WELL-intentioned as a way to boost Manjimup-Pemberton agriculture production and create jobs, an irrigation scheme proposal has divided the local farming community years before a drop of water is due to be delivered.
A $39.7 million allocation in April, approved by the previous Federal cabinet, announced during the May election campaign and reported in Farm Weekly, lifted government support so far for the Southern Forests Irrigation Scheme (SFIS) to $59m.
But it dissipated none of the rancour, which saw 322 people sign a petition tabled in State parliament in November calling for an independent review of public consultation and economic and environmental issues associated with the SFIS.
Sale of the remaining 1440 megalitres of scheme water by the Southern Forests Irrigation Co-operative (SFIC), probably before the end of the year, may draw more landowners into the support camp, but is unlikely to transfer any from the opposition camp.
According to a spokesperson for Regional Development, Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan, the project is designed to deliver a maximum 9235 megalitres to paying customers who must be both landowners within the Manjimup-Pemberton scheme area and members of the SFIC.
During "an open and transparent public water sales process" over three months in late 2017 and early last year, according to the spokesperson, 70 landowners signed 90 contracts for a total of 7795ML of scheme water - some own multiple properties and have contracts for each.
They paid more than $200,000 as a two per cent deposit on the contracts and are due to pay a further 8pc when a formal decision is taken by the SFIC to proceed with the scheme.
The balance of their contracted amount will fall due when SFIS water arrives at their properties, possibly in about four years' time.
In the meantime, deposit money is sitting in a trust account and will be refunded if the SFIS does not go ahead.
The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) - which comes under both Environment Minister Stephen Dawson and Water Minister Dave Kelly - is also involved and has attracted much local criticism.
Despite DWER's involvement, the Department of Primary Industry and Regional Development (DPIRD), under Ms MacTiernan, is overseeing the SFIS project being run by the SFIC which is headed by a board comprising six local orchardists, truffle growers and cattle producers.
DWER administers a licence system, referred to as "self supply", which entitles landowners who apply and pay for a licence to capture some surface water on their land and store it in farm dams for their own use.
A form of licence known as variable-take is favoured by farmers because it allows them to capture and store more water in a wet year.
Manjimup shire's food production, calculated to be worth $230m a year, has been built on self-supply licensed surface water capture and storage.
Since 2012 self-supply water allocation limits for 25 subregions in the Warren and Donnelly rivers catchments have been set by the Warren-Donnelly surface water allocation plan, administered by DWER.
According to DWER, surface water is fully allocated in some Donnelly River subregions and underutilised by as much as 30-50pc in others.
Winter stream flows pumped from the Donnelly River into a storage dam are proposed to provide scheme water for the SFIS.
An off-take weir up to four metres high and a pump station is proposed to be built on the river near the junction of Record Brook in Donnelly State Forest, Glenoran, west of Manjimup.
Further up Record Brook Gully, 160 hectares of mainly Karri forest and Jarrah-Marri woodland in the State forest - noted as typical black cockatoo habitat in an application last year to the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) - is to be cleared to construct a 15,000ML storage dam behind a 30-metre high earth and rock wall.
The stored water is proposed to be pumped to 60ML and 45ML capacity header dams on adjacent ridge lines north and south to feed into a 250 kilometre network of underground pipes to deliver it to paying customers, some up to almost 40 kilometres away.
According to DWER, water for the SFIS will come from "undeveloped, forested areas upstream" of the weir, but will also include much of the currently unused surface water allocations in the Middle Donnelly and Upper Donnelly subregions.
Responding to an application by the SFIC, DWER conducted a review of water allocations last year and commissioned a new hydrological model to predict Donnelly River flows over the next 30 years, incorporating data from additional stream logger locations, including at Chappel's Bridge and Story Road.
The hydrological model was built by Hydrology and Risk Consulting and was independently peer reviewed by Eco9Logical Australia under best practise guidelines.
On its website DWER confirms the model shows there will be sufficient water in the river to maintain environmental flows, to meet current self-supply use and to provide an additional 15,000ML for the SFIS, despite a drying climate and allowing for continued diminishing rainfall and stream flows, in line with trends going back to the 1950s.
The hydrological model will be a significant component of an extensive scoping document being prepared for the SFIC as part of an environmental approvals process involving both EPA and DWER and expected to take 12-18 months.
In April, in response to an overwhelming number of submissions requesting it, the EPA determined the SFIS application will be considered by public environmental review (PER), its highest level of scrutiny.
The PER process will involve a six-week public exhibition and comment period before a recommendation is made to Mr Dawson for a final decision.
In December DWER announced new self-supply allocation limits for the Upper Donnelly and Middle Donnelly sub regions to ensure water security into the future for the SFIS.
The Upper Donnelly limit was slashed by 76pc - from 4058ML a year under the 2012 plan, back to 951ML/y from December 18.
According to DWER, this still allows an extra 700ML/y to be allocated above the currently licensed self-supply in the Upper Donnelly.
The previous Middle Donnelly and Record Brook sub regions were merged, with a combined self-supply allocation of 3359ML/y reduced to 2104ML/y, still 350ML/y above current Middle Donnelly usage, according to DWER.
DWER also announced the creation of a 15,000ML reserve in the Middle Donnelly, specifically for the SFIS.
But it was DWER's actions as it reviewed Donnelly River self-supply allocations that really upset SFIS opponents and created a perception for them that DWER was putting SFIC members' paid water ahead of ordinary landowner self-supply entitlements.
DWER imposed a 12-month moratorium on new variable-take licences while it reviewed allocations, ostensibly to prevent an anticipated flood of new applications immediately before the review from creating an inaccurate picture of long-term water demand.
During the moratorium 11 self-supply applications were rejected.
Technically, the moratorium ended last November, but a DWER spokesperson has confirmed "no further variable-take licences are being issued at this stage to allow time for DWER to assess the impact of current variable take licences on water availability".
This has angered SFIS opponents such as John Kilrain, who works in the fresh produce industry and owns a block on Graphite Road amongst some of the region's bigger apple growers and SFIS supporters.
Mr Kilrain and other landowners fear they are being locked out of future legal access to water running across their properties in winter so it can be collected, stored and sold to a small number of commercial operations prepared to pay more for it than DWER would receive through self-supply licence fees.
They point to decisions in the past few years where they consider DWER's "inconsistent" handling of self-supply applications is evidence of "favouritism" towards a select few.
In one instance, they claim an elderly farmer had a licence taken off him by DWER because he did not have sufficient storage capacity, but another landowner who has connections to the SFIS, holds a licence to capture more water than can be retained on the property.
What really annoys them is they see their rights to a share of the water on their land being subjugated to the SFIS which they believe will not provide water at a viable price for orchardists and producers.
According to Mr Kilrain, the local growers' rule-of-thumb is that if water has to be pumped more than once to be used on crops, it becomes too expensive because of slim profit margins on many horticulture lines.
"They (SFIC) are proposing to pump it at least three times - from the river up to the storage dam, from the storage dam up to the header dams, then through the pipes to customers who will probably have to pump it again themselves from their receival point to where they want to use it," Mr Kilrain said.
"I can't see how the cost (of buying scheme water and getting it onto a crop) could be economic for growers, it'll be too expensive for them to use," he said.
A business case detailing the SFIC's proposed costs and estimated income from annual fees and water sales, including the likely cost of the water, which formed part of the successful application for Federal funds, has not been made public.
In November, Ms MacTiernan said she would be happy to release the business case, including a cost-benefit analysis for the SFIS, once Federal cabinet had approved it.
Recently her spokesperson said: "While the Federal government announced during the election campaign that it has approved funding for the project, we are yet to receive any formal confirmation of this funding from the newly-elected government.
"We will consider the release of the cost-benefit analysis once that process is complete," the spokesperson said.
Greens MLC for the South West Diane Evers, who is also The Greens' spokeswoman on water, regional development and agriculture and food from an animal welfare perspective, has backed opponents of the SFIS, describing it as "unfair".
"Of 452 agricultural businesses in the Southern Forests Region, only (70) have chosen to join the SFIS, with farm-owners' pledges of $10m to be eclipsed by $59m of taxpayer funding," Ms Evers said.
"As a result, the scheme will see a minority of local landowners subsidised by significant government support based on stakeholders' ability to buy-in, with others along the pipeline only able to access the water by purchasing it off their neighbours," she said.
"At its core, this is a scheme of inequity and unfairness, with original claims about its benefits to jobs growth constantly being revised downward."
Manjimup Shire Council is represented on a committee, along with the South West Development Commission, local growers and DPIRD, formed in 2015 to advise DWER on aspects relating to water supply and the SFIS project.
According to shire president Paul Omodei, the council passed a formal motion supporting the SFIS on condition it did not adversely affect other landowners' access to water.
Mr Omodei, whose son Justin is a SFIC director and the family's Pemberton vineyard and orchard property is expected to benefit from the SFIS, said he was one of five out of 11 Manjimup councillors to declare a pecuniary interest and not vote on the motion.
Only two councillors voted against it, he said.
Mr Omodei pointed out the SFIS project was based on agriculture water supply schemes developed by Tasmanian Irrigation since it was created in 2008.
Tasmanian Irrigation has 15 schemes designed to last 100 years with 95pc water reliability operating across the top half of the State and the southern apple-growing region.
It received $100m from the previous Federal cabinet in April and the Tasmanian government promised a further $70m for a third stage development proposing a further 10 schemes to provide an estimated extra 78,000ML of water for agriculture.
"It (SFIS) is a no brainer," Mr Omodei said.
"They (Tasmanian horticulturalists) are in the same game as us and we want a piece of that (irrigation) action.
"Yes, scheme water might cost about the same per megalitre as getting a licence and building your own dam, but it comes with the security of knowing that the water will actually be there when you need it.
"The storage dam will also be a major bonus for the shire with recreational activities - such as water skiing - even with the full allocation taken out there will still be almost 6000ML of water left in it which is a big area," he said.
SFIC chairman Harvey Giblett, 75, who runs the family's Manjimup apple and pear growing and exporting businesses Newton's Orchards and Valley View Organics, one of the largest fruit growing and packing enterprises in the State, has borne the brunt of innuendo and anger about the SFIS.
Last month daughter Nicole took to Facebook to defend her father and to demand that "incorrect, derogatory and potentially defamatory" references on social media and "in political circles" in relation to her father, family businesses and the SFIS cease.
But Mr Giblett, who has just overseen his 54th apple season, is undeterred and confident the SFIS is the right move for the area.
Contrary to rumours, all of the SFIC members who have signed water contracts are private or family-owned farms, he said.
"There's no corporates or financiers that are going to take over all the water," Mr Giblett said.
"There's some large ones (horticulture operations) in there, but about half the contracts are for 50ML or smaller."
Mr Giblett confirmed the intention was to sell the remaining water "before Christmas" using the same process as last year, with the sale widely promoted beforehand.
All of the SFIC directors were "very approachable" if anyone wanted information on the SFIC, he said.
While the environmental approval process was expected to take 12-18 months, Mr Giblett said the SFIC would be working to finalise engineering designs for the storage dam and other infrastructure in the meantime.
When asked about his support for the SFIS, Mr Giblett said he had "always been interested in water" and having it available when needed most.
"Our properties are at the top of the catchment, so if it doesn't rain, we have no water,'' he said.
"It's been an interest my entire life."