the Murrumbidgee, particularly rice growers.
His concerns centre on the precarious position the rice industry finds itself in next year as a result of what he said was the systematic erosion of general water security entitlements through poor policy and obscenely inflated temporary water prices, topped off by recent panic buying due the pandemic which saw rice flying off the supermarket shelves.
In its Water Position Statement released in 2019, Leeton Shire Council confirmed its support for the intent of the Murray Darling Basin Plan - a healthy and sustainable river system - but raised its deep concern about the lack of strategic and integrated roll out of the plan.
This has led to a raft of submissions by Mayor Maytom to a wide-range of inquiries.
At the heart of these submissions, council believes water reform was never supposed to decimate thriving regional communities, rather foster smarter use of the resource so water could be returned to the environment with no or little impact on agricultural productivity.
Cr Maytom has called on the federal government to to honour commitments when the 2004 National Water Initiative and 2007 Water Act were developed. He said these strategies were meant to keep water where it was needed.
"I can't and won't stand by and watch an industry like rice, which has been the backbone of the Riverina for more than 70 years, be compromised because of poor policy implementation," he said.
He said governments were failing in their responsibilities by allowing permanent plantings that rely on temporary water markets, supported by foreign investors with deep pockets, to be developed downstream on cheap greenfield sites outside of traditional irrigation areas.
Council wants to see a diverse agriculture industry in the MIA to allow communities to thrive.
"Australia's aim to develop a $100 billion agricultural sector cannot be realised through boom and bust policy settings," he said.
"In our constrained water environment we need a fully integrated and co-ordinated approach to land-use and water-use that drives genuine sustainability over time, including sustainable primary production, sustainable industry, sustainable jobs and sustainable communities."
The country is facing a real rice shortage, with SunRice advising its stored rice paddy will be exhausted by Christmas.
"With drought and COVID-19, the cracks in our Basin Plan water policies are more evident than ever," Cr Maytom said.
"Fixing them now is time critical or we risk losing vital industries and jobs.
"We must act quickly to ensure a rice crop is harvested by April 2021."
Cr Maytom will be meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack to discuss where the government can and should be acting to help.
He will be advocating for three actions from the government.
Firstly, an emergency water allocation for rice (200 gigalitres) in order to address immediate food security and job security risks.
Secondly, an improved allocation and greater certainty for general security water entitlement holders, as intended when the Water Initiative and Water Acts were developed.
Finally, an integrated and co-ordinated agricultural strategy for the Murray-Darling Basin.
"An agricultural strategy for the basin will support the most appropriate use of the land and our scarce water resource," Cr Maytom said.
"It needs to be co-ordinated and integrated and should foster diversity so we can become genuinely sustainable and resilient as farmers, manufacturers, businesses and communities."
With drought and COVID-19, the cracks in our Basin Plan water policies are more evident than ever.Leeton shire mayor Paul Maytom
The time is now to listen and act, according to the mayor.
Industries and communities rely on that very action being taken now.
"I will continue to remind our leaders leaving our future to chance and market forces alone is irresponsible, even reckless," Cr Maytom said.
"That will undo all the good the Basin Plan has sought to deliver and will impede our ability to achieve our national agriculture targets.
"Instead we need to work together as governments and Basin communities to sensibly plan our future as the food bowl for Australia, committing to an integrated and coordinated approach that makes the best use of our land and our water, supported by thriving communities."