By Byron Kaye
SYDNEY, Feb 22 (Reuters) - The Australian government said on Monday it plans to start a register of foreign ownership of water rights, redoubling its efforts to appease voters concerned about the amount of farming assets being sold offshore.
Nine months after the government said it would force foreign owners of farmland to register, Treasurer Scott Morrison said the government plans to introduce laws to create a separate register of foreign ownership of water rights by Dec. 1.
"Our agricultural land and water resources are arguably our nation's most valuable natural assets, so it is important that we have a good understanding of foreign investment levels in these areas," Morrison said in a statement.
Australia is the world No. 1 wool exporter and No. 3 exporter of beef and raw sugar and its government has been under pressure from local farmers to cool foreign land ownership.
In 2015 Australia lowered the Foreign Investment Review Board reporting threshold from A$240 million to A$15 million ($172 million to $11 million).
In November, the government blocked the sale of the country's largest landowner, private farming group S. Kidman and Co, to foreign investors, saying it should stay in Australian hands.
By monitoring foreign ownership of water rights, the government may also curtail any price increases that have resulted from a water rights trading system that has emerged from a practice of giving set amounts of water rights to land owners.
In a public consultation paper released on Monday, the government said that while all foreign purchases of Australian assets must be cleared by the Foreign Investment Review Board, "foreign investment in water entitlements is not specifically captured and measured".
It added that official government data showed foreign ownership of Australian water rights rose 55 percent from 2010 to 2013, the last year of complete records, taking the proportion of water rights held offshore from 9 percent to 14 percent.
($1 = 1.3957 Australian dollars) (Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Michael Perry)
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