Ord Stage 2 delay a blow to the East Kimberley

NEWS that the $500 million expansion of the Ord River Irrigation scheme has been delayed by yet another year for still more feasibility studies is frustrating farmers and the nearby towns of Kununurra and Wyndham.

The Wesfarmers Marubeni joint venture has been given another 12 months to undertake its studies by the WA and NT governments.

The joint venture wants to develop 30,500 hectares of land north east of Kununurra to develop a 400,000 tonne a year raw sugar industry in the region.

At its zenith, Ord Stage 2 is expected to involve the irrigation and cultivation of 60,000 hectares over 20 to 30 years.

Produce from the fully developed project is expected to be worth $450 million to $500 million a year, in today’s value.

Kimberley farmers are upset because the Ord expansion has been on the drawing board since 1990.

Wesfarmers’ project manager, Andrew Hopkins warned Business News that Ord Stage 2 was still ‘ no fait accompli.’

One bitter sugar farmer said: “There is only one real problem here – the goal posts always seem to be moving. It is just further political delaying tactics.”

He said a broad acre crop would be required to get it up and running quickly and sugar may not be the best crop to use.

World sugar prices while buoyant at the moment at more than US 10¢ per pound had been abnormally low up to June this year due to over supply.

A huge variety of other horticultural and primary agricultural crops are already a proven success grown under irrigation in the region

Mr Hopkins said although the recovery of sugar prices in the second half of the year was comforting, “the volatility of sugar prices movements remains high relative to many other commodities – and that remains a major issue in our assessment of the project.”

Another East Kimberley farmer, Greg Cummings who has 700 hectares under sugar in Ord Stage One said sugar prices are not bad but they are not all that good either.

“Still I’d like to see the scheme finished,” Mr Cummings said.

He said the area had already shown it could successfully grow a significant and wide range of crops under irrigation from cotton, sugar, bananas and grain crops to hybrid seed, chick peas, melons, mangoes, potatoes tomatoes and salad greens and vegetables and leecaena pastures for growing and finishing beef cattle for export.

Recent research trials into cotton using genetically engineered varieties had shown cotton crops in particular benefited from a regular supply of irrigation water. It was expected trials would be scaled up prior to the development and release of Ord Stage Two.

The extended investigations also puts on hold the provision of related infrastructure, roads, power lines, a proposed new sugar mill and a vital new irrigation channel from Lake Kununurra to the northeast.

The scheme will generate an estimated 500 jobs in the construction stage and eventually bring a further 500 employment opportunities to the region and with them a big population increase.

Besides helping the agriculture, this new infrastructure is expected to give the Kimberley’s tourism industry a fillip.

Ord Project Coordinator Peter McCosker said tourism, worth about $50 million per year to the region, and irrigated agriculture were the two main industries in the Kimberley.

“The facilities in Kununurra would probably not be here if it was only one or the other industry in place,” Mr McCosker said.

“I expect as Stage 2 gets going, accommodation and other facilities will be put in place that will help boost tourism.”

Kununurra was only established in 1960 in order to service the Ord River Irrigation Scheme and the building of the Diversion Dam.

Australian Bureau of Statistics projections predict population in the Kimberley will blow out from around 28,000 now to 36,000 mainly younger people by 2011. .

The Stage 2 irrigation plan means the ‘greening’ of a vast tract of barren East Kimberley earth

The new proposals cover development of an area of land north east of Kununurra in the Weaber, Keep River and Knox Creek Plains in WA and into the NT.

Ord Stage 2 would be particularly significant to the Port of Wyndham on which the new sugar industry mainly for export would be expected to centre.

It has long been touted that when complete, the combined scheme would become the future ‘Food bowl for Asia.’

But Ord River Coop and Kimberley Development Commission chairman George Gardiner said the realities of shipping produce out of Wyndham made exports unrealistic.

“There have been some trial shipments of mangoes and melons into the Middle East,” he said.

“This is a high-priced market but small and hard to access.

“We have to tranship the produce to Perth and from there to the Middle East. There’s just not enough produce to justify sending a ship specifically to pick it up.”

The network of irrigated farms was brought about by the damming of the Ord River in 1971 and the flooding of the famous Durack family-owned million-acre Argyle Downs Cattle station to create Lake Argyle.

The ongoing Ord 2 study will also seek Federal Government environ-mental approvals as well as negotiating settlement on Native Title issues.

Dr Gardiner said it was important the development be allowed to proceed generally. “Locals believe, and I am one of them, that the people executing the controls have gone a bit over the top,” he said.

Many of the regulators involved in the decision making process have found it difficult as they did not properly understand the complexities of the region.

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