Benefits of Irrigation

The Tasmanian Greens issued an alternative State Budget on 1 September 2014 which included support for ongoing government funding for irrigation projects, although at a slightly lower level than that proposed by the government. After the release of the Greens’ alternative budget, Kim Booth claimed that the Meander Dam had failed to produce one extra potato. This comment attracted much criticism from the agricultural community and the state government, but rightly focused attention on whether there are desirable economic and social benefits – to outweigh the environmental costs – from irrigation projects, which are substantially funded by taxpayers.

Not only was Kim Booth roundly criticised by all media for his one-potato comment (and largely ignored the Greens’ support for ongoing irrigation funding), but three newspapers refused to publish my letter (below) which presented evidence that undermines claims of the economic benefits of the Meander Dam and requested real-world measurement of the economic benefits from taxpayers’ investment.

According to the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association (TFGA), taxpayers provided 70% ($229 million out of $319 million) of the money for the construction of the first tranche of Tasmanian irrigation schemes. Shouldn’t we know what the return on this investment is?

Letter to the Editor – submitted to the Examiner, Mercury and Tasmanian Country.

Economic benefit of the Meander Irrigation Scheme

TFGA President Wayne Johnston (Tasmanian Country, 12 September 2014) defends the Meander Irrigation Scheme and uses a 2011 report by consultants Macquarie Franklin to support his claim that the scheme has had significant economic benefits.

I have also read that report and Mr Johnston has misrepresented what is says.

The report summarises the results of a survey of farmers who had bought water from the Meander Irrigation Scheme. The actual production by farmers was not measured.

Farmers told the consultants what they expected to use the water for and the consultants calculated what they believed would be the expected increase in production. There are assumptions and inaccuracies involved in these calculations (both by the farmers and consultants). What is needed is real world measurements.

Until we are given actual data showing the change in the dollar value of production which is attributed to increased supply of irrigated water (taking into account the extra expenses i.e. water, irrigation equipment and ongoing costs) we will not know how good or bad an investment this was.

Some statistics in the Macquarie Franklin report are indisputable. The Meander Dam cost $38m and the pipelines taking water from it $17m. Farmers contributed $23m of this via water purchases. This project cost Tasmanian taxpayers $32 million to construct plus having significant environmental impacts.

The taxpayers deserve to know whether the Meander scheme was a good investment of public money. This goes for all the irrigation schemes receiving taxpayers investment.

The TFGA published figures in Tasmanian Country last week which shows that construction of the first tranche of irrigation schemes cost a total of $319 million, made up of farmers $90m, state government $80m and federal government $149m.

Before investing more public money, the economic benefits of the completed irrigation projects need to be tested.

The other figure from the report that is important is that 6928ml (or 24%) of the additional water provided by the Meander scheme was unsold. I wonder whether all the water has been sold yet, seven years after the dam was completed?

Peter McGlone