NO NOTICE: Alan Payne and Hugh Barnet at Swan Creek Hall.
NO NOTICE: Alan Payne and Hugh Barnet at Swan Creek Hall. Bianca Hrovat

LEFT HIGH AND DRY: Rural landowners isolated by drought

THE isolation of rural living hit home for Southern Downs farmers after they received little-to-no warning or consultation on increasingly desperate drought measures that could destroy crops, jobs and livelihoods.

For generations, farming families accepted responsibility for their personal water security, pouring tens of thousands of dollars into the establishment of bores, water tanks and above-ground dam storage.

Water consumption was at the forefront of every rural landowner's mind, as they understood the limitations of their allotment and worked within those parameters to ensure their family, produce and livestock didn't go without.

Landowner Anne Coy said her family let their gardens die, sold their cattle and sacrificed the bulk of their grain crop in order to make it through the big dry.

"It's a very desperate time," she said.

But as the Southern Downs descends further into a debilitating drought, self-sufficiency is being sacrificed for the common good.

After struggling to secure their own water supply, Mrs Coy, alongside hundreds of other rural ratepayers, faces the bewildering imposition of further restrictions and charges without any community consultation.

"I think there has to be a bit more understanding," she said.


Andrew Gale at Community meeting about water irrigation and levy at Swan Creek during drought Warwick Southern Downs RANGE
INVESTED: Community members Andrew Gale and Ross Bartley listen to speakers at Swan Creek Hall. Bianca Hrovat

More than 250 rural residents met at Swan Creek Hall last week to discuss the last-minute unmetered bore irrigation restrictions and the proposed water levy.

Although these 17,000 rural residents are scattered over the bulk of the Southern Downs regional area and provide more than 2000 local jobs, they are fighting to be heard by local and state governments who, by many accounts, failed to consider their needs in water contingency plans.

The levy would cost rural residents upwards of $400 next year if the State Government refuses to supplement the cost of trucking drinking water from Warwick to Stanthorpe.

"I feel that it's a bit unfair for us to pay for it," Mrs Coy said.

"We look after our water all the time, and in town they only start to look after it once there are restrictions.

"If country people run out of water, they have to pay for it, so the urban people should have to pay for it on their charge."

Southern Downs hay producer Alan Payne said it was a ridiculous idea.

"We spend a fortune on putting in and maintaining water infrastructure," he said

"We make sure we have a water supply, so why should we pay for others?"

State Member for Southern Downs James Lister said rural landowners "have had it up to the back teeth" with government trying to tell them what to do.

Mr Lister's primary concern was the irrigation restrictions, which were sent to more than 900 farming families just two days before the use of unmetered bores to irrigate was cut back to only two nights per week.

"There was no notice, no consultation, and it's not on," he said.

Dalrymple Creek resident Hugh Barnet said farmers felt governments were working against, rather than with, them.

"We're upset about the lack of consultation while we're in the middle of a drought," he said.

"I didn't even get a notice."

Killarney farmer Haydn Lamb said he received notice Wickham Farms would have to restrict irrigation just two days before he was expected to implement changes.

The restriction would see his young onion crop frozen from overnight watering or dead from the dry, but a failure to comply would have incurred a fine of more than $60,000.


Hayden Lamb speaks about onion farm - Community meeting about water irrigation and levy at Swan Creek during drought Warwick Southern Downs RANGE
FREEZE THE RESTRICTIONS: Hayden Lamb's young onion crop would be frozen if Wickham Farm adhered to the new restrictions. Bianca Hrovat

"We had the rug pulled out from under us," he told the crowd at Swan Creek Hall.

The farmer said the abrupt change could have a long-lasting, detrimental impact on the Southern Downs economy.

"We had committed to forward contracts to supply our customers for 12 months," he said.

"We are relying on that crop to get through our process room so our staff have jobs come Christmas time.

"If we lose our contract with our good customers there's 40 jobs gone and directly, through our farming business, that's 85 jobs gone.

"At the moment, in a district like this, we need every bit of employment we can possibly get."


Community meeting about water irrigation and levy at Swan Creek during drought Warwick Southern Downs RANGE
IT'S NOT FAIR: Rural landowners show up in the hundreds to have their voices heard. Bianca Hrovat

Mr Barnet said producers needed at least six to 12 months notice in order to make the necessary changes to keep their businesses afloat.

"Anything less is unacceptable," he said.

"No one can operate a business like that."

The culmination of the two water security proposals left many rural residents feeling misunderstood and forgotten.

Mr Barnet said local government seemed to focus on urban centres such as Warwick, to the detriment of smaller surrounding communities.

"I feel like we're being forgotten about," he said.

"There's never any consultation.

"The satellite communities make up the whole social fabric so it's so important those smaller communities aren't just forgotten."

Mr Lister told the crowd it was even more important to consult with smaller communities, even though it could be challenging.

"If it doesn't happen, we'll see people lose their jobs, their livelihoods and their properties," he said.