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Judith Sloan on the Murray-Darling basin plan « Previous | |Next »
October 12, 2010

In her Basin plan forced to put environment above people in The Australian Judith Sloan criticizes the plan without mentioning 'food security' or running a scare campaign on food prices and thereby condemn the Murray-Darling Basin to death by political paralysis. Her concern appears to be the overall exercise of power around water is modeled on the principles of a market economy and the reordering of society to ensure economic growth.

She says that by any measure, the guide to the Murray-Darling Basin plan represents a clear case of overshoot in which the environmental gains may be achieved, but with unnecessarily high social and economic costs. She argues thus:

By any measure, the proposed cuts to water use are extreme. But the recommendations of the MDBA [Murray Darling Basin Authority] confirm, and are derived from, the fundamental weakness of the commonwealth Water Act, a weakness that has been known by the government as well as all other interested parties for quite some time...The objects of the act talk about promoting "the use and management of the basin water resources in a way that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes.But when it comes to the principles guiding the determination of the SDLs, the environment has primacy, with residual flows available for other uses. In other words, the trade-off framework envisaged in the objects of the act is lost when it comes to the vital task of the MDBA determining the split of water resources between the environment and consumptive uses. Calculated this way, the SDLs over-allocate water to the environment and under-allocate water to irrigators.

She adds that the hands of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority are essentially tied: the legislation does not permit consideration of issues other than environmental needs when determining the cuts. The only scope to take into account other issues, such as the impact on local communities, is how the cuts are distributed within individual catchments.

Sloan's advice is that:

The government must act quickly to amend the legislation to achieve sensible water recovery targets that will improve the environmental health of the basin as well as underpin irrigation and the prosperity of the communities. Perhaps there is a role for the independents in initiating the required amendments?

Nowhere in the op-ed does Sloan address the ecological implications of an over allocated water system and the failure to address this over the last decade or more when she claims of environmental overshoot in which the environmental gains outweigh unnecessarily high social and economic costs. How does Sloan know this to be so? What is the basis for her cost benefit analysis?

Secondly, Sloan is unclear on what she means by making the Murray-Darling Basin sustainable, what cuts in allocations are required to do this, and how she would address the cost to the regional economies of these cutbacks.

Thirdly, Sloan does not address the costs of that over-allocation to ensure economic development that is borne by the environment and diffused among communities downstream. Those costs are market negative externalities related to the environmental consequences of production and use. Sloan does not mention these consequences at all.

The fixed truth underpinning Sloan's article is that economic growth ensures the prosperity of the greatest number and that it is not the economic system that fails. Failure is attributed to individuals or to the 'rogue state'. Sloan, in other words, does not understand water in the Australian economy and little understanding of water management in Australia.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 12:32 PM | | Comments (13)


Once again we see the flawed assumption that environmental management is a zero sum exercise in which resources devoted to conserving the environment are necessarily at the expense of economic growth. It's a mentality more suited to a cost accountant than an economist but then Sloan abandoned any pretence of scholarly objectivity many years ago.

There is very little examination of the role water has played in Australian history and culture similar to the calibre of analysis directed at other resources such as gold, wool and forests.

Until very recently, water in Australia has failed to exercise the academic imagination, especially that of the humanities and social sciences. When water does make an appearance it is usually in terms of the triumphs of dam building, the evolution of water authorities and water law, the times when there has been too much or too little water, and the exploration of the rivers

The water news here is that all the dams are full. Our desalination plant is running at 25% and all the water generated will likely be put back into the ocean.

The resistance to reform is described by Ross Gittens in the National Times:

Apparently, the egghead bureaucrats at the authority have no idea of the devastation they'd cause, wiping out whole river towns and causing horrendous unemployment, while prompting a huge leap in the price of food, ending the nation's food security and prompting a surge in food imports.
Clearly, there's a requirement for commonsense to prevail and for the needs of people, their livelihoods and their communities to be put ahead of worries about the environment.

What is ignored is the sustainability of the ecosystem:--what we're doing to the Murray-Darling is ecologically unsustainable, it won't be - can't be - sustained.

If what happened with wage-fixing is any guide, the Federal Govt. will set up a more compliant authority which will be more sensitive to political pressures, but without directly taking responsibility itself.

Govts. like to hide behind "independent" authorities on issues where there is no right answer, like wages and water. So Judith Sloan's proposal for legislative change is quite likely going to get up, in the context of setting up a new Authority or drastically modifying the existing one.

The anti-reform irrigator's position is that the River Murray crisis has been caused solely by the drought. The National Irrigators Council has dismissed claims water extraction by upstream growers had caused SA stretches of the river to dry up, instead blaming the crisis solely on the drought.

the debate needs to shift away from a political bunfight ----regional Australia versus the Greens + urbanised professional elites--- to a change of farming practices. That is change has to take place.

At the very minimium over head sprinklers & open furrow irrigation need to go to be replaced by dripper systems and also l equipment to measure ground moisture content at various levels to see if plantings actually require watering.

What we should aim for is intensive, high-quality and high-efficiency irrigation agriculture Australian farmers can do in the right sort of terrain, soil and climate - and with adequate water.

This an opportunity to diversify to crops that use less water and can cope with seasonal changes that still produce adequate harvests. An opportunity to move away from water hungry crops like cotton and rice to crops more suitable to the ecology of the Murray-Darling river system.

annon, "equipment to measure ground moisture content at various levels to see if plantings actually require watering."

you are describing what the cotton industry has been doing for decades with "neutron probes" and more recently with capacitence probes(C-probes).

We have trials happening that suggest drip is not the panacea portrayed, but that is mainly because our soils don't lose much water below the root zone. If we look at total environmental impact, the energy expended pressurising and filtering drip systems should be taken into account.

The myths associated with growing cotton(that it is wasteful) are unnerving to say the least. It's not rocket science, but farmers have an allocation. That allocation provides an amount of water which the farmers use to grow crops. The volume available doesn't change simply due to crop choice.
The point is that when the water is applied to the soil isn't it best to have the most profitable crop in the ground. If you have less water you grow less of the most profitable crop, which in the northern valleys is still cotton.
It defies logic to criticise cotton growing when the alternative is to water wheat at half the return per megalitre. That would truly be a travesty.

rojo, I don't think that either irrigated wheat or irrigated cotton (or rice, for that matter) are particularly sensible crops to grow in the Murray-Darling basin.

What do you suggest I do with my water allocation David?

People like to wear cotton, and Australia has the most water efficient cotton industry in the world. If we don't use that efficiency, gifted via climate and soil quality, then that cotton will have to be grown elsewhere with less efficiency. While you may be happy the impact is not in the MDB, the impact is shifted to another part of the world. Perhaps with more profound effect.

I believe the same applies to rice.

the debate is being cast as a crude bush-vs-city conflict with Barnaby Joyce whipping up maximum fear and anxiety that leads to burning the Murray Darling Basin Authority Guide to the Basin Plan. and hysterics of wiping out irrigation towns.

The general trend across the Murray-Darling is for the smaller towns to fall below critical population levels and slowly fade away, while bigger centres attract the displaced agriculturalists, generate investment and new industries. That process may well be unstoppable.

There is no mention of the lower lakes (Albert+ Alexandrina) and the Coorong in the context f the barrages at Goolwa. These barrages cut off the Murray from the sea and so reduce the tidal water into the lake and the twice daily water exchange.

The lower lakes now remain fresh water lakes with constant water levels.
For what reason?

My understanding is the barrages were built primarily for irrigation purposes, keeping salt water out of the water source.

Some believe they were built to ensure salt water didn't encroach the Adelaide water supply, but the barrages predate the pipeline by 15 years. The pipeline was however built because the barrages did just that, according to:

"For what reason?" Good question, I hope someone in the MDBA can answer. I think it's still about Adelaide and the irrigators, which are pretty good reasons, but the desire to see them fresh 100% of the time is not mimicing nature. I haven't really come across why the lakes are held nearly a metre above sealevel, because that causes drainage problems on some of the irrigation areas along the lower Murray.

The barrages were being built in the late 30's presumably because of salt water intrusions at that stage, when the basin had irrigation extraction levels down around 3000GL a year.