Fate of orange growers and dairy farmers, who rely on irrigation, is grim, according to a new report and a clearer picture is needed to tackle the situation

A STARTLING report on the future of irrigated agriculture is akin to a canary in a coal mine, or more appropriately a magpie in an orchard, in the way it sounds a warning on the industry’s fate.

The document, examining the future of water-dependent farming in areas such as Cobram in the Goulburn Valley, warns of 2000 jobs being lost and $4.4 billion in annual production losses.

These predictions are based on the existing Murray-Darling Basin Plan proceeding with its existing changes to water allocation for irrigated farming.

The report has been compiled by consultancy firm RMCG on behalf of the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District Water Leadership Forum which is chaired by independent Shepparton MLA Suzanna Sheed.

In response the forum is calling for changes to the Commonwealth On-Farm Further Irrigation Efficiency program.

It would like its $1.5 billion to go towards incentives which would encourage water savings on properties and to be used for different measures to improve environmental results.

There is also a call for a plan to scrutinise new agricultural opportunities and investment for the irrigation area.

This last point is crucial because clearly even if only a quarter or a half of RMCG report’s predictions come to fruition there will still be a devastating impact.

That scenario also applies on the northern side of the Murray River with the Southern Riverina Irrigators also fearful their members will be squeezed out.

Clearly there needs to be a big picture approach taken to the fallout from the basin plan.

Already the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has commissioned and received a report on the Northern Basin and how that area will cope with the impact of environmental flow targets.

A region-wide perspective would allow for areas to know whether they are paying a similar or higher price than their colleagues elsewhere in the basin.

Hopefully over time it would also permit the best ideas for water saving to be widely disseminated.

However, regardless the irrigation industry is facing a grim future and there is only so much juice that can be wringed out of it before the sector has nothing more to give.

Sadly that bird in the hand, irrigation infrastructure, is looming as an albatross.