Challenges for Rookwood Weir addressed at CQ water forum
LIKE many CQ farmers, Greg Hutchinson wanted to take advantage of the water in Rookwood Weir, but has concerns about the often-delayed project, and is already looking at alternatives.
The Moura cotton farmer was one of many people to attend CQ Water Forum hosted by Minister for Northern Australia Matthew Canavan, Capricornia MP Michelle Landry, representatives from the CSIRO, Office of Northern Australia and Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities at Rockhampton's Department of Agriculture and Fisheries yesterday.
The forum heard about potential future water projects for Northern Australia but gathered visitors were primarily focused on one project - the long awaited Rookwood Weir - which was touted to bring 2100 jobs and boost agricultural production in the Lower Fitzroy by up to $1 billion annually.
Although he wasn't based near the Fitzroy River, Mr Hutchinson was looking at expansion and kept close tabs on the development of the Fitzroy region's irrigation potential.
"Primarily we grow cotton because cotton gives us the best return per mega-litre, best efficient use of our water, and we've been making the most money out of it over the last couple of years," he said.
Up until late 2018, the Federal Government stated Rookwood Weir construction would begin in the dry season of 2019, but in January, Senator Canavan said in-river construction of the weir would start in 2020, to be completed by 2022-23.
Mr Hutchinson had put in an expression of interest for a significant volume during the formulation of the business case for Rookwood Weir, he said he was focused on finding irrigation now and could not afford to wait until 2023.
"We've been heavily investing in new off-stream infrastructure, to get the works on the ground happening, we're not waiting for a dam to happen 2, 3, 5, 10 years down the track," he said.
"We're actually doing stuff now, we've got scrapers operating, we're building dams, we're doubling our production, it's all happening now, whereas a lot of this water, it's still coming down the track and I can't wait for it."
He also questioned the price of water at the business case stage and whether there would be enough land available close to the Fitzroy River for new ventures.
"At that stage, the pricing they were indicating was cost prohibitive, it was a lot more expensive than I could buy elsewhere," he said.
"The second constraint for me was finding land suitable for development, not just 100 hectares or 200 hectares, but for a significant scale development.
"Until landholders in the lower Fitzroy are willing to sell to irrigators, I'm a bit reluctant to predict there's going to be a massive boom in irrigation development. That's going to be the biggest stumbling block for Rookwood Weir to go ahead."
Senator Canavan acknowledged there would be technical challenges in water pricing and land availability.
"We're hopeful that an EOI for a tender for water can go out this year that will help determine where prices are set," he said.
"Obviously the government can not interfere with the free market and property rights in particular.
"Everyone who owns free hold land has a right to decide what happens on that land.
"We have lots of arable land along the Fitzroy River.
"The weir will form an in-stream lake extending up to 80km so you're looking at a lot of river-front that will be opened up and I'm confident that we'll find a sufficient amount of land and property owners willing to develop that land subsequent to the project."
A frustrated Ms Landry said things were progressing with Rookwood Weir but not as quickly as she would like.
She said the government was negotiating with Rockhampton Regional Council about building roads and bridges that were due to go out to tender shortly.
"I would like to see the 'dozers out there now starting to dig and be ready but I think that may not happen until next year," she said.
"That is unfortunate because we've had the money on the table since 2016 and it has gone on and on and on."
Minister for Natural Resources, Mines and Energy Anthony Lynham said the State Government was committed to Rookwood Weir, and was advancing the project as fast as it could.
"We've put $28 million on the table and that's the only reason government-owned Sunwater has even been able to get started," Dr Lynham said.
"Meanwhile, we are still negotiating with the Morrison Government to finalise the joint partnership arrangements.
"If we can get Canberra to agree to a fair deal on the finances, tenders could be let late this year and a contract awarded in early 2020.
"In the meantime, I'd encourage any potential customers for the water to contact SunWater as it continues to do whatever it can on early planning."