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Private Member's Statement - Wollondilly Electorate Water Harvesting Rights

19 October 2023.

This private member's statement is brought to you by the farmers of Wollondilly. Water is essential for growing food in the Sydney Basin, and healthy rivers in the Sydney Basin need healthy, fertile, hydrated lands south of the city where Sydney's water catchment areas are and where potable water is captured. Farming does not reduce potable water for a growing city like Sydney. The Government has decided to reduce harvestable water rights from 30 per cent to a mere 10 per cent along the east coast and in central areas of New South Wales. This decision comes at a time when our farmers are already facing significant challenges, including the declaration of an El Niño event, which threatens to exacerbate drought conditions and put the agricultural sector under even more strain.

There is a glaring disparity between small-area farmers along the coast, where the 10 per cent water harvesting rule has been imposed, versus the large farms out west in New South Wales, where farmers can harvest 100 per cent of the rain that falls on their land. The rural area of Wollondilly in the Sydney Basin is under enormous residential development pressure, which makes it very difficult for farming families to justify their love of producing tasty, quality food with lower food kilometres. The decision unfairly affects Wollondilly farmers, who are already struggling to make ends meet and who face vastly different issues from their counterparts in the Far West. The decision was made without consultation with farmers, following a review conducted in 2021 that increased harvestable rights to 30 per cent.

I am deeply concerned by the lack of transparency and lack of consultation, which has placed further uncertainty and financial strain on our farmers. Restricting the ability of farmers to use water on their land reduces land hydration. That has potentially devastating effects on the land, reducing the health of our waterways and making us less resilient. Water harvesting can be part of the solution, not part of the problem. The vast majority of Sydney's farmers are situated below Sydney's catchment areas. Those who are not perform a vital role in the water network in Wollondilly. The rural dams allow for the capture of more silt and other pollutants, which improves the health of Sydney's major rivers. They also provide water for rural firefighting. In 2019 the Rural Fire Service in Wollondilly used that water to save homes that are fortunate to survive to this day.

Allowing farmers water harvesting rights up to, say, 50 per cent would greatly assist with food production and potentially potable water. The climate crisis will manifest as a water crisis: Who has access to it, who owns it and who decides how much we get? The United Nations white paper entitled "Water for Climate Healing – A New Water Paradigm" explores the notion that an approach to water management starting with the regeneration of landscapes, including farmland, can result in more sustainable farming practices, regenerative agriculture, conservation and greater water security. If the academics get it and the farmers get it, why does the Government not get it? What advice has it taken and from where?

It is evident that farming is now competing with urban areas for limited potable water. The Government thinks this change will save the water in the dams—the ones that are at capacity and upstream, not downstream, from the majority of these farmers. While our cities grow, we must not forget the importance of the agricultural sector, which provides the food that sustains those very cities. The lands of the Sydney Basin are naturally fertile and hold the potential for production to feed a growing population with fresh and nutritious produce.

The reduction in water harvesting rights from 30 per cent to 10 per cent will have a catastrophic impact on farming production. Sydney Basin farming once represented 90 per cent of Sydney's consumption; now it is a mere 10 per cent of Sydney's consumption. That is not only unsustainable but also a missed opportunity to allow smallholdings and farmers of the Sydney region to contribute to our economy, providing food and produce sourced locally, rather than interstate or overseas, and reducing the carbon footprint of the food consumed by Sydney residents. Farmers do not waste water. The best custodians of water are those who see the value in it and who understand the whole cycle, beyond just turning on the tap and expecting the water to flow. Those whose livelihoods depend on water, and those who have been affected by its scarcity, know not to waste it. I trust the farmers with this call and ask that the Labor Party does the same both in this place and federally.