Philosophical Conversations Public Opinion Junk for code
parliament house.gif
Think Tanks
Oz Blogs
Economic Blogs
Foreign Policy Blogs
International Blogs
Media Blogs
South Australian Weblogs
Economic Resources
Environment Links
Political Resources
South Australian Links
"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Murray- Darling Basin: waiting for the new basin-wide plan « Previous | |Next »
January 7, 2010

Once again we see the effects of the slow action by the Rudd Government in addressing the dysfunctional federal governance of the Murray-Darling and the crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin.The new Murray-Darling Basin plan to set sustainable water-extraction limits and provide increased environmental flows is still some time away from becoming operational. Some time means 2019, due to resistance by the states. So Rudd doesn't deserves much credit on water policy.

We are still left with a "governance" based on the conflicting attitudes and self-interests of the basin states. While individual State Governments continue to manage the water of the Murray-Darling Basin they will serve their own interests it is highly unlikely that the rivers will receive genuine increases in environmental flows of the magnitude required for their revival. The result is an ecologically debilitated Murray-Darling river system, which is what we have now.

The water from Christmas rains that produced floods in the Namoi, Barwon, Castlereagh, Paroo, Culgoa, Bokhara, Macquarie and Bogan rivers in the Darling system will run down the Darling River into Menindee Lakes, in western NSW.


A preliminary estimate is that 300GL would reach Menindee Lakes, but it would not fill the lakes, which had a capacity of 1680GL. Floodwaters are being dammed and diverted upstream, keeping them in New South Wales. More floods are required for water to flow into South Australia and the lower lakes.

The governance model is that NSW has powers over inflows into the Menindee Lakes and other storages. The trigger point where management of the Menindee lakes reverts to joint control under the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement is 640 gigalitres. At this point the Murray-Darling Basin Authority assumes responsibility.

NSW has said that it will honour the national Murray-Darling Basin Agreement, which ensures each state gets their share. Of course they will, since there is not enough water coming into the Menindee lakes to trigger water to be released into South Australia. Secondly, the existing regulations allowed NSW to fill dams and flood wetlands before water reached Menindee. Thirdly, water extracted for farm use in NSW was typically pumped straight out of the system or diverted through channels into dams. Fourthly, SA is not guaranteed to receive additional flows even if the trigger point for takeover was reached.

Ian Douglas points out at Unleashed that under the current mode of governance:

it is highly questionable whether there is any incentive for the NSW government to reduce the capacity of private dams and to remove the massive, frequently illegal, surface water impoundments constructed upstream from the Menindee Lakes by agribusinesses seeking to persist with broad-acre irrigation of high-water demand crops in what is predominantly a semi-arid environment.

He adds that cynically these agribusinesses:
made no mention of the fact that they are able to actively prevent vast volumes of surface water, potentially over 6,000 billion litres per year, from entering creeks and rivers in the Basin, as a result of the construction of what are euphemistically referred to as "ring tanks": huge impoundments comprising thousands of kilometres of levees bulldozed across ephemeral floodplains. These earthworks obstruct the natural flow of surface water, preventing it from entering the river system.

This highlights how South Australia, as the downstream state, has had to cop the brunt of the majority of the ecological losses in the system as a consequence of the long and prolonged drought. Clearly, with climate change, the Menindee lakes threshold needs to be overhauled to allow the restoration of environmental flows. These governance arrangements were forged in the 1960s, in the Menzies area, and had little to do with ecological health.The environment gets what water is left over after irrigation and towns take their share.

Fair water sharing today would see the recent rainfall in northern Australia offer the environmental allocation the Lower Lakes need.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:46 AM | | Comments (9)


Ian Douglas also points out a big flaw in the new basin plan being prepared by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority:

Although the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is now providing useful information with respect to public storages, no meaningful details have yet been released with respect to the ability of the private sector to impede river flows and impound surface water throughout the Basin.

He adds that:
It is widely acknowledged that the failure to make such information publicly available is a result of objections raised by some Basin States. In the absence of this vital data, Australians can have no faith that the Basin Plan being prepared by the Authority is based on a thorough understanding of the anthropogenic factors contributing to its currently lamentable condition.

So things aren't going change that much even with a basin plan, cos the states continue to sabotage the public good and the Commonwealth rolls over.

Hopefully the High Court will, as a result of South Australia's High Court challenge, rule on the current presumptions about ''riparian'' rights of upstream states, in particular disputing their power to ''abridge'' South Australia's ''reasonable'' rights. Fair use of water needs to be sorted out given the over-allocations of water by the states and the lower run off into the rivers under climate change.

Presumably this litigation will particularly strike at protectionist action by Victoria to use a cap on water on water trading. Will it also address what is to be done about Queensland impoundment of water that would have flooded into NSW?

Another good post Gary.

As I sit on top of what used to be a wetland but is now one of the 80 dry, weed infested, toxic and barren ex-wetlands south of Blanchetown in SA I despair for the health of the river.

Whilst the irrigators drain any increase in water flows from the river system upstream we shall continue to see the death struggles downstream.
Any time more water appears in the system they are like the seagulls in the movie "Finding Nemo" who chant "Mine! Mine! Mine!'

I have no problem with increasing the water into Menindee Lakes and similar places upstream, they need water and deserve it and have been deprived, in the same way as the southern river has, for too long by the same people.

I would not be happy if more water was released across the border into the river into SA and then promptly swallowed by SA irrigators being allowed to increase their quotas, as happened recently, so that the river [and I always am mindful that a 'river' is more than just the main channel] gets less than it needs.

The only answer for the future health of the whole river system, all 1 million square kms of it, and the people who live in it, irrigators included, is to loudly, strongly and immediately announce [and then back up with decisive immediate govt action] that the first priority for water must be the sustainable health of the river system and the urban domestic needs of about 2 million Australians whose economic and human value outweighs that of a relatively few irrigators by a factor of lots.
After, and not before, that is satisfied, with a substantial reserve for management, then and only then can irrigators begin to expect water.
I include the theft of water via 'ring tanks', and similar, in the latter category.
Basically the irrigators need to be told that they will get less water in the future no matter what quantities are available.
Consequently they will have to, there is no other alternative to the demise of the river system, change their use in quantity of water used, how they use their permanently decreased allocations and what they use it on.
This has to happen yesterday and the sooner they start planning to adjust the better for them. If they don't ....tough.

The question of compensation is an open one. I have previously here and elsewhere argued that a detailed compensation scheme could be undertaken to maintain community levels along the basin, thats really a concern for the million odd people who live there not based an a presumption that the irrigators have a moral right to their previously sacred water nor a moral right to compensation for the loss of what they should never have been allowed to waste in the first place.
But hell, its only money.

Of course the sad aspect is that all of the above is a pipe dream.
Such is the power of the irrigation lobby the ignorance, fear and impotence of the various govts resposible for the river, federal included, the necessary will not happen and the river will continue to be a toxic coduit of chemicals flowing, maybe, amid a rapidly dying ecosystem heading towards the days when we will be left with a irrigation industry which will also die because it has not been forced to adjust to the inevitable.
The communities will also suffer and the river will, as it already does in many places including mine, literally stink.

And I will one of many continuing to despair.

the talk in Adelaide is all for increased flows for SA to be used for SA irrigators and the lower lakes. But the environmental flows for the lower lakes is a figleaf for Karlene Maywald to ensure that the extra river flows go straight to the Riverland irrigators through increasing their quotas.

The Rann Government and the SA irrigators are as complicit in the destruction of the lower lakes and the Corrong as the other Basin state governments. For the Rann Governmennt the SA irrigators have a greater priority on the water coming down the river than the River itself.

Yes Nan.
I get the SA irrigation lobby newsletters etc and glance at them before I file them in the appropriate receptacle.
They want more water. More! More! More!
Powerful people.

I couldn't believe it when an increase from 30 odd percent to 40 odd percent was announced. Sheer greed and stupidity.
At least it gave me 0% [thats how much I use and every month the gov dept kindly sends me a note to tell me I have used 0% of my quota - again] of a larger number rather than a smaller number. Amusing. Ironic.

Yes Gary.
Pots and kettles.

We had the family up here for Xmas, about 40 people.

Again it struck them, the visual reality carries more weight than just telling them -- "The Lagoon is gone!"

I shall continue to despair.

All that talk amongst politicians that they had fixed the problem of the Murray Darling Basin---the 100-year-old problem of each state managing in its own interests rather than the commonwealth making decisions for the good of the whole system

The politicians tout their plan as one that would ensure the basin would be managed as one system with the environment receiving a sustainable watering regime, rather than having to rely on what water is left over after irrigation and towns had their share.

But it going to take them to 2019 to make the plan operational.

re your comment:

I get the SA irrigation lobby newsletters etc and glance at them before I file them in the appropriate receptacle.They want more water. More! More! More! Powerful people.

Yep they haven't yet accepted that there should be water for the environment---only more for themselves. They want more not less in a climate change world.

So their politics is to fight any attempt to reduce over-allocations, return water to the river and to prevent major cuts on remaining irrigators. By not accepting agreed cutbacks in irrigation flows they become an industry in denial.

They haven't even accepted that they need to change their agricultural practices so as to adapt to a basin with much less water. So I expect that they will challenge the proposed basin plan because it includes provisions to preserve the environment rather than just allocate the water. The chief executive of the Co-operative Research Centre for Irrigation Futures, Ian Atkinson asks:

But if you talk about putting more water in the Coorong, (and more) water for Adelaide and its growth, where is your water going to come from?

Reduced irrigator allocations in NSW and Queensland for the former and desalinisation plants and storm water retention for the latter. Atkinson is assuming that irrigators retain all the water that's in the Basin.

Maybe I should subscribe to the SA Irrigation Trust newsletter. Who do turn to---as there a number of irrigation trusts in the Riverland?

The irrigator's resistance to reforms to reduce over-allocations of licences and to water trading means that change in the Basin is going to be painful for some.

Winegrape prices have a fallen below the costs of production because of the over supply of grapes. One solution is for grape growers to sell their water. But Victoria's 4% cap means they cannot sell their water to the commonwealth; only to their local district where prices are much lower. So the sellers stand to lose capital.

Victoria's cap is designed to subsidise the state's agribusiness at the expense of the small irrigators.