South Australian forest growers looking to expand in Victoria because of water restrictions

Water in the lower Limestone Coast, a region home to more than 150,000 hectares of commercial plantations, comes from aquifers and is meted out by the State Government through the 2013 Water Allocation Plan.

Forestry was included in the region’s plan in 2014, and growers had to buy licences to offset the impact plantations had on groundwater reserves.

But up to a quarter of forests in the region did not secure licences, meaning growers are now looking to Victoria to replant once those forests in South Australia are harvested.

Across the border in Victoria, the forestry industry does not need to buy water licences for its plantations.

OneFortyOne — which operates the largest sawmill in the South Australia — is one of the growers calling for changes to the way water is managed.

Chief executive Linda Sewell said “there’s a lot of money” to be spent on forestry in the Limestone Coast, but the size of the plantation estate could prevent growth.

“We need to put more trees in the ground and to put more trees in the ground, we need water,” she said.

According to ABARES data from 2016, more than 5,500 people were directly employed in the forestry sector in South Australia and most of those were in the state’s south east.

Brad Coates, the district secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), said timber industry jobs tended to cluster around plantation areas.

He said over time, if forest growers shifted to Victoria, jobs based in South Australia would move across too.

“The biggest impact will be when another state government says, ‘We’re going to get serious about increasing our plantation estate’ … you’ll find that the downstream processing and value-adding will be established in those regions, rather than [South Australia],” he said.

Growers to raise water issues in inquiry
Concerns over the amount of water available to the forestry industry come as an independent review of the science underpinning the Water Allocation Plan enters its final stages of peer review.

The 2013 plan said water allocation cuts — in the plan as a whole — were due to take place in 2016, 2018, 2020 and 2022.

However, the cuts were put on hold pending the review.

The State Government said it would not comment on the forestry-specific issues until the independent review process was completed.

Meanwhile, South Australia’s Parliament started a separate inquiry earlier this year to investigate issues in the timber industry in the Limestone Coast.

The inquiry was prompted by concerns about the amount of timber exported overseas, but the terms of reference include how to grow the industry and secure log supply for South Australian processors.

Ms Sewell and Mr Coates said water restrictions in the Limestone Coast would be one of the key issues the forestry sector raises at the inquiry.