The farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia are bracing for cuts of 27-37 per cent to their water allocations under the recommendations of a new report.
The Murray Darling Basin Authority will release its draft guide to water cut backs tomorrow and the cuts could be anywhere between 3,000 and 4,000 gigalitres of water - the water so saved is be returned to the environment along the basin.
National Irrigators Council chief executive Danny O'Brien says that would devastate regional communities in the Basin.
"Cuts of this magnitude would cost thousands of jobs, would put upward pressure on food prices, and would threaten the viability of farms that have been in families for generations," he said.
"This is simply not acceptable, although in some respects it's not surprising.
"But we've always been calling for a balanced basin plan which balances the need for the environment with those of food production and regional communities. This clearly doesn't do that."
Still the Government has already given a pledge that it will buy back the amount of water recommended or needed and farmers will be compensated.
"That's certainly welcome and it's an issue we've been pushing for," O'Brien said.
"We believe we've got a property right and governments if they want water need to pay for it and so that's a welcome commitment.
"I guess the concern we have with that commitment is it's off beyond the forwards estimates, it's also beyond the next federal election campaign, and of course they're not buying any groundwater.
"Groundwater is a significant part of irrigator's entitlements in many parts of the basin and as yet the Government's given no indication as to how they are going to deal with the adjustments made there."
In June, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists recommended irrigation in the basin should be cut by 40 per cent. The group suggests minor cuts of 1 or 2 per cent to most river catchments, but it wants irrigation in the Murray cut by 39 per cent and in the Murrumbidgee by a massive 63 per cent.
The Wentworth group's thinking is based largely on economics. It asserts that, litre for litre, water use along the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers creates less economic value than in other catchments.
The group's Tim Stubbs says communities will need strong commitment and assistance from government to cope with what he calls massive changes.
"Governments need to be willing to invest some significant amount of money with the community in infrastructure that the community deems to be helpful to their moving forward," he said.
"That could be hard infrastructure and soft infrastructure. It needs to be able to be there to help those communities begin to make that transition forward."
Opposition water spokesman Barnaby Joyce says the new plan will hurt many towns.
"This would bring immense economic hardship and social dislocation to many towns especially in the southern part of the basin," he said.
"It is not morally correct that you go to a town and basically pull the economic reason for it to exist out."
Until now the states have controlled their own rivers, while water in the Murray is shared between Victoria, NSW and South Australia. So governments in Sydney and Melbourne have been loath to let water flow into the Murray.
The federal government now has the power to use some of that water to flood river red gum forests along the Murray and sustain South Australia's lower lakes.
Less likely are large-scale cuts in the northern basin, because getting water down the Darling to the southern basin is highly problematic.
Cuts to irrigation in the north would help the local environment, not the lower lakes.
However, to be truly effective, the plan must not just address past problems but incorporate some mechanism to deal with climate change, it is felt.
No one knows what role, if any, climate change played in the recent big dry. No doubt the natural cycle of drought was the primary cause, exacerbated by the over-allocation of irrigation water. Whether climate change then intensified and extended the drought into record-breaking proportions is largely unknowable.
Yet global warming remains the big threat, and its effects may not be as incremental as some imagine, Chris Hammer writes in The Australian.
The entire southern basin relies on the large alpine dams that capture winter rains and spring snow melts. That water can then be rationed out year round, especially during the summer irrigation season. But these dams are susceptible to bushfire. That is a load of problems the authorities will have to wrestle with.
The Australian Conservation Foundation's Dr Arlene Harriss-Buchan said the government must support communities to start more sustainable industries.
"In the future, there may be less irrigation-dependent jobs in the basin but there are enormous opportunities for much more secure jobs in other industries," she said.
Dr Harriss-Buchan stressed a cut in irrigated water did not mean the equivalent cut in agricultural production, and that an unhealthy river would result in lost productivity.
The loss of the dairy industry in the lower lakes was proof.
"Unhealthy rivers give us nothing but salinity and blue-green algae infestations," she stressed.