THE Far North's half-billion dollar horticulture industry is in danger of being left high and dry, as water woes stifle the potential for future growth in the Tablelands region.
Five high-value crops being grown in the Mareeba Dimbulah Irrigation Area were the focus of discussion at a recent Mareeba Chamber of Commerce meeting, where industry leaders provided a snapshot of their worth.
Mangoes, avocados, citrus, papaya and banana are collectively worth almost half a billion dollars to the region and there is room for expansion.
However, growers fear the sector will be unable to reach its true potential without access to additional, reliable and affordable water.
About 80 people attended the meeting, making it one of the most well attended business meetings in recent times.
The meeting was told the citrus industry is currently worth $55.7 million, and is home to 124 growers.
About 2300 hectares of avocados are grown in the region, putting production at 4.2m trays and the farmgate value at $164m.
The Tablelands banana industry is worth $100m at the farmgate and $30 to $40 million in Lakeland alone.
The region's mango industry accounts for half of Queensland's production and is worth nearly $75m, while the Tablelands accounts for half of the region's papaya production, across 400-450 acres and with a $31.4m farmgate value.
Mareeba Chamber of Commerce president and Bibhoora mango grower Joe Moro said with growth comes increasing pressure on existing water availability and there was an urgent need for additional water sources.
"Horticulture is a high value crop and while we don't necessarily make huge profit, at the end of the day we spend a lot of money in the community," Mr Moro said.
"We believe there will be a water issue in the region, highlighted in the Dimbulah area where we expect to see significant growth across several industries, and this is one of the reasons for the proposed Nullinga Dam."
A state government business case released this month found the proposed Nullinga Dam, on the Walsh River about 55km south west of Cairns, would not be economically viable, with water costing five to six times more than any prospective water users could pay.
Mr Moro agreed water from Nullinga would come at a significant cost to producers and, as they are unlikely to be able to afford it, any new dam would require significant government "no strings attached" funding.
The current going price for a megalitre of water is somewhere between $3600 to $4000, with the majority of allocations from the MDIA under the ownership of horticultural producers.
Mr Moro said while the current modernisation of the existing MDIA scheme would produce an additional 8000 megalitres of water, the Johnstone River diversion was another option that needed serious consideration as part of a wholistic approach to answering the region's future water needs.
Lakeland banana industry leader and grower Paul Inderbitzin's home region north of Mareeba, faces similar uncertainty unless a proposed new dam on the Palmer River gets the green light.
"The Palmer River Dam would solve all our problems at Lakeland," Mr Inderbitzin said.
"We have plenty of dirt, good red volcanic soil - which is as good as any on the Tablelands.
"But if you don't have the water and soil combination you are left high and dry."