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Dwindling rainfall sees Southern Forests Irrigation Scheme shelved, leaving WA farmers disappointed

24 October 2022


Green avocados hang from a tree branch.
More avocado orchards are set to enter WA's market despite last season's low prices. (Supplied: Russell Delroy)

A multimillion-dollar irrigation scheme that was set to secure water for farmers in the WA' South West has been scrapped after new modelling indicated predicted rainfall figures would not support its current incarnation. 

Key points:

  • The irrigation scheme intended to secure water for farmers with substantial state and federal funding
  • Government support was withdrawn following renewed modelling
  • Up to 70 farmers committed funds toward the scheme

The Southern Forests Irrigation scheme was first mooted in 2014 with the broad goal of harnessing water from the Donnelly River for horticultural and agricultural production in the shire of Manjimup.

The scheme would have also seen the construction of a series of dams, water pipelines and associated infrastructure at an estimated cost of $70 million.

However, opponents of the project raised doubts in the mind of the state government, who sought updated modelling from the CSIRO before withdrawing support for the scheme as it stood.

Western Australia's Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan said the data revealed the "level of water that was likely to be available turned out to be very much reduced and less reliable than previously thought".

"This project has become very controversial in the community, and we find it can no longer be economically justified," Ms MacTiernan said.

"We understand a number of farmers down there are very disappointed, but we do also note that this now gives us an opportunity to come up with something that will work and develop more harmony within the community."

Alannah MacTiernan speaking.
WA Minister for Agriculture and Food Alannah MacTiernan welcomes the proposal to phase out caged eggs.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

State asks feds to leave money on the table

Critical to the original scheme was a $40 million pledge from the federal government, and efforts are underway to ensure the funding commitment remains on the table.

"We have sought to engage the federal government on this and explained to them to keep that money for this area," Ms MacTiernan said.

"We pointed out that only two per cent of the national water fund has come to WA, and it would be extremely egregious if any of that money was taken from WA given that we are a third of the continent."

The remainder of the funding for the project was to be sourced from the state government and up to $10 million in pledges from the estimated 70 farmers who had opted in. They will now be eligible to opt-out of any future alternatives

Reference group seeks viable options

Nominees are now being sought to establish a reference group that will explore "broad package measures", which could serve as an alternative to the scheme.

Manjimup farmer Bevan Eatts said water security was "front and centre of everyone's minds" in the region.

An unsmiling heavyset man, balding, wears a blue fleece jacket and a black tee, stands in front of plants.
Bevan Eatts says water security is a pressing issue for the region.(ABC South West: Georgia Hargreaves)

"I think it's going to be hard to come up with a scheme or some proposal that is going to suit everyone," Mr Eatts said.

"There's always going to be one part of the community that won't be happy, but I'm hoping the community draws a line in the sand and now let's all start working together for the best outcome."

The reference group is expected to be established by the end of October, with an interim report prepared by February 2023.