Southern basin irrigators are suing the Murray Darling Basin Authority for $750 million in damages over lost water allocations.
Southern Riverina Irrigators chairman and Barooga farmer Chris Brooks made the announcement at a public meeting at Yanco on Thursday.
Mr Brooks identified himself as one of the claimants, saying his lost allocation of 5000ML had cost his business a profit of $5 million.
He told the Narrandera Argus the initial class action, lodged on Monday, involved almost a dozen irrigators.
“On behalf of the 2200 affected landholders in the Murray Irrigation area, we are lodging a writ in the NSW Supreme Court suing the Murray Darling Basin Authority for negligence, and the damages bill will be $750 million,’’ Mr Brooks said. “We think that might get their attention and get them to the table.
“I didn’t have the time to get across all 2200 landholders to lodge this, but I’ve been working furiously with barristers and solicitors on various legal methods of just stopping this madness of wasted water.’’
Mr Brooks said the writ demonstrated the level of frustration farmer’s were experiencing. He said the court action was the last resort as negotiation and lobbying had failed.
“This seems an open and shut case to my barrister who alleges (MDBA) caused the damages through their mismanagement, so we are going to take them to task,’’ Mr Brooks said. “At the end of the day, if we don’t get any money, it may just make them think twice about wasting our water again.’’
Independent candidate for Farrer Kevin Mack said the legal action was not a grab for cash but a “desperate grab for attention and accountability.’’
“Farmers in the southern basin are struggling and wanting to understand where the loss of this allocation water is and they want someone to be held accountable for it,’’ Mr Mack said. “This is the only way they are going to get some answers and certainly some potential reparation for their losses.
“They have briefed a prominent Sydney QC who has said they have a strong case under the Water Act to lodge this writ.
“They believe the MDBA plan is at fault and has caused productivity losses to them as farmers.
“If desperation gets to this point, there is something seriously flawed about the Plan we are implementing currently.’’
Southern Riverina Irrigators, Murray Irrigation and Murrumbidgee Irrigation are not part of the damages claim.
“The initial class action involves eight to 10 landholders to get it into the courts but we intend to include all the affected landholders in the southern region,’’ Mr Brooks said.
“Our region is from Mulwala to Moulamein, and it covers 800,000 ha with a water volume over 800,000 megalitres.”
Mr Brooks said letters would be sent to every landholder in the Murray Irrigation Limited district informing them of the class action.
“The class action is specifically landholders with zero allocation but there is no reason why the Murrumbidgee region can’t take their own action because seven per cent (allocation) is not sufficient.’’
Mr Brooks said the landholder’s argument centred on water transmission in the Murray River of 6000ML a day for 141 days, equating to 870,000ML.
“That was our allocation lost, wasted in an excess of transmission of water down the Murray causing environmental damage and financial losses to the people who bought and owned that water allocation through what we claim is their negligence,’’ he said. “If I had my 5000ML of water I would’ve been able to grow crops and sell them to generate a profit of $5 million.’’
Mr Brooks said alleged breaches of the Federal constitution were expensive and difficult to prove. His own water reliability has fallen 30 per cent from the high 80s to low 50s in the last few years. Mr Brooks expects the legal action to cost the landholders around $1 million.
“Politically, it is a perfect storm – water is one of the top five topics in the election,’’ he said. “Absolutely everyone is in support of taking some legal action to address this issue as we have exhausted all other avenues of negotiation, lobby and trying to talk common sense to politicians.
“We have a close election with independents like Kevin Mack pushing water, giving a clear message to the coalition (about) this sort of watergate scandal which has come to light.
“Court action of this size just adds fuel to the fire and maybe somebody might say, we should check out this Murray Darling Basin Plan as these guys have some problems.
“I don’t care about the South Australian or northern NSW irrigators – we are the ones aggrieved here and both of those are the beneficiaries.
“We are not getting any attention because we are a minority so I have major difficulty getting it across the line in the Federal Parliament.
“Some of it is State Government issues, and that is what we wanted to tackle first up.
“The only way to get the South Australians to the table is a Royal Commission, so all I can do in the meantime is discredit the MDBA and expose them for what they are doing to force a Royal Commission.’’
Campaigners for Regional Equality co-founder Robert Quodling expects Murrumbidgee irrigators to join the class action.
“It is glaringly obvious those problems are proven and need to be attended to,’’ he said.
Mr Quodling said that, in some cases, anger and frustration among irrigators had had fatal consequences in the region.
The Argus sought comment from the Murray Darling Basin Authority but an MDBA spokesperson said the federal government agency was unable to provide a comment due to the May election.