House of Assembly: Thursday, March 23, 2023


Parliamentary Committees

Natural Resources Committee: Riverland Fact-Finding Visit

The Hon. L.W.K. BIGNELL (Mawson) (11:02): I move:

That the second report of the committee for the Fifty-Fifth Parliament, entitled Riverland Fact-Finding Visit 7-9 November 2022, be noted.

In November last year, the Natural Resources Committee conducted a fact-finding visit to the Riverland, the first trip away from Adelaide for the committee. This is the committee's report of that visit. On the trip I was joined by my colleagues on the Natural Resources Committee: the member for Gibson and the Hon. Nicola Centofanti MLC, a Riverland local. We were also accompanied by the member for Chaffey, as the local MP, for parts of the visit.

The committee visited the Riverland as part of its general statutory function to take an interest in and keep under review the protection, improvement and enhancement of the natural resources of the state; however, the committee was also keen to hear about the big issues that affect the region, namely water management and fruit fly.

The trip's timing was quite remarkable. As the committee prepared for the visit, Australia was having its second wettest spring on record. Communities upstream in Victoria and New South Wales had just experienced heavy rain and consequent flooding, and their water was heading our way. Flow projections for South Australia were increasing daily. The Murray was steadily rising and expected to peak around Christmas time. Then, the Riverland was also inundated with rain, with Renmark recording an astounding 95 millimetres on 23 October, with localised flash flooding.

As a committee, we were able to see the Murray and its flood plains at their most magnificent. During our three days in the Riverland, the committee met with staff from PIRSA, the Department for Environment and Water, local government, growers, ecologists, scientists, rangers and native title holders.

When we first reached Renmark, we met with Jan Whittle and Tony Herbert from the Department for Environment and Water, who took us on a tour of the work being carried out by the department in the region. We were impressed by the upgrades being made to Bookmark Creek and felt privileged to be able to see the breathtaking Pike Floodplain from its blocking banks.

The next day, the committee headed to Murtho to visit the almond farm of Drew and Caren Martin. As well as offering an insight into almond farming in the area, the trip to Omega Orchards allowed the committee to hear firsthand the concerns felt by the community, particularly irrigators, as the waters rose.

The Martins took the committee down to their pump house on the river, allowing the members to see the work they had carried out to prepare for the high flows. They had laid rocks around the base of the pump house to stop erosion as the water rose. But their other major concern was the possibility that the power would be cut to their pump house during the floods. Pleasingly, I can report that this did not happen, thanks to some levee work organised before the waters peaked.

The next day, the committee headed to Calperum Station, a parcel of former pastoral land the size of Kangaroo Island that now hosts important ecological work as well as accommodation, education and training programs, and recreational offerings like canoeing. Calperum and neighbouring Taylorville Station are also home to the Riverland Rangers program, which began in 2010 employing a team of six Aboriginal rangers. This program is part of the national Indigenous rangers program, supporting Indigenous communities to manage Indigenous protected areas.

Julie Robertson, the general manager of business and development at Calperum, gave a detailed description of how they currently manage the station and shared with us the master plan that has been prepared with the assistance of Barb Cowey from PIRSA, which will hopefully ensure the future of the station. The station is privately owned and operated and, as many here would appreciate, is run on a very tight margin.

To ensure the future survival of the station's operations, there is a need to expand its revenue base beyond being predominantly education-based to include more ecotourism. The team have and continue to apply for various grant programs to support upgrades to the station facilities to attract the ecotourism market and allow the station to work with more operators in this sector.

At Calperum, the committee also met with Sheryl Giles and Fiona Giles from the River Murray and Mallee Aboriginal Corporation, the native title holders of the region. My colleagues and I greatly appreciated hearing about the extensive and diverse work that they do with various groups and individuals since they received native title determination back in 2011. They have recently collaborated with Flinders University academics researching frontier conflict in the area, including an exciting discovery of artefacts in 2021 such as a serrated mussel shell estimated to be 6,000 years old.

During our time in the Riverland, it was fantastic to return to locations that I had been involved with during my time as agriculture minister to see them flourishing some seven years later. Mr Richie Roberts from RNR Farms credits receiving round 1 and 3 SARMS grants for giving him the courage to grow blueberries—a fruit not typically associated with the Riverland—on a commercial scale under shade cloth. His farm now supplies blueberries to all the major supermarkets in South Australia in the summer months. If you pick up a punnet of blueberries with your weekly shopping in November and December, chances are they came from RNR Farms.

Seven years after signing off on funding for the Australian Almond Centre of Excellence, it was great to visit the 60 hectare site with the committee. South Australia won the battle with Victoria to host the national research centre and we helped fund the establishment of the experimental and demonstration orchard for almond research and development.

The centre is a great collaboration between federal and state governments, researchers, industry and the horticultural sector. Researchers are pushing the boundaries on tolerance, almond size and growing conditions that has the rest the world looking at how we are leading globally.

It was also pleasing to return to the Loxton Research Centre after being involved in its redevelopment under SARMS back in 2017. It remains a valued research and innovation hub for the region and Australia. The committee was pleased to hear about their collaborative work with the local community, such as a recent drone challenge with Riverland high schools, where students were asked to respond to a simulated infection on a demonstration citrus orchard using drones.

Also at the research centre, we heard from local grower and Chair of the Riverland Fruit Fly Committee, Jason Size, and Biosecurity SA's Incident Controller for the Fruit Fly Emergency Response Program, Rob Baker. Jason and Rob gave the committee a thorough presentation on PIRSA's fruit fly eradication efforts and the aggressive action being taken to hold onto South Australia's fruit fly free status. This is so important in maintaining our state's clean, green image and competitive advantage. More may need to be done in the future to convince our federal colleagues of this importance and the international advantage and point of difference it provides over our competitors.

The final stop on the trip was Renmark Paringa Council, where the committee spoke with Tarik Wolf and Tim Pfeiffer about the work that was being done to upgrade the council's 38-kilometre levee system. They showed the group the sophisticated mapping software being used to examine the levee system, which is used together with consultation with the Department for Environment and Water to allow them to pick up levee defects and prioritise remedial work.

Renmark's position on the floodplain makes it more vulnerable than neighbouring areas and challenges lie with the levee system being located on a mixture of council, Crown and private land. The lack of easements on private land presented concerns, but landowners realised the gravity of the situation and were largely cooperative. This is something the council, possibly with the assistance of state government, will need to consider when looking at future management and maintenance of the levee system. The committee then had the opportunity to inspect the levee works being undertaken behind the Renmark district hospital.

The spirit of collaboration throughout the Riverland stood out to me and other members on the trip. It was clear from all the people the committee spoke with that they share a deep love of the region and want to ensure the safety of the community in uncertain times.

In January this year, committee staff checked in with some of the people we spoke to to see how they fared following the peak flows. It was heartening to hear from Tim Pfeiffer from Renmark Paringa Council that the local community had shown the council great love and support on social media and even more heartening to hear that largely the parties that the committee visited back in November were spared any significant damage to their properties or livelihoods by the floodwaters.

The committee thanks all those who shared their knowledge and experience on the trip and also in the months following when they were contacted by committee staff to see how they were affected by the floods. I would also like to extend my thanks to my fellow committee members who were on the trip, the member for Gibson and the Hon. Nicola Centofanti, and, as I mentioned before, the local member, the member for Chaffey. It was great to catch up with him in his local region that I know he is so passionate about. I would also really like to thank the committee staff who do a tremendous job, Alison Meeks and Dr Amy Mead, for their support and work in making this a most worthwhile trip.

In closing, I encourage all members of this house to take a trip to the Riverland to see this rare occurrence—the beauty of the River Murray and the floodplains in their full glory. I commend this report to the house.

Mr WHETSTONE (Chaffey) (11:13): I would like to make a brief contribution to thank the Natural Resources Committee for making the journey up to the Riverland. I am hoping that they gained a lot out of it. The member for Mawson has just given quite a descriptive brief on what they saw and the challenges that the region faced not only through the most recent high-flow event that turned into a flood event but what the day-to-day challenges are: being a food producer, dealing with biosecurity issues and dealing with the vagaries of weather. I think there was a bit of a mixture of all of that in that trip.

I would also like to thank the Riverland businesses, local government and institutions that played host to the committee. I think their input was valuable and it made the trip quite valuable for committee members and staff to understand what the challenges were and the way the locals responded.

I guess first cab off the rank for me was day 2 when the committee went out to Omega to have a look at Drew and Caren Martin's nut farm. I think everything looked pretty kosher; everything looked pretty comfortable when they got there, but that was not to be in the coming weeks. We saw a significant rise in the river levels, particularly up near lock 6, particularly below lock 6, where the Martins' pumping station is.

It was really quite a contrast to see what was on the edge of the river, what we thought would have been the river coming up to the door of that pumping station. That was definitely not the case. We saw levee banks being built, we saw gensets and diesel tankers brought in to deal with the ongoing need for pumping up to their farm, which was some kilometres away. But it did give a good understanding to the committee of what the preparation needed to be for that forthcoming flood event.

There is also Brendan Sidhu. He is an industry leader, an industry chair, who was also at the farm, and he gave an insight into some of the diversity that the industry is looking at, whether it be looking at some of the newer technologies, self-pollinating varieties of almonds or some of the catch-and-release methods, dealing with food safety and biosecurity but also some of the vagaries around pollination.

Obviously, many of us would know that pollination is a vital necessity when it comes to good food production and the amount of pollination needed to have a successful crop. We know that the bee industry is dealing with a number of disease issues at the moment, and that has certainly impacted on the supply of bees to that industry. It is right across the board, actually. Any broadacre horticulture is dealing with some of those vagaries. I think all of that was explained pretty well by Brendan, by Drew and by Caren, and I think people went away with a much better understanding of some of the challenges but at the same time what preparation was needed to deal with some of the challenges living on the edge of a river.

Also, I think it needs to be said that we moved on to RNR Farms. Richie Roberts is a good friend of mine, and the farm that we visited was my old citrus orchard. We saw a little bit of citrus there, but the majority of the farm has now been converted to protected cropping. Underneath that protection is, of course, as the member for Mawson has said, a very valuable commodity now, blueberries.

Blueberries are very labour intensive, with huge inputs, because all of the plants are grown in bags hydroponically and it has to be very closely monitored. Those plants are watered up to eight times a day. It has to be kept away from frost, it has to be kept away from sun and wind and it has to be kept away from birds. We saw there, when we looked at the expanse of that property under cover, the inputs that went into that.

We were also lucky enough to visit the pack house to look at what are very small berries. You have to pick a lot of them to make a tonne. I know that Richie is approaching some 30 tonnes per year, and that is a significant production line that he has achieved in quite a small amount of time. That does show what the region is about, and that is diversity, adopting technology, adopting new techniques.

We are now seeing more and more crops going under cover, dealing with the vagaries of climate, dealing with the challenges with growing a successful crop. Richie has protected those crops a number of times from significant hail and from significant sun damage as well as achieving water savings under that cover. I think that was also a very valuable visit and a valuable exercise.

As was stated, the brand that those blueberries come under is an international brand, Driscoll, that is also supported by the Costa Group which is a massive employer in the Riverland in many, many industries—not only citrus, avocados and berries but we are looking at table grapes, mushrooms and quite a varied range of horticultural commodities. That business is quite valued and varied so that they can deal with the vagaries of commodity prices and weather impacts. I think it really was a very valuable exercise.

I did not visit the Loxton Research Centre but, as has been stated, I am very pleased that the former government saw fit to reinvest into the research centre. We have seen a conversion, in conjunction with the federal government, from the old research centre—which has now been turned into a business centre—and the newly-built research centre, which is now a control centre, by and large, for fruit fly, the world's most invasive pest or insect. The region is really struggling at the moment to keep that pest under control.

Sadly, we are seeing a significant continuation of outbreaks. For those of you who do not know, the majority of these outbreaks are being detected in people's backyards; they are not in commercial orchards. What we are seeing and experiencing is extreme hardship with the cost in treating fruit to get it to market. The reputation that the region has as a pest-free area is now being questioned by some of our international markets.

Every Riverlander is playing their part, every grower is suffering the consequences of many of those detections being in people's backyards. I would urge people in their backyards to pick up fallen fruit and to make sure that they manage those few trees that they have in their backyards because it is impacting on many, many hundreds of thousands, if not millions of trees that are commercial businesses that are being dragged down by a few trees that are being impacted by the Queensland fruit fly.

Along the way, the Natural Resources Committee visited Calperum, which is managed by the Australian Landscape Trust. Currently, the interconnector is going past that station, so it is changing the view of the landscape. There were many other opportunities and the committee saw the construction of the levee banks, the 38 kilometres that needed to be either upgraded or rebuilt to keep Renmark safe and dry. I think the community and local government have done a great job in rallying together the local businesses that came together and built the levees successfully to keep the community dry and safe.

I commend the Natural Resources Committee for going up to the Riverland for a fact-finding mission, and I am hoping that, under invitation, we will see them again in the not-too-distant future.

The Hon. L.W.K. BIGNELL (Mawson) (11:23): I would like to thank the member for Chaffey for his contribution and, again, pay tribute to the passion that he shows for his community along the river, and all the really hard work that he and other members along the river have undertaken in the past six months during the time of the high-water event and flooding that they have gone through. I wish them and all of their communities the best in the recovery post floods.

Motion carried.