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Sir Angus Houston reflects on his northern Basin ‘listen and learn’ tour

Sir Angus Houston offers a summary of his recent listening tour of the Border Rivers and Condamine–Balonne regions, and reflects on the strength, resilience and passion of northern Basin communities.

Angus Houston

Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston AK, AFC (Ret’d)

MDBA Chair

Sir Angus Houston is the Chair of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority. He has served the nation in several leadership roles, and his well–honed strategic skills help focus our efforts towards a healthy working Basin, managed in the national interest. Read more

Published: 23 March 2022

After ongoing postponements of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority listening tours, due to COVID-19 restrictions and floods, I’m pleased to have been able to spend four days last week in southern and south–west Queensland, listening and learning.

This is my seventh listening tour and the first time in this part of the Basin as Authority Chair. I had the opportunity to listen to the Boggabilla, Goondiwindi, Dirranbandi and St George communities about local water issues important to them. I am encouraged by the strength, resilience and passion of these communities and the innovation I saw across agriculture and business. I also had the privilege of hearing more about First Nations values and involvement in water management at some significant sites.

Sir Angus Houston, Cubbie Ag’s CEO Paul Brimblecombe, MDBA acting Chief Executive Andrew Reynolds, Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder Hilton Taylor and Deputy Director-General, Water Resource Management from the Queensland Department of Regional Development. Manufacturing and Water Linda Dobe on a site visit to Cubbie Station.

From dust to deluge

Over 2 years ago, communities and large towns in the northern Basin were carting drinking water because dams had run dry. Farmers also had to transport water and feed for livestock and many growers were severely impacted. Rain has come to the northern Basin and many of the dams, streams and rivers are full, but the communities and the farms they support haven’t forgotten the drought and its effect on them. I received a lot of feedback about the amount of recent rain. There has been some flooding, but the places we visited in the northern Basin were not as badly affected by the extreme flooding elsewhere.

This was evident while standing in the middle of a cotton field at ‘Morella’ at Boggabilla in New South Wales, on MDBA Basin Community Committee member Sam Coulton’s farm. I saw the enormity and complexity required to grow crops in our challenging climate as Sam explained how science underpins his decision making, informing soil health and water-use efficiency.

Sir Angus Houston speaking with Sam Coulton, a farmer at Boggabilla in far northern New South Wales.

Added to this, I listened and learned from local irrigators and industry leaders on their views and history of water reforms in border rivers. I had the opportunity to visit and learn about a new agriculture industry in Goondiwindi. Algae Pharm grows a crop of ocean microalgae, a source of plant-based Omega-3 fatty acid, in ponds 400 km from the sea. Algae Pharm’s water efficiency is extraordinary and as it increases its market nationally and internationally it will bring increased employment and economic benefits to the region. 

Community ingenuity and spirit

I touched on community resilience earlier and Thallon, with a population of 250 people, situated between Mungindi and St George in Queensland’s Balonne Shire, is a glowing example. They came up with a smart approach to make a federal government grant stretch to shore up ongoing tourism and economic development opportunities in their district to buffer the effects of extended droughts, water reform under the Basin Plan and the closure of the railway line.

A 3-pronged plan included a grassroots-led employment initiative resulting in great outcomes for the small community. The Thallon Community Support Centre, an old railway siding building moved to the cricket ground near the painted murals on the silos, was the second project funded to improve access for people with a disability and other upgrades. The third was a series of sculptures dotted throughout the town, another tourism drawcard along with the silos. If you’re in the area, I encourage you to visit to see how they have revitalised the town, attracting tourists far and wide.

On my last day, I joined Kevin Waters and his son Ronnie at the ‘Airman Memorial’ at St George in paying our respects to the late Len Waters, Kevin’s brother. Len was the first and only First Nation’s fighter pilot in World War II. Len flew kitty hawks with No. 78 Squadron RAAF in the south Pacific campaign against Japan. It was a great honour for me to recognise Len’s service to Australia in the Centenary year of the Royal Australian Air Force.

Image (left): Sir Angus Houston, Ronnie and Uncle Kevin Waters watch the welcome to country smoking ceremony and didgeridoo performance at Munya Lake near St George.  

There is more work to be done

In the places we visited, recent rain and high commodity prices are providing for a bumper season and good prospects for next year as well. However, declining populations due to Covid-19, drought and a lack of digital connectivity creates a vicious cycle where services such as schools, shops and service stations are reduced or lost and conducting business is hard. We were told a labour shortage has been a real challenge for many farms and it’s been difficult to address. Within the communities they are saying that “things can’t be allowed to get worse, they must get better”.

Everyone that I have spoken to supports the need for a healthy river system. Water management is a partnership between governments, industries and communities and we all have an important role to play in continually improving how we use and manage this finite resource. What I saw on this tour was innovative, resourceful and determined communities working together. I saw agricultural businesses drawing on science and evidence to inform their decision making. I witnessed the strong and enduring connection First Nations People have to their land and waters and their responsibility to care for Country.

What links everyone together is the desire for the ongoing health and sustainability for their much-loved part of the Murray–Darling Basin. And that same vision is what drives me, and the work of the MDBA.

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