Fundamentally, Goulburn-Murray Water has had major problems handling landowner agreement in the Connections project.
Hundreds of landowners have been pre-emptorily engaged in discussions about their property’s future connection and then, without warning or explanation, disengaged.
A hint of this problem is contained in the GHD mid-term consultant’s review on the Foodbowl Modernisaton Project, where it states:
‘‘Performance has been able to be managed by G-MW to date because infrastructure works were on their assets and not dependent on landowner agreement.’’
In other words, G-MW is competently handling its own assets but has had problems negotiating with the landowners about theirs.
The slow pace in delivering these very complex landowner agreements is, in my opinion, likely to push the project beyond the 2018 completion date and run the project over budget.
Victorian National Party leader Peter Walsh, who had to wrestle with the oversight of the project in its early years, acknowledged in Shepparton recently how complicated and sophisticated the process was.
Take just one spur channel for example, which needs to be rationalised (shut down, replaced by a pipe or shortened), and is being used by a mixture of farmers, hobby farmers and residential properties.
How much do you offer in compensation if you plan to shut the channel down?
How many farmers make a spur channel viable?
Do you take into account historic usage of water, or just their entitlements?
Do the wishes of four hobby farmers outweigh needs of one commercial farmer?
When do you move in and use compulsory powers?
There are hundreds of these channels, and each is different.
However, this was known five years ago. It was never going to be simple, and easy.
And several remarks in the GHD report have a distinct disingenuous taint about them.
For example, the consultants said there were a number of historic ‘‘unstated assumptions’’ which it found ‘‘no longer applied’’, including:
‘‘Obtaining landowner agreements will be a straightforward process.’’
Only someone who had no experience with human nature and no experience implementing change in the water industry, would have developed this assumption.
Incredibly, there is an even more remarkable ‘‘assumption’’ referred to:
‘‘Landowner agreements will be achieved with one interaction between the project and landowner.’’
In what world would this happen?
Farmers who heard about this assumption were gob-smacked.
These assumptions may help present excuses for the derailing of the project but they have a distinct ‘straw man’ feel about them, and don’t lend any credibility to an analysis of what has actually happened.
The GHD report develops an argument that the project has lost its way and discusses how the aims need to be re-established.
This may be an issue for the authorities delivering the project, but for irrigators, there has never been any doubt.
It’s about saving water and building a more efficient water delivery system.
Re-visioning the project might be a lovely idea for a desk-top exercise in an office in Melbourne or Canberra, but really, anybody involved in the project who is unclear about its aims, should move aside and let others get on with the job.
Energy should be directed towards sorting out priorities at the channel level, making tough decisions on the ground, and getting real outcomes for irrigators who have been waiting for years.