Tractors lined Renmark’s main street, but Murray-Darling Basin Authority officials met a relatively calm reception at a meeting on the future of the river system.
More than 500 people gathered in the South Australian Riverland centre for Friday’s meeting, without the angry scenes seen in NSW earlier this week when protesters shouted abuse or burned copies of the authority’s draft report.
But they raised fears about the impact of planned cuts in water allocations and said their state was being punished despite doing more over many years to improve the efficiency of irrigation operations.
Renmark irrigator Tom Martin said he believed 50,000 people could be displaced if the report’s recommendations were enforced.
While fellow grower Malcolm Hill described the draft report as a “king hit” on irrigators and their communities.
Local mayor Neil Martinson said water cuts would be devastating for the farming community and would virtually wipe out the Riverland.
But chief executive Rob Freeman said the authority had to take a border-free approach to the basin, and its recommendations did not seek to immunise the river and the environment from future short-term weather events or longer-term climate change.
“We have a responsibility to optimise economic, social and environmental needs,” he told the gathering.
South Australian Opposition Leader Isobel Redmond, who travelled to Renmark for the meeting, said the proposed water cuts could cause social and economic devastation in South Australia.
“If the food-producing regions and the communities along the River Murray are destroyed, the social fabric and economic future of this state will be jeopardised,” she said.
SA Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young called on the authority and the federal government not to back away from the reforms needed to return water to the river system.
“One thing is clear from the guide to the basin plan released last week – we have to reform the way we use water in the basin, and we can’t do it in a half-hearted way,” Senator Hanson-Young said in a statement.
“We need a commitment to return the 4000 gigalitres that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has told us is the bare minimum required to save the river.”
Senator Hanson-Young said it was understandable that the authority’s draft plan had caused concern in some communities.
“But the way to respond to these concerns is to identify the investment and support communities need to transition to a new era of doing more with less water, not to weaken or jettison the changes we know are vital for the Murray-Darling’s survival,” she said.