By Michael Giles

THE China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA), which was signed on June 17, 2015 in Canberra by Australian Minister for Trade and Investment, Andrew Robb, presents great opportunities for a firm like Burra Foods.
But the fact is, Korumburra and the people of South Gippsland are being prevented from participating in the prosperity that could flow from this game-changing agreement by one thing – water.
“We see the lack of water as a retardant to increasing the site’s capacity rather than restricting the capacity of our current manufacturing. Dairy processing, particularly nutritional (infant) milk powders requires extreme levels of hygiene and this places high demand on water availability,” said a spokesperson for Burra Foods this week.
In other words, the plant can go along happily as it is, employing 150 people and 20 sub-contractors, using up to 1 million litres of water-a-day.
But millions of dollars’ worth of investment and a major local jobs boost simply cannot go ahead until the State Government and South Gippsland Water comes to the party and invests in the necessary infrastructure.
South Gippsland Water’s bid for a $21 million connection to Lance Creek (the Northern Towns Project), the desal plant and ultimately to the Melbourne Water system; was to be the silver bullet.
However, having failed to fund it themselves, the National Party this week moved to blame the new Andrews Government for it.
Here’s what successor to Peter Ryan in Gippsland South, Danny O’Brien had to say this week:
“The Melbourne Labor Government has confirmed it is not supporting South Gippsland Water’s Northern Towns Project, threatening future water supplies for Korumburra, Loch, Nyora and Poowong.”
The Nationals Member for Gippsland South Danny O’Brien asked a question in Parliament recently about Labor’s support for the proposal, which he said was responded to “with a three paragraph statement confirming the Government would not support the project”.
“However it suggested that, in effect, the same proposal was still being considered by the government and South Gippsland Water.”
Mr O’Brien said he was disappointed that “Melbourne Labor” was sending “mixed signals about securing water supplies for Korumburra, Loch, Nyora and Poowong and growing industry, in particular Burra Foods.
“Burra Foods employs a large number of local people and to ensure that it can continue to create additional jobs for locals, it needs to know that there is going to be a reliable water supply available into the future,” Mr O’Brien said.
“The company is a strong driver of the Korumburra, South Gippsland and Victorian economy, so it is vital that Burra Foods can continue to expand.”
Mr O’Brien said Labor’s response suggested South Gippsland Water was currently investigating options for the towns, one of which was connecting to the Lance Creek Reservoir and thence the Melbourne supply, which is basically the Northern Towns Project.
“The Nationals in Government assisted South Gippsland Water to formulate the business case and were supportive of the project,” Mr O’Brien said.
“Labor needs to get on board and make it clear where it stands on securing supplies.
“With growth at Burra Foods and population growth in the future, business as usual is not an option.”
Mr O’Brien said Labor’s decision to sack all members of water boards had also thrown a spanner in the works and was making it harder for South Gippsland Water to plan future direction.
“This important project that will enable development in these towns to progress should be supported by Labor.”
He got that right at least.

Reconsideration
So the Sentinel-Times asked South Gippsland Water about the status of the Northern Towns Project:
“South Gippsland Water has developed its Northern Towns Connection proposal to link Korumburra with water from the Lance Creek reservoir. However without funding, and due to financial sustainability risks and customer affordability, South Gippsland Water will need to review other potential solutions for securing water reliability for towns in this northern region. Other potential solutions could include dam augmentation or other surface water networking options.
“The Northern Towns Connection remains the Corporation’s preferred option due to it being more cost effective over the longer term (50 years) and it being less susceptible to climate variability. However, in light of the current process to review all Victorian Water Corporation Board appointments, the various options will require a full review by the incoming board.
“South Gippsland Water will continue to manage Korumburra’s water supply with the use of supplementary supplies from the Tarwin River when required.”
SG Water claimed the reservoirs are at 87 per cent capacity; Coalition/No.1 (118ML of 143ML cap), Ness Gully/No.2 (64ML of 73ML cap) and Bellview/No.3 (320ML of 359ML); 87 per cent of capacity or 502ML of 575ML.

Frustration
But local construction company executive, John Anthony doubts that capacity is anything like that.
“They don’t know how much water they have. Every dam in Australia silts up at one time or another and I would estimate their dams are holding as much as half of their advertised capacity,” Mr Anthony said this week.
He said if South Gippsland Water was looking for a more cost-effective solution, they could dredge the dams for $2m-$3m or raise the wall for $14m-$15m.
“If we don’t have water, how the hell are we ever going to do anything in Korumburra. Water is the elixir of life, it’s everything,” Mr Anthony said.
“I have no doubt that if Burra Foods had the water, they’d double the capacity of their factory in Korumburra.
“It’s crazy. They built that reservoir in 1952 for a population of 500 people but they’ve got ten times that now and the storages are half filled with silt.”
Mr Anthony said the reservoirs were actually overflowing on June 1, 2015 with all that excess water let go down the creek.

Disappointment
Burra Foods is clearly disappointed by the lack of action:
“One of the reasons South Gippsland is the premier milk production area in Australia is the high rainfall we receive. But what we are living with is outdated water infrastructure that requires investment.
“Despite being in the proximity of the Melbourne water network and the Wonthaggi desal plant, the Korumburra reservoir is not able to access this network and relies on runoff, which for many months of the year is inadequate to meet demand.
“It is considered a ‘quick to fill, quick to empty’ system and has doubtlessly lost capacity over the years due to silt build up. The proposed pipeline to join Korumburra with the Lance Creek reservoir would provide a new source of water and satisfy future demand from the Korumburra community, including Burra Foods and other industries.”
On possible developments at Burra Foods:
“The opportunities that emerging markets, particularly China with the Free Trade Agreement, offer is well recognised. Burra Foods is a speciality manufacturer and we constantly evaluate ways to maximise the opportunities offered by the market to expand our business. A number of these projects would be restricted due to an insecure source of water.
“Burra Foods has invested heavily in infrastructure, partnering with the state government to install an underground high voltage power line which improved electrical capacity for the entire community, but we still believe South Gippsland suffers from poor infrastructure, particularly roads for efficient port access and bandwidth for speedy Internet.
“It’s particularly disappointing to see the National Broadband Network (NBN) in the region but still out of our reach, meaning that we have to tolerate very slow connection for the foreseeable future. To be competitive in global markets requires first rate infrastructure and South Gippsland still has a lot of catching up to do.”
Burra Foods is however delighted that the Karmai Children’s Centre in Korumburra has been given the go-ahead:
“Many of our staff travel from outside the region to work at Korumburra and community services, such as childcare and schools, are fundamental in being able to attract the right people”.
For the record, the ALP Member for Easter Victoria, Harriet Shing is in favour of the Northern Towns Project, has met with Burra Foods and is committed to finding a solution for Korumburra.
“Our first priority must be to deliver on our election promises, then pressing issues, like improving Korumburra’s water supply, can be considered next,” Ms Shing said while visiting the town recently.