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Water wars: its written in the wetlands « Previous | |Next »
September 1, 2003

The pro-irrigator groups in the Murray-Darling Basin continue to speak up against water reform in the basin. The way they do so indicates that they are anti-environment. This confirms my earlier suspicions that they have decided to oppose government attempts to return water to the River Murray for environmental flows. What we have here is a recycling of the old 'zap the cap'---of the 1990s National Party of Australia.

The latest shot in the water wars is this text by John Cox in The Australian.Cox, a citrus irrigator from the Riverland in South Australia, is responding to the water reforms announced by CoAG last Friday. He confronts the green groups by ignoring CoAG's creation of a national property rights regime and concentrating on CoAG's modest proposals to buy back irrigation water to improve the ecological health of the River Murray.

Cox is concerned because the need for greater environmental flows in the Murray-Darling river system does not sit well with irrigators, whose water allocations and annual income have been cut substantially this year due to drought.

That is true. We did have a drought. And more water for environmental flows for the River Murray does mean less water for irrigators due to the over-allocation of water entitlement by state governments. Hence clawback. Some form of government buy back of irrigator's water entitlements is needed in terms of equity. However, Cox does not question this buyback on compensation or equity grounds. Rather, he argues a case that buyback is not needed at all. It is a say no to environmental flows.

To his credit Cox puts the question openly:

"The Council of Australian Governments agreed to a $500 million fund to help buy back irrigation water from agriculture to increase environmental flows. Not surprisingly, the Wentworth Group, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Living Murray initiative of the Murray Darling Basin Commission have supported the initiative. The Murray River is in decline, they say, because too much water is being taken out for irrigation.
But is this really true? And is even more money needed to "save" the Murray River...? As a South Australian citrus grower who depends on irrigation water from the Murray, I don't think so."

Okay. The position is clear. The River Murray does not need environmental flows. So why not? What is the argument?

Sadly, it is not much of one. Cox makes the usual gesture to the case made by the Institute of Public Affairs that there is no scientific evidence for declining river health and that the evidence points to decreasing salinity etc. So the River Murray does not need saving. I have dealt with that here.

Cox then refers to the work of John Pigram from The Centre for Ecological Economics and Water Policy Research. According to Cox, Pigram argues that the:

..."link between ecological processes and designated flow regimes is not clear and that there is therefore no guarantee that greater environmental flows will improve environmental outcomes...But there has been no quantitative scientific analysis on the magnitude of environmental flows needed, on ways to minimise these flows and on achieving more cost-effective environmental outcomes by other means than river flows."

Fair enough. The links are not clear and there are no guarantees. Hence the use of the precautionary principle.

However, it doesn't take a lot of science to establish that the red gums on Chowilla wetlands are dying from lack of water and are in need of a good drink. The last flood was a decade ago. Those redgums in the River Murray's floodplain need a flood. Such a flood will have to be created by topping up the winter flows.

Cox would know about Chowilla since the floodplain is in the Riverland. He evades this issue. He says that the information on the Murray-Darling Basin Commission's website is flawed:

"...there is no quantitative economic analysis of the justification for the capping of diversions or for an increase in environmental flows. The economic studies on capping that have been carried out are purely qualitative and quite puerile. There is also no report on how these increased environmental flows will improve environmental outcomes."

This is the old IPA script of 'the greens have no science'. It's a furphy. You do not need to do an economic analysis for Chowilla, a Ramsar wetland of International Importance. Since the construction of Lock 6 in 1930, groundwater under the Chowilla floodplain has risen to within 2-4 metres of the soil surface.
There have been practical experiments done at Chowilla floodplain, which show that giving the wetlands a drink is vital to the ecological health of the floodplain.

The second way Cox evades the issue is to say that environmental flows are wasted water since they amount to stored water evaoporating in Lake Alexandrina. He asks:

" So should environmental flows be increased to satisfy evaporation requirements, given that most of these shallow water storage structures have been man-made? Lake Alexandrina has been changed from a tidal lagoon into a freshwater lake by the barrage at Goolwa."

Lake Alexandrina has become a water storege are for the sake of local irrigators it should be added. That is why the Lake is not managed as it if were a Ramsar wetland by being seasonally raised and lowered.

Cox then makes his position clear. In contrast to the lack of science by the greens we have:

"...the economic costs from reducing water allocations by 35 per cent as in South Australia has a direct economic effect on irrigators. After all, they have to modify their irrigation systems and do not have enough water to grow crops properly. In the case of orange orchards, for example, there is not sufficient water allocated to grow the large fruit that is needed for our most profitable export market in the US."

Cox's position is that irrigators cannot have water taken from them because Australia's balance of payments will suffer from reduced agricultural exports. It is the IPA script that there is little evidence to justify a need for drastically curtailing productive agricultural uses of the river to bolster environmental flows. What needs to be protected is the prosperity of farming communities in the Basin.

It's not a plausible argument. Water trading enables irrigators to acquire more water by buying it from low value adding dairy farmers. That is the whole point of CoAG creating a market ---it encourages efficiency in the use of scarce water resources. And water resources are scarce. And the market would work in favour of horticulture since it is a high value added industry.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:05 AM | | Comments (4) | TrackBacks (1)

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Thanks for blogging on this very important suject Gary. If you keep it up for long enough, perhaps somebody in the Eastern states may realise that what you're talking about has ramifications for the whole of Australia. Did I just say that ? Nah.... still you and me think it's important and we're the most knowlegable, articulate.....

What I don't understand in the tradable water rights debate is, what did the farmers pay for their so called inalienable rights to waste water ? And if they demand compensation, give them back what they paid, not a penny more !

If the state were to repurchase (or just resume) all rights to water, they could then make a very competitive market in water use, but if the right to trade resides only with those currently involved, especially the dairy farmers who should have sold their inefficient farms and be rewarded by a consumer funded industry restructuring payment, the whole thing is going to become a bigger schemozzle.

If the state were to use the price of water to regulate the flow of water in the Murray it will put some marginal farmers out of business. So what, does the government subsidise other small enterprises if they cant afford the inputs to their businesses; e.g. when Sam's Sandwiches can't afford his electricity bill, he either puts the price of his sandwiches up or sells the business. Why should farmers be any different? If they can't afford a market value for the water they use, they sell their land to some-one who can make a profit. Until governments become a little ruthless with inefficient bludging farmers, the residents of Adelaide will always have to drink that shit you call water.

the irrigators paid very little for their water entitlements in the form of licences.

They were handed around with alarcity by state governments promoting water development. Many of them were unused and used only rarely.

Hence we have a debate about what "rights" actually mean in this context of water reform.

The market is very competitive now because their is not water in the basin to meet all the allocated licences to divert water from the rivers. It's been overallocated.

Hence the charge of very bad management directed at the states.They really have made a mess of things in the persuit of old-style developmentalism.

The use of market instruments is designed to push the inefficient farmers out of business.That means dairy farmers and family farms sell out to agribusinesses.

Better the market does the job rather than the government, is the current political reasoning. The less flak the governments take on water reform the better.

Of course, we still have the issue of whether the production pratices of the agri- businesses are sustainable.

hello what up

Yes I agree! The Murray should get more water put back into its flow!! It's going to die eventually but it would be good if it stayed until I am atleast 50! I am 14 at the moment and there is already threats on whether things as grand as the murray are going to survive. Help Fix The Murray!! The goverment are trying to fix it yes, but they arent doing a good job at it. In 2004 they let dairy farmers keep the water they took form the murray and let it run around their property untill it was gone. I say put that back into the Murray and assure a future for the next generation.