17/09/2008 - 22:00

Ord expansion likely

17/09/2008 - 22:00

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ONCE a political white elephant, the proposed stage two expansion of the Ord River irrigation system could yet be revived, thanks to the National Party's strong showing in the recent state election.

ONCE a political white elephant, the proposed stage two expansion of the Ord River irrigation system could yet be revived, thanks to the National Party's strong showing in the recent state election.

The proposed $200 million expansion of the Ord irrigation area has been on the backburner for a number of years, after a state government expressions of interest campaign failed to produce a viable economic model for the project.

But the emergence of the Nationals as powerbrokers in the new government, with their $675 million Royalties for Regions scheme and a pledge to lift the ban on the production of genetically modified cotton, has given advocates for the expansion cause for hope.

Ord Irrigation Co-operative chief executive Geoff Strickland said growers had been buoyed by the election result.

"We're a lot more hopeful than we were last week, because the Nationals have had pretty strong policies on developing Ord stage two. If they can convert that into government policy, then that gives us some cause for optimism," Mr Strickland said.

While an expansion of the Ord irrigation area would include a variety of crops, such as rice and hemp, cotton has been identified as a suitable base crop in a series of commercial trials over the past 10 years.

Mr Strickland said lifting the GM cotton ban could provide a catalyst for the expansion.

"For a start, it enables one of the known crop varieties to be available. With [GM] cotton being banned before, it immediately cut out an investment sector, which may have made a difference to the economic viability [of the expansion]," he said.

"From an agricultural point of view, to have a base industry in the area generating income annually is also important. With Indian sandalwood, it takes 15 years or more to harvest, whereas cotton is a good cash crop."

Other possible scenarios include a revival of the sugar industry, following last year's closure of the Ord sugar mill.

Mr Strickland said the project would require both public and private investment, with the latter more likely to come from major eastern states-based producers, such as Colly Cotton and Queensland Cotton.

He said the former government's position that an expansion would not be economically viable was also questionable.

"I guess there's a bit of scepticism in the local community about that because there were issues that were never addressed," Mr Strickland said.

"The government appeared to want one developer to do the whole lot, whereas we believe it should be a partnership between all the interested parties."

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