Our say | Tough decisions to come for free water plan

IT has taken longer than anyone probably wanted, but a plan to make free water available to the region’s drought-affected farmers finally looks set to be approved on Wednesday night.

It was back in June that Councillor Jess Jennings first proposed the plan but, as we’ve seen often enough, bureaucracy can be a slow-moving beast.

A proposal to halve the cost of water from the Hereford Street standpipes was immediately approved by a vote within council but senior staff advised that giving the water away for nothing would require a different approach.

Staff believed offering free water to just a few residents would require a full public consultation and that naturally slowed the process down dramatically.

Not that there should be any criticism of that; it’s far better to get this right from the start rather than leaving council – and farmers – vulnerable to an appeal down the track.

As it happened, there were just 12 submissions from the public during the exhibition period but those submissions confirmed there was not 100 per cent support for the scheme.

Opponents raised a number of valid concerns – including the possibility of a water black market and the impact on the water level at Ben Chifley Dam – but they can all be managed.

Of more importance is both the practical assistance to the region’s farmers during a difficult time and also the symbolic support from the rest of the community.

The real test for the scheme, however, will come when one of three benchmarks is reached to prompt the end of the free water.

The first would be the lifting of a drought declaration which, while welcomed, would not immediately end farmers’ difficulties.

The second would be Ben Chifley Dam hitting 40 per cent, a mark that would simply confirm the drought was worsening rather than improving. Cutting off the free water in those circumstances would send a poor message.

And the third would be simply four months passing from the start of the scheme. That would put us in the middle of January and, without decent rain, the timing could hardly be worse for farmers.

Councillors on Wednesday night will almost certainly vote to introduce the free water, but that will be the easy part.

The toughest decisions may be yet to come.