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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

blocking water reform « Previous | |Next »
July 2, 2008

The level of Lake Alexandrina, near the mouth of the River Murray is currently half a metre below sea level. If it drops to 1.2m below, as predicted if inflows to the Murray did not pick up, the exposed lake bed would become acidic. The South Australian Government has recently began pumping water from Lake Alexandrina into the smaller Lake Albert to avert that waterway reaching such a trigger point. Things are looking bad there.

Meanwhile COAG meets Thursday this week and the River Murray is on the agenda among other items once again. The Federal Government is proposing to lift the 4% cap on the amount of water that can be traded out of the irrigation district to speed up the process of returning water to to the Murray Darling. Victorian irrigators oppose this, as they fear that this will depopulate or even close down towns in their state. The Nationals repeat the message.

The Victorian Government, of course, stands behind its irrigators in resisting any reform, towards a market based approach despite its free market and can do rhetoric. Command and control is the governance style of the parochial, state based approach of the Victorian Farmers Federation when it comes to water. It's their water and no one else can have it is their position. So the Brumby Labor Government is aligned with the Nationals to block an increased role for the market in the Basin. It is concerned to get the best possible deal for Victorian irrigators and to hell with the river.

The core goal is to protect the productive irrigation industry at all costs. In the face of Victoria's recalcitrance towards market reform, Canberra should use its previous commitment of up to $1 billion towards the second stage of the Foodbowl Modernisation Project as a way to force Victoria's hand. CoAG is a test of both cooperative federalism and the process of reform under Rudd Labor.

Update: 3 July.
The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting has signed off on the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) on $3.7 billion of projects to restore the health of the Murray River and it is being heralded as creating the vehicle for the long-term reform of the much challenged Murray-Darling Basin system. There is mention of lifting the 4% cap on water trading to 6% so that water can be traded to where it is needed. But that increase will take place a year from now.

If the IGA is the vehicle for long term reform in the Basin then the $3.7billion funding on water projects is about looking after irrigators: a $100 million in extra funding for irrigation projects in Victoria's Sunraysia area; $600 million for water projects in SA that are about basically building a pipeline from Tailem Bend to get irrigatrors in the lower Murray much higher quality water; and NSW?

How is this a success in restoring health to the river? Under the Murray-Darling basin agreement, only $170 million of the $3.1 billion in water buy-backs is scheduled for the 2008-09 financial year.

Update: 4 July
An editorial in The Age puts it well:

COAG's deferral of the Wong plan could be catastrophic for the lower lakes in particular. If there are insufficient flows of fresh water to flush out the increasingly saline lakes, Senator Wong and her state counterparts may have no alternative but to open the barrages that regulate tidal flows, and allow the sea to claim the lakes.In other words, at this COAG the states did not in fact put their conflicting interests aside in order to allow concerted action that would keep alive the lower reaches of Australia's only great river system.

It goes on to say that since COAG chose not to heed the urgent warnings in the scientific reports about the Murray-Darling Basin [in the wake of the South Australia's Murray-Darling Basin Natural Resource Management Board's advice, the Murray-Darling Commission's audit of the 23 rivers in the basin gave all but three of them poor or very poor ecological report cards], the leaders of Australia's governments could at least have shed the spin cloaking yesterday's official statements.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 7:01 AM | | Comments (31)


the irigators resisting market reform and keeping the water for themselves have proposed inundating the lakes with seawater by removing the Goolwa barrages that separate the freshwater lakes from the saline estuary below. They argue this would return the system to its natural state.

Is there flaw in this argument? It seems to me that the irrigstors in NSW and Victoria have given up seeing the River as a river and are content to let it become a series of irrigators pools.

Ecology cannot stand in the way of increased production.The irrigators have not changed their basic position since the 1880s. The Ramsar wetlands must, and should be, be sacrificied to protect irrigator communities along the river.

Speaking of sacrifice, it's beginning to look as though complete disaster is the only thing that could prompt the changed attitudes needed here. On climate change as well.

Don't mind me. I've been reading the Monthly and it's depressing.

if the states are recalcitrant about water reform and Penny Wong cannot even deliver a bit more water trading, then the Commonwealth is choking the infant solar industry and subsidizing the coal giants.

No different from Howard really, when the greenhouse mafia ruled the roost on energy. Coal is a juggernaut and Martin Ferguson is their voice in cabinet. And Garrett goes along with it without even protesting.

the glory days of irrigation have become part of the history of the 20th century. Many irrigators are going to have to leave the industry and their farms because the rains are not there any more because of climate change.

It's a brutal reality but a realistic one. Those who continue to use flood irrigation to grow pasture are the immediate problem. The market needs to be used to drive them out of business. Either that, or they adapt their irrigation to a drier basin characterised by water shortages.

For the sake of the environment I want to bulldoze your house. For the towns you so lightly dismiss that is what this is about (oh and I want to take your job also).

Sit down and think about it from their point of view before you condemn people for fighting. And while your thinking about it pass a thought for the idea that perhaps it might be nice if the people keeping their houses chipped in to help pay for those losing. And while your about it pass a little thought for the fact that it is not only your house I want to run over, it's the whole street; well actually it's the whole town. The assets I plan on destroying will cost every man women and child in the country about $10,000 dollars if we hand out the damage evenly.

Yes the whole thing is a very serious issue, but it is an issue the whole country has to face, not just a few towns along the river. I will be impressed when you start asking, where do I hand over my ten grand.

workers in factories in the cities have to move on when the businesses close or the industry dies because it was uncompetitive or uneconomical. They receive unemployment benefit until they find a new job or they retrain.

Why not dairy farmers when the water is no longer there? Why should they be treated any differently?

Since the rains are less we have to find ways to use water more efficiently. Flood irrigation is not an efficient use of water.

the states are using CoAG for infrastructure subsidies rather than trying to get the water market functioning.

The plan is to lift the 4per cent-a-year cap on the amount of water that can be traded out of an irrigation region, imposed under an earlier federal-state water agreement. This would allow the federal Government to buy more water to pump into the river system in response to increasingly dire warnings about its health.

Victorian irrigators are saying that this would take their water and so it must be opposed to protect their inefficient irrigators.

markets work by shifting capital from less productive to more productive use. It's a process of creative destruction.

Victorian irrigators are seeking protection from the state government to make sure the market is not allowed to shift capital. I'm not sure why they have such a hold over Victorian state government --to the point of capture.

Exports? I think it was Alan Kohler in Crikey who said something like 60% of dairy produce in the region is exported. Rice too, which is notorious for water inefficiency and is being exported.

Have a quick squizz at the comments here

I wonder whether Rudd understands how inaction on this is viewed, and I wonder whether Xenophon has the smarts to use his senate power to force the issue.

I love these announcements - "Govt pledges 3.7b to save Murray Darling". "Govt allocates 10.5b to improving nail polish remover quality".

Governments have been pledging billions left, right and centre for yonks as if by saying some magical number everything will instantly be fixed.

"Govt turns off water waters' taps" would be far more convincing.

I meant "govt turns off water waSters' taps".


The issue is not flood irrigation (there is very little of that left in Victoria), the issue is the need to close down whole irrigation areas.

The simple facts are, we are going to have climate change, it very much looks as if the Murray river is not going to get the water needed to maintain the irrigation areas and the cities. The cities have to come first.

Yes more than 4% of the water has to be traded out of the irrigations areas so they can be closed. Just have a little bit of sympathy for the people that have spent generations building them up, and a little bit of understanding as to why they don't want it to happen.

This will not be the first time in human history that irrigations areas have been abandoned and it no doubt won't be the last.

The 4% cap on water trading is designed to protect rural towns from the socio-economic devastation that some believe would occur if large amounts of water were traded out of specific regions.Thus Mildura table grape growerCosi Cirillo said his worst fear was that the cap would go even higher, sounding the death knell for some rural communities.

Raising the cap allows the wealth of communities to be shifted up and down the river, and we can't allow water to be traded like it is.You will effectively start to see isolated pockets of green oasis in the region and a few kilometres further on, everything will be dead.

Why cannot they buy the water? Because they cannot afford it.The SA wineries will pay more. That means the family farms are not generating much money.

Thanks. I read the comments. The Victorian Government announces a new coal-fired power station one day, then they obstruct the buy-back of water for the Murray. And this is a reformist government? They are spoilers.

South Australia's Murray-Darling Basin Natural Resource Management Board, in a report submitted to federal and state water ministers in May, argued that unless 400 gigalitres of fresh water are flushed into the lakes by October, their decline will be irreversible. Opening the barrages to the sea would then be the least bad outcome, since it would at least be better than allowing the continued evaporation of the lakes into toxic sludge.

Xenophon is going to Canberra to protect SA's interests. He sees the Senate as a State's house.

Protecting SA's interests on water in the Murray Darling Basin for him means Sthe interests of the SA irrigators in the Riverland----not the ecological health of the lower lakes and the Coorong.

it is also happening in SA in the lower Murray and along the Darling, not just in Victoria You sell up--the water licence--and then move onto something else. At least the irirgators have capital--water licence ----unlike many workers in manufacturing industries that close.

I cannot see that the Victorian irrigator's blocking reform to move water around through water trading is a sensible policy option. In restoring the health of the river system you help save irrigators because they can buy water from those who need to sell up. Victoria is looking back to the past in putting irrigators before the river.


Your right it has to happen, but we are not talking about a few farmers going out of business, we are talking about towns turning into ghost towns.

We have a very serious problem.

surely the aim is to build a sustainable agriculture; one in which therre is water for industry and the river through dry periods.That means af gricclture in marginal land must cease.

The agriculture industry now is not sustainable because the regime that was built was based on emptying the river and substantial subsidies.

Victoria is just perpetuating the old regime rather than making the shift to a new one.

Wong got rolled by 'take no prisoners' Brumby. It's his water and he will do with it as he likes, how he likes and when he likes. He will decide. Everybody else can go jump in the lake and play with the acid sulphate mud. Rudd just spins and grins. So does twofaced Rann.

The best they could do was come up a national planning authority ---planning not action. So they are going to let the river die. They only bought back 35 gigalitres and at the rate they are going their target of 1500 gigalitres will be accomplished by 2050. Too late to save the Murray. But Brumby will be long dead by then, so why should he and his Victorian Farmers Federation cronies care?

It's not just Victoria. It's all states involved. None of the powers that be, including the farmers, seem to have any sense of urgency about this - they don't seem to understand that they'll ultimately be the victims of their own inaction.


Your right it has to happen, but we are not talking about a few farmers going out of business, we are talking about towns turning into ghost towns.

We have a very serious problem.


If the water isn't there does it really matter who owns it. That is the problem, there is no water.

So in a nutshell:

Irrigators want a ban on people actually buying their water, because they know they will be outbid.

So governments will force the water to be sold below cost to irrigators who can't afford the real cost anyway, while the lower Murray dies. John Brumby and the VFF have killed the Murray. Short term idiots win again
RIP Murry.
Planet Earth next.

sure we are not talking about a few farmers going out of business. Nor are we talking about towns turning into ghost towns.

There is a future for this towns if, and only if, irrigated agriculture becomes a sustainable agriculture. QED.

This possibility seems to be denied by those anti-reformers in irrigator communities in favour of their end is nigh rhetoric.

there is no water because of overallocation of licences and an irrigation system that was premised on lots of rain ---not a drying basin with little run off.

And it does matter. No river no irrigation. The market is the instrument used to address the excessive allocation of water to irrigation. If the market mechanisms are blocked by Victoria, then the next step will be redefining entitlements.

Water has to be withdrawn from irrigation. That's the reality, even if it is called structural adjeustment.

Brumby just wants to keep the old irrigation regime going by doing a patch job with commonwealth money. He refuses to take the step to building a sustainable agriculture.

Presumably when Brumby and the Victorian Farmers Federation meet they sit around and pray for the big rain.

It would be more rational to develop a sustainable agriculture by addressing the overallocation of licences.

Given Victoria's opposition to reform through water trading, then the next step is an across-the-board cut to irrigation entitlements is one option that should be considered by a Commonwealth committed to saving the Murray. Irrigation water use needs to be reduced by at least 15% to give the river a fighting chance.

nan, How do you plan to reduce 0% allocation by 15%?

At least SA has an allocation this year of 2% unlike NSW and Vic. I'm afraid 12GL won't go very far even if it were reserved totally for the environment.

you buy back 15% of the overallocated water licences in NSW and Victoria, starting from the now marginal lands.

we could start thus:

I. buy out Cubbie Station
2. release the water stored in Medindie Lakes in NSW.
3. cut back on the farm dams that take all the runoff.
4. make the dairy farmers in Victoria pay the proper cost of water.