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

death of a river « Previous | |Next »
July 13, 2008

When Professor Ross Garnaut launched his draft climate change report he was sketching the River Murray's future . The numbers in the Garnaut review-commissioned basin study found that if nothing is done about global warming, irrigated farming there will face a 92% decline by 2100.

DavidsonBrumby.jpg Matt Davidson

This scenario fits with the work of scientists at the South Eastern Australian Climate Initiative. This body has recently become more certain that climate change is the culprit behind the stubborn band of high pressure that has hovered for a decade over the basin's southern part — and Melbourne — making the natural drought hotter and drier.

The fact that the opening the sea barrages to Lake Albert and Lake Alexandrina is now under consideration illustrates the depth of the crisis engulfing the Murray's lower reaches that also threatens the Coorong wetlands at the river mouth.

Of course, that means the end of farming communities, reliant on the lakes water for irrigation, stock and domestic use for generations. There are no guarantees that the lakes would return to freshwater in a warmed up world with reduced flows in the Basin and a period of drying across the Murray-Darling basin.

The Murray-Darling Basin Commission has put together options to save the lower lakes but these have not been made public. Calls by green groups for an emergency meeting to consider these secret proposals have fallen on deaf ears. So the status quo remains---more irrigation infrastructure is to be built. The assumption is that if we build it - it will rain.

As Melissa Fyfe in The Age sums up the current situation when she says:

Climate change and drought have exposed the basin's fundamental problem: overallocation. Irrigators have taken too much water and the pool of available water is shrinking. A major resetting of the system is needed. We know the environmental cost is already high. But the human cost is also, right now, high — and will continue to be.Governments privately acknowledge the need for "structural adjustment" — this is public service speak that means many farmers will be forced to leave the land or stop irrigated farming and switch to something else. Hard-nosed economists say well, bad luck, you are unsustainable.

The Victorian Government knows this scenario, so it is embarking on a $1 billion Foodbowl Modernisation irrigation infrastructure project in northern Victoria. Water savings, it is argued, will come from increased infrastructure investment in pipes, line channels, new meters, and an automated system. But how does more irrigated agriculture square with the realities of less rain, the drying out of the basin, structural adjustment, and the buying back of over-allocated water licences?

It doesn't. The farmers with their modernised irrigation systems will eventually sell up and walk off the degraded land. Many want to sell now but the cap on trade prevents them from doing so. Fyre poses the right questions:

So we've got John with his pipes on the one side, Penny with her cash on the other, and a disconnect in between. Where's the deep thinking on how to really cushion the social blows of these massive changes? Where are the ideas to make these regional communities robust and sustainable economies with healthy environments?

The new ideas aren't coming from state governments. They are so beholden to the past and irrigated agriculture that they are incapable of speaking openly and honestly about the future of the basin. So they hide behind closed doors, keep the information hidden away in the bureaucracy and rave on about CoAG.

Update: July 14
An estimated 3000 people turned out for a rally at Goolwa near the Murray's mouth yesterday, where low water levels have almost crippled tourism. Councils and communities around the lower lakes are demanding release of water held in Menindee Lakes in NSW to top up Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert. That option is deemed better than the seawater option as it allows their irrigation to continue.

Will NSW come the party? The history of the basin suggests that it is highly unlikely. Self-interest rules in basin politics, despite the states having made a huge mess out of basin management by over-allocating water licences. Yet doing nothing is not an option. as it would lead to the total destruction of the lower lakes.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 5:05 PM | | Comments (7)


I attended the rally in Goolwa. People are very angry at the inaction of the politicians. All they do is spin to cover their inaction. Co-operative federalism is a a joke on this issue.

In his op-ed in The Australian Stephen Beare, a former a consultant to the Murray-Darling Basin Commission,says:

From an environmental perspective, lifting the 4 per cent cap on trading water out of irrigation areas is a purely symbolic gesture in the coming year. An entitlement to an empty bucket is still empty after it has been traded. But the symbolism is still important as it says we are not going to address the longer term issues as quickly as we could. With all our championing of free trade at Doha, our international trading partners might wonder why we impose trading quotas on water with no more justification than privileging some local economic interests over others.

That just about sums it up.

Beare makes another good point about irrigated agriculture:

Some irrigators with significant debts and facing another year of low allocations and poor cashflow would see this[Wong's n buyback] as a good opportunity to exit an industry with a very uncertain future. Yet for many this option has been blocked in the past and will no doubt be blocked again by the continuing 4 per cent trading limits. Last year trading limits were reached after 4 months in Victoria. It seems rather unfair that we force some families to sacrifice their financial future in the interest of their community.

Someone is speaking the truth at long last about the politics of the conservative irigation industry in Victoria.

NSW has refused to release water from Medindee Lakes to prevent the irreversible acidificiation of the lower lakes. So NSW puts self-interest of its irrigators ahead of the basin interest.

The reality is that there needs to be a 30-50% reduction in water extraction to just to match inflows available and retain some of the essential ecology of the River Murray.

The short term fix in the lower lakes is to allow salt water to return by opening the barrages. The local irrigators oppose this. Well they can build a pipeline from Wellington.

I still don't know what purpose building pipes from Tailem Bend (or wherever) to the lakes will serve, what with the river being close to empty. It has more than a hint of the "rain will follow the plough" delusion of the 19th century.

the sole purpose is to provide fresh water to the irrigated industry on the Fleurieu Peninsula (eg.,the wineries around Langhorne Creek) since the river between the lock at Blanchtown and the proposed weir at Wellington can be considered an irrigators pool.

With increased water trading they will be able to afford to buy out the inefficient Victorian dairy farmers as they can get a higher price for their product using less water.

The Murray-Darling Basin could be left with scores of upgraded but abandoned farms unless buybacks of irrigation water are completed before the Federal and Victorian Government begins funding the modernisation of farms.

Peter Cosier from the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists said:

It's a flawed policy to be investing in irrigation upgrades when there is a likelihood that some of that irrigation will end up as gold-plated stranded assets. It's eminently logical that you acquire the environmental water first and then as part of that process of acquisition you then build your irrigation efficiency program knowing where the water is or isn't going to be required for production.

Yet another example of not thinking in terms fo the long term future of the basin.

what suprises me is that Victorian towns such as Mildura, Swan Hill, Wodonga and Echuca, face a shortage of drinking water next year, and there is talk of emergency plans, there has been no talk of introducing recycled water to drinking supplies. Amazing.