WA vegetable growers fear water licence fees will force many to leave horticultural industry

Landsdale Strawberry Farm manager Anthony Lieu. Photo: Martin Kennealey
Landsdale Strawberry Farm manager Anthony Lieu. Photo: Martin Kennealey

GROUPS representing fruit and vegetable growers are lobbying against potential introduction of application fees for water licences.

The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation released a discussion paper earlier this year investigating cost recovery, which horticultural groups say could see growers charged up to $10,000 to apply for, or make changes to, water licences.

UPDATE, December 19: In public consultation workshops held across the State, the department’s fee structure for mining and public water supply indicated water licence assessment costs ranging from $4000 to $8900 for a licence of 10-year duration, with the higher cost applicable for large-volume licences in high-risk areas for mining and public water supply.

EARLIER: vegetablesWA, in association with WA Farmers, WA Citrus, Pome West, Wines of WA and WA Potatoes, developed a joint response to the discussion paper opposing the fees.

Chief executive John Shannon said the fees would have a severe impact on hundreds of small business owners, forcing many to leave the industry.

“Many horticulture businesses are only marginally profitable – the average return on capital of the bottom 25 per cent of participating growers was negative 6 per cent,” he said.

“The introduction of charges will have a hugely significant impact on current horticultural businesses, supply chains, the availability of locally produced fruit and vegetables in WA, and further investment in the industry and state.

“To support WA growers and the horticultural industry, the government needs to abandon these proposed cost recovery charges.”

The department’s executive director of regional delivery Paul Brown said in WA, unlike other states, there had been no fees to assess water licence and permit applications before the introduction of fees for the mining and public water supply sectors this year.

“The costs of these assessments were borne by the Western Australian taxpayer,” he said, adding the department spent about $14 million a year to assess applications.

Carabooda grower Anthony Lieu said the licence fees would add “another cost to already low margins”.

“We aren’t trying to be millionaires; we just want to grow fresh produce,” he said.

“I’ve spoken to a few other growers – the margins aren’t there for us to continue.

“With increasing costs, some don’t want to do it anymore.

“Right now where we are sitting is as far as the limits can take us in terms of the limits for costs.

“Adding more costs to everything is going to hurt the industry.

“If there are no farmers, we will have to import food.”

Mr Brown said the fees for mining and public water supply sectors were calculated to recover the cost – about $720,000 annually – incurred by the department in assessing water licences and permits.

He said the department had been consulting the community since August about extending the fees to other sectors, but not proposed a set charge.

“The consultation included discussion about the potential for full or partial cost recovery,” he said.

“No decision has been made by the State Government on water licence fees for other water use sectors, including agriculture and horticulture.

“The feedback provided during public consultation will be considered in any decision.”

Growers face increasing pressures

ANTHONY Lieu said his father Van Chi Lieu had been growing fruit and vegetables for about 15 years.

They rent about 40 acres (16.2ha) to grow strawberries, capsicum, tomatoes and eggplants.

Mr Lieu said his father used to run the business, Landsdale Strawberry Farm, in Landsdale but had relocated when housing built up there.

“We had to move further and further out,” he said.

The grower said his family’s long term goal was to buy their own land but escalating costs were making it harder to achieve.

“There’s already heaps of costs associated with growing,” he said.

As well as increasing costs, Mr Lieu said growers were concerned their water allocation could be cut.

“Not only are there going to be more costs; there’s going to be less water to use as well,” he said.

Mr Lieu said growers already used efficient watering methods, such as drip irrigation for strawberries, to ensure they were not overwatering.

The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation’s Paul Brown said Perth’s annual rainfall average had dropped from 800mm up to 1990 to 670mm from 2000 to 2017.

“This means many water allocations are based on higher rainfall than we now have,” he said.

“Groundwater use is now greater than recharge from rainfall, causing groundwater levels to drop.”

The department plans to release a Gnangara groundwater allocation plan for comment in the first half of 2019.

Mr Brown said it would invite all licensed groundwater users north of the Swan River and west of the Darling Scarp to comment.