THE ongoing government program to buy back water from irrigators for environmental purposes is having a devastating impact on the Balonne Shire in southern Queensland, where the shrinking irrigation industry threatens the long-term viability of local communities.
More than 40 gigalitres of water have been recovered from irrigators in the Condamine/Balonne catchments to date under the voluntary buyback scheme, and there is more to come.
St George and the smaller towns of Dirranbandi and Hebel are feeling the pinch, not only from the long-running drought, but also the sell-off of water licences that has led to a dramatic cut-back in irrigation hectares.
In particular, the district is reeling from the news that one of the biggest operators, Ballandool Station near Hebel, has relinquished its flood-harvesting licence, effectively knocking out 2800 hectares of irrigated cotton country in one hit.
Add that to the many partial buybacks that have been occurring throughout the area, and locals are becoming concerned about the long-term impact on the local economy.
St George and District Chamber of Commerce vice-chairman and Vanderfield branch manager John Travers said any permanent loss of irrigation hectares would affect the whole community.
"We don't want it to be seen that the industry is collapsing and everyone is walking away. That is certainly not the case. But it is a bump in the road," he said.
"We have poor commodity prices at the moment and have had a string of average seasons when it comes to water, and that is really what is driving this.
"People are just trying to stabilise their positions and get some cash flow going [by selling water]. It is understandable that they are looking at what they need to do to survive.
"Unfortunately, what has been provided to them is an avenue that will hurt the towns and local district in the long term."
The impact of the cut-backs is being felt particularly hard by the contractors and suppliers who rely on the irrigation industry for their livelihoods.
For Jason and Samantha O'Toole, who operate the aerial spraying business Balonne Airwork at St George, the loss of the Ballandool enterprise alone has been a significant blow to their business.
"We normally do an average of 11 applications a year on that farm. It adds up to about 100,000 acres (40,000ha) to us or almost a quarter of our business," Ms O'Toole said.
"We can go and take business from our competitor, but the whole 'pie' of the business that is available in the shire has just got smaller for everybody, so it is not a positive thing."
Ms O'Toole said there was a wide cross-section of contracting businesses like theirs that were affected.
"It won't be just us - it will be the truck drivers, the pickers, the planters, the ginning staff, and the people who provide agronomy services and chemicals who will be impacted.
"It has a really big flow-on to the community which, for the Dirranbandi and Hebel district, is devastating.
"With 15 to 20 jobs being lost from the area between all of us, it is a massive impact for a small community."
Ms O'Toole said the community was yet to come to terms with the long-term ramifications of the cut-backs.
"I think the drought is in the forefront of people's minds at the moment, and the buyback is a quiet sleeper. When it rains again and things come good, it will never be as good as it was previously.
"It is the ongoing impact that concerns me, and how people cope with the pie shrinking in our district."
Dirran Ag Spares owner Peter McCosker said he had already noticed the impact of the buybacks on his Dirranbandi business, which was almost totally reliant on agriculture.
"There are three irrigators here who have sold their licences back to the government, including Ballandool, which was one of our major clients, and we have noticed a fairly drastic impact on our business," he said.
"We have made huge investments in this town. We employ up to seven people when it is going well.
"With the drought we are back to three.
"We will start employing people again when the drought breaks, but it will never get back to where it was."