WARWICK LONG: … let’s talk about irrigation. The Federal Government is handing out more money for irrigators to upgrade their irrigation equipment whilst handing back some of their water right to the Commonwealth. Originally a $100 million program, or stage of a program, the Government says submissions from its delivery partners, who organise the farmers and the work, were so good it’s handing out $158 million for works. To find out more, Simon Birmingham, the parliamentary secretary involved, is on the line now. Good afternoon to you. 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon.

WARWICK LONG: Tell us about this program. Why did you expand it?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, obviously we have a big task to do still in bridging the gap towards the full implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and our Government on coming to office committed that we would prioritise infrastructure ahead of buybacks to make sure that, where we’re recovering water for the environment, we do so in a way that doesn’t harm the productive capacity of river and irrigation communities and this is a real demonstration of the priority we’re giving. We have in this program, as you’ve announced, increased the amount of funding available from $100 million to $158 million so that we can support more on-farm irrigation infrastructure upgrades, return more river to the environment and ultimately this means that less will be required through buyback in the future.

WARWICK LONG: Have these… this program in the past has really picked winners and losers in terms of the type of irrigation upgrade that gets funding. A lot of, say, drip programs have not been given money before in way of fast-flow or overhead spray-type irrigation, pivot irrigation. Has the expanded version of this program taken a similar course? 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, what we’re absolutely looking for here is efficiency in terms of how we can help farmers be more water-efficient and recover some water savings by doing so and so a range of different activities and works will be funded, some of them being laser levelling of paddocks, upgrading of overhead irrigation, replacing of flood irrigation, modernising drip systems or installing soil moisture monitoring and automation equipment, so a lot of different types of projects will be funded across South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales which, all up, will help around 476 different farmers. 

WARWICK LONG: And, just in terms of this program itself, the on-farm irrigation efficiency upgrades, there’s been different rounds of $100 million that have been announced in the past so, by expanding this program, this round of the program, are you taking money from future rounds? 

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Not at all from future rounds. This has been earmarked, at present, as the final funded round of this project but we certainly will have a look at whether there’s capacity to have a look at other rounds in the future. However, what we have managed to do is bring together some funding that had not been spent on other activities and put it into this so that we could increase it, because we’d had such high-calibre applicants that represented such value for money for the Commonwealth in terms of acquiring the water for the environmental needs and so, all up, around about 80 gigalitres of water savings will be accrued from this. Around 60 gigalitres of that will go towards the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, in bridging the gap towards that, and, of course, around 20 gigalitres goes back into… or stays with farmers so that they get a dividend from the savings as well. 

WARWICK LONG: So, to fund this, you’ve taken money from some of those other upgrade programs in the Murray-Darling Basin?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We’ve found other programs where there were underspends to date and so we’ve been able to pool those together to be able to increase this amount up to $158 million, which really does allow us to bring a couple of hundred extra farmers online into this program and ensure that more people get to participate who applied for it.

WARWICK LONG: When will the money hit the ground?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There’s still another stage of due diligence to go through, so the funding partners who coordinate the individual applicants will now have to work through with each of those individuals to ensure that everybody ticks all the I’s and dots all… crosses all the T’s but we would expect that we’ll see the works starting hopefully many of them before we get to the next major irrigation system… ah, irrigation… time of year.

WARWICK LONG: The next season.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I had a mental blank on the words there!

WARWICK LONG: That’s fine. Simon Birmingham, thanks very much for your time this afternoon.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Always a pleasure, cheers.

WARWICK LONG: That’s Simon Birmingham, who is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment, joining us on the Country Hour about the Federal Government’s lifting in the amount of money that they will be handing out to irrigators as part of the last round of on-farm irrigation upgrades in the Murray-Darling Basin.