Legislative Council: Wednesday, March 22, 2023


Parliamentary Committees

Natural Resources Committee: Riverland Fact-Finding Visit

The Hon. N.J. CENTOFANTI (Leader of the Opposition) (16:39): I move:

That the second report of the Fifty-Fifth Parliament of the committee be noted.

In November of 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. I was pleased to welcome my colleagues on the Natural Resources Committee, the presiding member, being the member for Mawson, and the member for Gibson, to my part of the world. We were also accompanied by the member for Chaffey for part 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 also wanted to hear about the big issues that affected our region—my region—namely, water management and fruit fly.

As the committee prepared for the visit, Australia was experiencing its second wettest spring on record. Communities upstream in Victoria and New South Wales had just experienced heavy rains and consequent flooding and the water was heading our way. Flow projections for South Australia were increasing daily as 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. These events caused the committee to pause and reconsider the timing of the trip, but the member for Chaffey and I reassured the committee that we were eager for them to visit, that they would not be a distraction or burden on the community as they prepared for the high-flow event and, most importantly, that the visit would reiterate to the public that indeed the Riverland was open for business despite the anticipated high flows.

The committee was glad that they listened to our advice as they were able to see the Murray and its flood plains at its most magnificent. Over 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.

On the first day of the visit, 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 DEW in the area. The committee was impressed by the ongoing upgrades being made to the Bookmark Creek area and my colleagues felt privileged to be able to drive across the blocking bank and view the breathtaking Pike Floodplain up close.

The next day we 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, including securing the base of the pump house to stop erosion as the water was due to rise.

When we visited them, they were also concerned about the possibility that they may lose power to their pump house during the floods, preventing them from irrigating their orchard at a key stage in the growing season. Pleasingly, I can report that this did not occur, thanks to some levee work organised before the waters peaked.

The next day, the committee headed to Calperum Station. Calperum is situated on a parcel of former pastoral land the size of Kangaroo Island, which now hosts important ecological work, as well as accommodation, education and training programs and recreational offerings like canoeing. It includes breathtaking stretches of creeks, rivers and wetlands, which provide habitat for a wide range of native flora and fauna.

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.

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 the River Murray and Mallee Aboriginal Corporation do with various stakeholders since they received native title determination back in 2011.

I would like to acknowledge the efforts of Julie Robertson and her team in working hard to further progress Calperum Connect, which is Calperum Station's ecology, education and engagement program. The committee learned about this program, and the biggest barriers to reaching Calperum's potential were explained to the committee as infrastructure limitations. The station's buildings are old and no longer fit for purpose.

Julie and her team, along with Barb Cowey, regional coordinator from PIRSA, have been working extremely hard to develop a master plan and are looking at different grant funding opportunities to help expand the business model and maintain self-sufficiency. I would like to place on the record my support for this program going forward as I believe it will be beneficial for tourism, education and ecology in the Riverland into the future.

During the committee's time in the Riverland, it was fantastic to visit those doing innovative work, like Mr Richie Roberts from RNR Farms. RNR Farms is a relatively new operator in the region, and Richie credits the round 1 and round 3 SARMS grants he received for giving him the courage to grow blueberries on a commercial scale under shade cloth, a fruit not typically associated with the Riverland. His farm now supplies blueberries to all the major South Australian supermarkets. If you pick up a punnet of blueberries with your weekly shop in November and December, chances are they come from RNR Farms. By the way, I can strongly recommend them, having sampled the sweet berries straight from the plant.

We were also able to witness innovative research being carried out at the Australian Almond Centre of Excellence. This national research centre houses a 60-hectare experimental and demonstration orchard. The committee was joined by the CEO of the Almond Board of Australia, Tim Jackson, and SARDI research scientist Mark Skewes. Mark and Tim guided the committee around the orchard, explaining the different field trials in place and the use of technology such as lasers and drones to deter pests. This important research is vital to supporting the whole of the Australian almond industry.

The committee then visited the Loxton Research Centre, a valued research and innovation hub for the region. The committee walked through the experimental farm at the centre and heard about the valuable work being done by PIRSA employing predatory insects rather than pesticides. My colleagues and I were also pleased to hear about their collaborative work with the local community, such as the recent drone challenge with Riverland high schools in which students were asked to respond to a simulated infection on a demonstration citrus orchard.

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. Fruit fly remains a major risk to the Riverland, with growers still being impacted by current outbreaks. Rob and Jason 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 to the local growers. Fruit fly free status not only is a brilliant marketing advantage but it also reduces the cost from spraying and management of the produce.

The final stop on the trip was the Renmark Paringa Council, where the committee spoke with Tarik Wolf and Tim Pfeiffer about the work being done to upgrade the council's 38-kilometre levee system. They demonstrated to the group the sophisticated mapping software being used to examine the levee system, identify levee defects and prioritise remedial work. Renmark's position on the flood plains 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 presents concerns, but landowners realised the gravity of the situation and were cooperative. Land access is something that will need to be considered 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 the committee members and my colleagues on the trip. It was clear that all the people the committee spoke to share a deep love of the region, as do I, 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 with as a group to see how they fared following the peak. It was heartening to hear from Tim Pfeiffer of Renmark Paringa Council that the local community had shown the council great love and support on social media, and it was even more heartening to hear that largely the people the committee visited back in November were spared any significant damage to their properties or livelihoods by the floodwaters.

On behalf of the committee, I would like to thank those who shared their knowledge and experience with us during the trip and the months that followed. I would like to take this opportunity to encourage people to visit the Riverland and take advantage to see the Pike Floodplain, the Murray River flowing and the general beauty born from the wet weather. It is an experience we hopefully will not encounter again for some years, but please come and make the most of the Riverland.

I thank the members of the committee for coming out to the Riverland. I enjoyed sharing my region with you and I thank the committee staff, Alison Meeks and Dr Amy Mead, for arranging the visits. I commend this report to the house.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. I.K. Hunter.