Water meeting: South West farmers hold crisis meeting over fears their spring water rights will be taken away

EXCLUSIVE Shannon VerhagenCountryman
About 100 farmers attended the Western Australian Water User Coalition's Spring Rights Exemption Forum in Manjimup, where WAWUC president Bevan Eatts spoke.
Camera IconAbout 100 farmers attended the Western Australian Water User Coalition's Spring Rights Exemption Forum in Manjimup, where WAWUC president Bevan Eatts spoke. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Countryman/Countryman

Frustrated farmers in the State’s South West food bowl region have been told to “make as much noise as they can” over fears new legislation will rip water rights away from them and hit them at the hip pocket.

More than 100 farmers and industry representatives packed into a shed at Manjimup Truffles for the Spring Rights Exemption Information Forum last Wednesday night, opened by WAFarmers president John Hassell.

Manjimup farmer Bevan Eatts.
Camera IconManjimup farmer Bevan Eatts. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Countryman/Countryman

It comes as WA Water Minister Dave Kelly and the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation push on with plans to “modernise” water management in WA by drafting new legislation for the Rights in Water and Irrigation Act Water and Irrigation Act 1914.

Growers in the Manjimup-Pemberton region are concerned it will result in the overregulation of water used to irrigate crops and result in them being charged for water they never previously charged for.

WA Water Users Coalition chair and Manjimup farmer Bevan Eatts organised the forum to give farmers the chance to air concerns, with many in attendance concerned the department was considering mandating a licensing system for farmers’ spring rights or removing them all together.

He said in recent months, farmers had been “going berserk” fast-tracking spring right dams on their properties, to get ahead of any changes that may stop them doing so.

Under the Act, farmers wanting to access water from rivers, streams and tributaries must have a water license, which determines when they can access water and how much.

If all of this water is allocated, the only way to build a new dam is to have a spring exemption — formerly known as spring rights — which enables them to access water rising up from the ground on their property at any time of year.

Manjimup farmer Diane Fry at the Spring Rights Exemption Information Forum.
Camera IconManjimup farmer Diane Fry at the Spring Rights Exemption Information Forum. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Countryman/Countryman

Mr Eatts and Mr Hassell were joined at the meeting by Manjimup’s Diane Fry, who has a long history in water management of the Warren-Donnelly catchment, Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA policy officer Doug Hall, shadow water minister David Honey and various lawyers.

Following a day spent touring farms in the area, Mr Honey said he shared their concerns and would champion the cause in Parliament.

He encouraged everyone concerned to write to Mr Kelly, and “take it to the Premier” if they felt the message was falling flat.

“Make as much noise as you possibly can,” Mr Honey said.

“I’ll prosecute your cause… but unless there’s a really broad response from this… you can end up with a really egregious and bad outcome.

“That is your best bet, all of you collectively and individually let the department and government know.”

Mr Hassell said it was a “major failure” of the government to recognise the importance of irrigation in food production.

Dry Kirkness Accounts partner Martin Kirkness, Bailiwick Legal agribusiness lawyer Phil Brunner and Katherine O’Keefe from the Agricultural Produce Commission also attended and spoke about legal options.

WAFarmers chief executive Trevor Whittington at the Spring Rights Exemption Information Forum.
Camera IconWAFarmers chief executive Trevor Whittington at the Spring Rights Exemption Information Forum. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Countryman/Countryman

Following presentations, Mr Hassell chaired a question and answer session where growers including Vic Grozotis and Paul Omodei aired their concerns.

WA Water Minister Dave Kelly did not attend, much to to WAWUC’s disappointment, claiming he never received the invite they say they extended to him and DWER. He says no contact with the WAWUC has happened following the April 27 meeting either.

Mr Kelly reiterated that consultation with the community had been ongoing for the past “decade and a half” and water reform was “strongly supported by industry, water users and the community alike”.

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