A decade ago, Mick Punturiero had grown to be South Australia's biggest lime producer and was doing all the right things. He employed the latest water conservation technology. What water he did not need he donated back to the state for environmental usage. Even so, he could see where the increasing demands on the Murray would lead. He recalls warning a state official in the late 1990s, "You need to stop this development. We're poorly managing our water resources."
He remembers the official's words as if uttered yesterday: "Mick, you can't control progress."
Then came the drought, which began like any other, in 2002. But it has not ended, and now the binge is over. Though dryland farmers who depend on rain have watched their corn and wheat fields dwindle into dust plains, they at least have been accustomed to braving parched seasons. By contrast, "irrigated farmers have always had water, and never in their wildest dreams did they think somebody would turn the tap off," says rural financial counselor Don Seward. But as the drought advanced, the allocations have plummeted: 95 percent. Then 50. Then 32. And now, in Mick Punturiero's case, back to 16 percent.
"The river's no different from the highways every Australian pays for through his taxes," he argues. "Every Australian has paid for the locks. We've paid for the Dartmouth Dam, which was supposed to drought-proof South Australia. So why don't you give me my full allocation? Give it to me! It's rightfully mine!"
Punturiero sees himself as the faithful caretaker of land that the Australian government gave to reward the service of young men who died on the sands of Gallipoli. He sees that land as a gold ingot that the government has turned into a lump of lead. He sees powerful interests profiting at his expense. He sees new irrigators downriver sucking the system dry. He also sees fellow farmers much like his grandfather, who never bothered to put a dime into savings, tumbling into insolvency. Or committing suicide. And he understands their bottomless despair. He feels it himself at times—"boxed into a corner," he says in a suddenly depleted voice, "and I can't defend my family no more."
But fury returns. Anger is all Mick Punturiero has at the moment. He will not go down without a fight—that he pledges: "You won't see me crawling off the farm on me hands and knees—not unless I see some bloody heads roll first!"