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Murray-Darling Basin: communities first « Previous | |Next »
June 8, 2011

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia has released a report entitled Inquiry into the impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in Regional Australia. This will guide the Gillard Government's announced intention to water down the water reform in the Basin in the name of political pragmatism.

Chowilla floodplain
Gary Sauer-Thompson, the Chowilla floodplain, SA 2004

Basically, it is an inquiry into the assumptions of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s (MDBA) Guide to the proposed Basin Plan (the Guide), which set out proposals for reductions in the levels of diversions to irrigation that was necessary to ensure the Basin’s environmental health, and it questions the MDBA’s interpretation of the Water Act 2007.

The main point of the Inquiry is that the right approach to water reform is the:

water savings to be found through environmental works and measures and on-farm efficiency works. The report identifies some of these measures and recommends that they be fully explored prior to considering any reduction in productive water allocation.The report also recommends that all non-strategic water buyback must cease immediately.

The emphasis is on the need for community plans to ensure that communities remain resilient and vibrant places to live. These must be developed at the local level, to identify what communities need to continue to be thriving, vibrant places to live, addressing issues such as transport, infrastructure, and workforce development and training needs.

This is Big Ag's fightback against water buy backs to increase environmental flows. They have returned to the old Howard Government policy of subsidizing the investment in the irrigation system to reduce open channels and leakage. This is the Water for the Future program with its:

$5.8 billion to increase water use efficiency in rural Australia largely through projects that deliver lasting returns for the environment, increase productivity and secure a long term future for irrigation communities [and] an initial $3.1 billion to acquire water entitlements to allocate to the Basin’s rivers, wetlands and floodplains.

What is problematic about the $5.8 billion dollar investment in improving irrigation efficiency and productivity is that it amounts to a public subsidy for private irrigation infrastructure operators in NSW, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia and to improve the efficiency of irrigation infrastructure and to modernise and upgrade irrigation infrastructure.

The aim here is to increase the water for irrigators and to increase production. The case for the public subsidy-- the $5.8 billion dollar investment in improving irrigation efficiency and productivity--- is premised on Pareto optimality and Kaldor–Hicks efficiency.

Thankfully, what the irrigator's fightback against water reform was not able to achieve was to quarantine their region from the Basin Plan; the Water Act 2007 be amended or withdrawn; the Basin Plan be withdrawn; and the MDBA be disbanded. Big Ag has slowed down the transition to a sustainable levels of extraction through the buy back of over-allocated water entitlements. So the Murray-Darling river system remains an irrigator's channel.

The future is clearly written --some irrigation districts are going to be decommissioned because climate change in the southern basin means hotter conditions, less rain and less runoff. The pain is going to deepen from continued over-extraction, a degraded environment and the consequent decline of agricultural and other basin industries.

Sustainable agriculture---practices that improve profitability and the health of the environment---is the key to reform.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:19 AM | | Comments (21)


I've been living next to the river for 20 years and this refrain of improving the efficiency of on farm infra structure as a panacea to all problems has been repeated mindlessly for every one of those years.
Its a platitude, a buzz phrase, something that those who wish to avoid reality can proclaim so that the essential problem will go away.
But it hasn't and it won't.

To the limited, and it is very limited, extent that some water saving might actually occur [at enormous expense] such extra water not lost will simply be snaffled up by irrigators as part of their allocation.
They believe they have the right to every drop of water in the Basin and the more that becomes available, or the less, they want all of it.

The core problem is being ignored.
We allow too much water to be taken out of the river by irrigation.
There isn't enough water to satisfy their demand any more.
We have to limit, drastically, the amount of water removed from the river by irrigation.

So it delivers the natural world into the hands of those who have a historical record of destroying it, and who have ignored the uncosted damage their decisions have inflicted on the natural world.These people now say that they want to save the river from the ecological destruction they have wrought by taking too much water out of the river?

Oh, they didn't take to much water out I hear them say. The ecological destruction was caused by the long drought. The ecological restoration will come from the rains.

It's just more denial.

where is the cost benefit analysis of the $5.8 billion dollar investment in improving irrigation efficiency and productivity that has been premised on the monetisation and marketisation of nature, its reduction to a tradeable asset.

"The case for the public subsidy--- the $5.8 billion dollar investment in improving irrigation efficiency and productivity--- is premised on Pareto optimality and Kaldor–Hicks efficiency".

Using Kaldor–Hicks efficiency, an outcome is more efficient if those that are made better off could in theory compensate those that are made worse off, so that a Pareto improving outcome results. A voluntary exchange that extracts more water from the river
would be a Kaldor–Hicks improvement if the irrigators were to l compensate the river with increased flows from greater efficiency in their use of water.

"The future is clearly written --some irrigation districts are going to be decommissioned because climate change in the southern basin means hotter conditions, less rain and less runoff. "

Not really. The book burning irrigators are part of the climate change denial movement that is deeply opposed to the truths established by natural science and abusive towards climate change scientists.

"The book burning irrigators are part of the climate change denial movement that is deeply opposed to the truths established by natural science and abusive towards climate change scientists."

These are some of the abusive emails. They are threatening and abusive and part of the right-wing populism movement associated with fossil fuel interests, the Big Miners and Big Ag.

You don't think water wasted via leakage and evaporation should be saved?
I don't know if enough water can be "saved" to placate those who wish to retain the lower lakes in an unnatural state, but I do think it is farcical to remove 30% of the water from productive use but retain similar losses. Like it or not an irrigator whose business is impacted by smaller allocations is unlikely to be in a position to stump up cash to save the water lost.

I see a lot of economists say that savings are a waste of money, but no figures to back this up.
i, buyback (say $2000/ML)monetary return on investment- nil
ii, "savings"(say $3000/ML returned to river)means that for an extra $1000/ML a tonne of rice can still be grown($300) or a bale of cotton ($600). Most years.

What economists don't value is the future value of water, where irrigation will play increasingly important role in an unstable climate.

Its a bit difficult to know where to start to criticise your statements, just about every phrase is wrong in some way and the total is an incoherent mess.
Bit by bit:
"You don't think water wasted via leakage ...... should be

First, you need to show that water 'wasted' through leakage will actually be 'saved'.
One of the major criticisms of the Howard/Turnbull water plan just before the '07 election is that the numbers [costs and savings] thrown around were without economic or environmental credibility.
Turnbull cut and ran from press conferences because of the paucity of credibility on this [and other] issue[s].
Asserting that water can be saved by fixing leaks is different from actually saving water in practice.
Its been a refrain for decades yet measurements of such show that water volumes saved are minimal, exorbitantly expensive, easily obtained by alternatives and should be funded by the irrigators rather than passing their costs on to tax payers and any such savings would be, as I said above, immediately snaffled by the irrigator lobby as such becomes available.
No saving at all, less than zero in fact.

Thats looking at one part of your first sentence.
The missing words in my quote above are "and evaporation'.
This is really an annoying and unethical attitude shared by many irrigators and others, who believe that anything natural that they cannot exploit for their own selves is by definition 'wasted".
Its not, its part of the natural system.
Water not used by irrigators is not wasted.
It goes to the river and if you wish to detirmine the value of our environment purely in economic terms then environmemtal water is economically valuable because it is the mainstay of the tourist and recreational industries both of which have suffered economic losses in the past few years as irrigators drained the river for their own selfish wants and bugger everybody and everything else.

Thats just your first sentence.

Now I'm not going to go through your whole comment, it would take too long to do so but I'll just comment on your second sentence to show how you continue to get things wrong.
"...the lower lakes in an unnatural state".
Well, of course the whole river from start of tributaries to mouth and all the one million s.kms around is in an 'unnatural state'.
Has been for decades.
Why pick one single, minor at that, aspect of such?
Cos you reckon its 'wasted' cos upstream irrigators can't use it?
How about you advocate, in the interests of consistency, we get rid of the 'unnatural' dams, Victoria and Hume et al, and the unnantural locks and weirs and the 'unnatural' Snowy scheme structures and the thousands of 'unnatural' farm dams and the deforestation and the pumps and pipes and ....
Got the idea?

I could continue, the rest of your statement is no better than the first two sentences but I suspect all would be
'wasted' against the brick wall of your inability to see anything but your own narrow self interest.
Have you no shame?

rojo says:
"Like it or not an irrigator whose business is impacted by smaller allocations is unlikely to be in a position to stump up cash to save the water lost."

Then why are they in business if they are unable to invest in improving their irrigation system? It sounds as if the small irrigators can only survive with a public subsidy.

Isn't that a problem?

So the parliamentary report by Tony Windsor calls for water buybacks to be suspended with more handouts to irrigators.

This is despite a mountain of evidence that voluntary water buybacks are the best way to return water to rivers.

The Productivity Commission has stated that water buybacks are the most efficient and cost-effective method of returning water back to rivers, with most economists, conservationists, scientists and many landholders also in favour.

There's a new campaign under the guise of Myth and the Murray that aims to resist an increase in the share of water for the environment under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It's an irrigator's campaign.

The core problem for them is not the over allocation of water entitlements for irrigators in the Basin. It is the five Goolwa barrages that now separate salt water close to the river mouth from fresh water in Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert. If these were taken away, then then would be no need to substantially increase environmental flows to ensure the ecological health of the lower lakes and the Coorong.

The Myth and the Murray (NSW?) irrigator crowd is linked to Jennifer Marohasy

Nan, Gary, others.

Ever heard of the 'Twin Lakes' proposal?

It was a doozy.
Environmental vandalism on a giant scale.

Here is one link to a brief description of it.

Basically the idea was to build an earth wall [from memory] 10 metres high and many metres wide all around the interior of Lake Alexandrina so as to enclose it and completely isolate it from the River Murray.
The river would then flow around the perimeter into L.Albert which would change to being pure fresh water and then out into the sea.
Alexandrina would be filled completely with salt water from the sea.
Cost estimated at $300 million plus.
Aim - to stop the fresh water of Alexandrina evaporating [as rojo wants] and thus make it available for irrigation.

Impact-total destruction of the complex eco systems of the Lower Lakes and all associated economic activity and cuktural history..

It was seriously touted at several levels of government, state and local and federal, and within community river groups for some time, complete with glossy documents and wonderful promises.
It was in some respects the parent of the emergency barrage that was built across the river at Clayton {??? ...short term memory loss applying].

It seems the essence of it is being resurrected.

There is a very simple solution to the ecological problems in the Murray-Darling Basin---too many water entitlements have ben allocated. So they need to be cut back.

It's not rocket science. What prevents this from happening is the power of the irrigators. Climate change is going to force them to their knees bit by bit. Their will be less and less water flowing into the river to extract.

the writing is on the wall for all to see.

Environmental considerations are being pushed aside and the solution to save the Murray system is going be a political quick fix. The upstream states---Queensland, NSW and Victoria--- will not countenance any significant reductions in the amount of water they can extract from the Murray-Darling river system. They want to keep the river system as an irrigation channel.

The current tactic is twofold: reduce environmental flows because regional communities have priority over the environment and delay the basin plan until 2019.

rising sea levels are going to effect the Goolwa Channel and the lower lakes and there are going to be increasing saline intrusions with high tides and low environmental flows.

There already has been. ---There was a huge fish kill of fresh water fish in the mouth of the Hindmarsh River in Encounter Bay and the Goolwa Channel last month (May 22) from saline intrusions.; and a less intense one in early June.

nan, you miss my intent. The govt has rushed in to buy entitlement, with less entitlement the farmer has less income with which to spend on infrastructure to make up the shortfall in water- local businesses lose, population declines. Those that do have money don't need to give half their water savings back because they've funded it themselves and keep it. My view is that a real return is generated on the extra money spent on a "savings subsidy".
It's not that great a "subsidy" when you have to contribute 20% of the outlay AND give up half the savings as entitlement. There is no huge financial benefit to farmers, second hand drip tape and centre pivot sprinklers aren't worth very much.

The focus you seem to have is that farmers solely benefit from the "subsidy" when really it is the whole nation, and particularly the local population.

Climate change is a funny and rather unpredictable thing, with the likelihood of more intense rainfall events and thus greater runoff during those events. There is nothing to say that infrequency and intensity won't cancel each other out. Irrigation is likely to be much more valuable should the doomsayers be correct.

fred, sorry for the delay in replying to your critique. I'm also sorry my posts don't pass your coherence test. I'll try harder.

I'm not sure what is wrong with pointing out that significant losses are produced from leakage and evaporation, and that these losses would continue unabated. Thereby a larger percentage of the remaining productive water will be lost. No winners there.
It is possible that leaks return to the system but no less than water returning to the system via irrigation "leaks"- deep drainage etc. In the ethics realm then it should also be agreed that the water extracted by irrigators is not lost to the environment.

Another post of mine here points out that savings are not a freebie for the farmer, a significant amount of funding co-contribution and returning to govt half of the savings in entitlement should be enough to quell that fear.

I'm not pretending anything about the Murray system is or isn't natural, I just think it's strange to complain that upstream is the problem when downstream isn't pure either. We all have an effect, and as we are unlikely to simply vacate the MDB we need to accept this.
Fault me if you wish, but maintaining a large area of water at nearly a metre higher than sealevel and expecting it to remain fresh depite the vagaries of the Australian climate is plain silly. I happen to have focused on this merely because it is likely to be the biggest waste of Australian fresh water in history. Yes waste.

I have no shame, I've purchased my entitlement from willing sellers who also purchased from willing sellers or who were initially granted allocation by govt. I built my business and employ lots of people. I have friends and family in my district that are here because of the wealth that flows from irrigated agriculture. If fracturing all that is avoidable through spending a bit extra to save water, then I'd like to avoid. That is worth more than mere money in my view, but some just see the $$$. Shame really.

That's leaving aside the value of irrigated ag and the taxes paid. A $5billion pa industry in my estimation is produsing enough tax revenue to fully fund the proposed spending.

The ALP doesn't have the political courage to cut back the irrigator entitlements. They know that it is what needs to be done to make the Murray-Darling Basin sustainable, but they cannot do it.

The Coalition, of course has contradictory messages. The message is more water for irrigators in Queensland whilst in South Australia it is more water for the environment.

They don't care if anyone notices the contradiction in their policy.

rojo says:
"it's not that great a "subsidy" when you have to contribute 20% of the outlay AND give up half the savings as entitlement. "

a "subsidy" is still a subsidy. The irrigation industry is still not standing on its own two feet. Theirs is the economics of protection--old style agrarian socialism under the cover of the new talk of free market economics.

Nan, it's a "subsidy" of sorts to ensure capital investment can happen if the project is worthy. It's not a free for all, and not everyone wishes to participate.

Irrigation must be standing on it's own feet otherwise we'd be falling over each other trying to get rid of entitlement. Not arguing the perceived failings of the original Basin Plan(guide).

Infrastructure spending is about aquiring water for the environment with minimal disruption to agricultural production and the communities that depend on that production. If you must think of it as subsidy then think of it as a subsidy to the communities. It isn't for the farmer's benefit. I've done the figures and won't benefit from an infrastructure "subsidy" although mainly because I've already been tackling water efficiency along the way. Others who haven't will have the opportunity to catch up, but at the expense of giving up entitlement. And cash.
I hope it can maintain production levels for them, because second-hand irrigation equipment suffers huge depreciation.