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Hands off Ord water, Barnett warns east

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

Premier Colin Barnett has warned the eastern states to keep their hands off WA's water after a plan to pipe water from the Ord to struggling Murray-Darling irrigators was revealed last week.

The scheme would involve up to 8000 gigalitres piped 1800km from the Ord River through the Northern Territory and into South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria.

Under the plan, spearheaded by pipeline consultant Peter Rayner, about half of the water would go into the ailing Murray-Darling river system, while the remainder could be used for various agricultural and mining purposes along the length of the pipeline.

Funding would come from the Federal Government's $10 billion package to buy back water rights from irrigators.

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But while the idea has garnered support from South Australian politicians, Mr Barnett isn't keen to share WA's water.

He said he hadn't held discussions with the scheme's proponents but the water was needed for agriculture.

"It's our water, we're keeping it," he said.

"The water of the Ord River Scheme is needed for Ord Stage 2, which is two thirds of the way through construction.

"I see the water of the Kimberley being more used to develop the agriculture industry in the Kimberley (so) that can become one of the great food-producing areas in Australia."

Mr Rayner told The West Australian last week the pipeline could be built within two and a half years but many people in the community had been left in the dark over the idea.

Melon grower David Menzel first heard about the pipeline proposal through the media.

He said he was not opposed to the idea of piping water interstate, as long as local industries weren't sacrificed.

"The big fear from the local community is that the water may end up going to the highest value user and that may be the city of Adelaide rather than all the communities that are spread along any potential pipeline," he said.

"While that's the market at work, it also doesn't recognise that food is very cheap at the moment and that may change in the future.

"Basically, we have one comparative advantage over the rest of agriculture in Australia and that is we have an under-allocated resource which is our water.

"For someone to effectively take that away from us is not really desirable, but there may be a case that there is so much there that they can harvest the excess and use that anyway."

However, with Ord Stage 2 underway and a third stage on the cards, the water might not be there for the taking.

Ord Irrigation Cooperative chairman Elaine Gardiner said although she had no objections to other users taking water, it wasn't an unlimited resource. "People think there is untold water either in the Ord as in Lake Argyle or in the Fitzroy River," she said.

"In a good wet season like we had last year, when there was a significant amount of water going down the river out into the ocean, yes it would be ideal to be able to try and support as much fresh water as you could to the south and the east.

"As an irrigation company we wouldn't be happy with water being taken on a regular basis, like through the middle of the dry season when the dam is already fully allocated according to the Department of Water."

According to the Department of Water there is currently 350 gigalitres allocated for irrigation, of which some is not currently used.

Government water supply planning has set aside a further 400 gigalitres for new irrigation to the north of the Ord irrigation area, and 115gigalitres for new irrigation to the lower reaches of the river.

Ultimately, growers like Mr Menzel believe the huge amount of money required to develop a pipeline might be better spent getting agriculture in the Ord to a viable scale.

"It still needs to grow further," he said.

"One of the problems at the moment is we're actually struggling because we haven't got a base industry that underpins our viability.

"We haven't got the scale to have that base industry that would then allow us to go to go on to do the niche crops and more specialty crops that we're currently doing."

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