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Murray-Darling Basin: environmental rollback « Previous | |Next »
November 28, 2011

The claim of the recently released Murray-Darling Basin Authority's revised draft plan is that it aims to end decades of state squabbling over the management of Australia's biggest and most productive river system. Will it?

MoirA Murrat.jpg

The proposal to return 2750 gigalitres a year to the river falls well short of the authority's recommendation in its "guide" to the basin plan last year, when it proposed the return of 3000 to 4000 billion litres a year. And the mechanism to claw back the water is coming from improving irrigation infrastructure rather than from water buybacks. The revision is Labor's political compromise of fix the irrigators win: they weakened the environmental proposals.

Is it too little too late?

From a South Australian perspective ("rivers die from the bottom up") the political fix or compromise does not protect the water quality of the river, nor does it addressed over-allocation by upstream irrigators who use 93 per cent of the river's water. It is deeply flawed and the intractable policy problems associated with reallocating water among users are not about to go away.

The irrigation lobby will still react negatively to this idea of increased environmental flows, arguing that they require certainty of water availability for production. In contrast the environmental lobby will point to the paucity of water to meet environmental needs and the resultant uncertain environmental gains.

It appears that the rain--the breaking of the drought---has helped to restore the river, but in the process it has washed away the reform momentum. However, the rain hasn't fixed the overallocation of Murray-Darling river system. It has not ended the prospect of future droughts. Nor does it tackle the long-term impacts of climate change on rainfall in the southern basin.

Ben Eltham points out that:

The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists estimates that pre-industrial water flows in the Murray Darling Basin were around 12,200 gigalitres. That sounds like a lot of water – and it is: one gigalitre is around 444 Olympic swimming pools. But irrigation, agriculture and other development has reduced this flow to approximately 4,700 gigalitres – just two-fifths of the pre-industrial total. This is not enough water to sustain a healthy river system, especially in times of sustained drought. Of the basin's 23 river valleys, 20 are in poor or very poor environmental health.

Climate change will only make matters worse: the CSIRO expects inland Australia to warm and dry as global temperatures rise. Future rainfalls across much of the southern Murray-Darling catchment are likely to be lower than present.

The current system is broken that the basin's rivers will dry up, the wetlands will die and many of the irrigation towns will die anyway, if the massive over allocation of irrigator's licences is not substantially addressed. In the meantime environmental degradation will be ongoing and continual.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 6:56 PM | | Comments (22)


The irrigators are so predictable. They say the draft was a fraud and if adopted, would result in thousands of jobs being lost, an increase in food prices and communities being shut down. The Victorian irrigators say:

We've said that if they take water from us it's really going to affect our family farming, it's going to affect the prices that people will pay in supermarkets and it's going to really destroy small communities

Irrigators, they say, have already given back so much of their water, and the plan fails to provide security for irrigation communities.

What needs to happen is that irrigators should get more water. After all the Murray Darling river system is a working river.

Unsustainable farming practices are going to continue

So we have the expenditure of many billions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize irrigators rather than for buy-back of irrigators 's licences to pump water from the river system.

yep the irrigators get what they want--more water through the public subsidy of irrigation upgrades.

Depressing, ain't it?

The environmentalists are equally predictable - the river will die unless 4000gl instead of 2750 is returned. Scientific basis on which 4000 is based? None.

From what I can see both sides are fairly equally aggrieved so the plan can't be too far off the mark this time. Will reserve judgement until I have time to peruse said plan. Bit busy trying to keep flood waters off fields.

The irrigators give the impression that their future can be guaranteed by doing nothing + protection. That ain't going to work. Agriculture is going to continue to shed jobs (it now employs under 3%) and its share of national output (its now around 2.2 per cent) won't increase.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority's plan needs the support of Parliament to take effect. Will the Coalition say no? Or will they support modest reform?

The Greens have warned yesterday that they would try to block the current draft plan because the the CSIRO found that proposed cuts of 2750 billion litres to farmers' water entitlements would not meet all the environmental goals for the basin.

The plan admits that irrigators have taken out more water than entered the river in some years in the recent past and that current usage rates cannot be sustained.
The current rate of usage of water from the river, almost entirely by irrigators, is greater than the river can support.

You need to come to grips with that fact.

And with its direct implication - there has to be a syubstantial decrease in the amount of water irrigators take out of our, not their, river.

All the bluster and noise and jumping up and down by the irrigation lobby will not change the fact that the river cannot support the industry and continue to flow in the future.

The river is dying. I presume even you will not deny that.
The river is not receiving anywhere near a increase of 2750 GL/y. The increase in environmental flows in recent years from water buy back is less than half of the proposed maximum 2750 and even that maximum is unlikely.

There is definitely something shonky about the plan's numbers.
They quote 'environmentally sustainable level of take' of water from the river as 10,878 GL/y but the long term median annual inflow [thats the total amount of water that flows into the river in most years] is given by the MDB [the predecessor of the MDA] as only 9,000 GL/y for the 100 plus years up to 2005.
Where does this 10,878 come from? How relevant is it?
This plans numbers do not add up.
Which is why you should be suspicious of them and not of those environmentalist scientists whose credibility is quite frankly far greater than the credibility of this plan whose numbers have clearly been massaged to please the irrigation lobby.

Face it rojo, irrigators, like you and me, are going to have to adjust whether we/they like it or not.
We/they can cooperate in a process that seeks to optimise that change or we/they can dig the heels in and shout a lot.

Because the inflow numbers are not gonna change.

What is troubling is the the government has moved away from the low-cost, low-consultation process of water buy-backs and is now positioning to spend most of the $5.8 billion set aside for subsidising farmers' irrigation infrastructure in an effort to recover this water. For example, it was recently announcement that the taxpayer will pick up the $1.2 billion bill on stage 2 of the irrigation renewal project in Victoria.

The this will come at a cost of $5600 per megalitre – at least twice the cost of simply buying the water on the open market. They increased the water they get by getting the government to upgrade the leaky irrigation channels or irrigation feeder systems.

It is subsidies to irrigators in the guise of returning water to the river--to a group with a vested interest in keeping all the water they can get their hands on.

No surprise that the plan lies somewhere inbetween what everyone wants.
Time to shuffle papers,have meetings,set agendas and check to see if there has been any advances in indian rain technology.

Fred, why would it be a surprise that irrigators sometimes extract more than natural inflow? Once water has been captured in a big flow some of it is available for irrigation the following year -one that may actually have been a low inflow year. That's what dams.

No one denies irrigators have an impact on the river, a balance has to be found. However reform has been instigated by the lowest series of
inflows to the MDB in history and a reaction to which can be easily overdone.
My view is that the science should be irrefutable with respect decisions made, not political cow tailing to green groups who see a bigger
number as best.

I'll have to check but thought the average MDB inflow was about
32000GL with the environment getting 19000GL currently. Will 2750 be that big a difference? Will 4000 change that dramatically? Questions that should be answered before jobs are lost, not after.

A couple of years ago, during nearly decade of drought, I would have agreed about adjustment. However after a good year last year, and currently sitting surrounded by a sea of water I think we don't give natural variability the credit it deserves. Who says the inflow numbers aren't going to change?

Thats the old MDBC site link [don't touch the keyboard or it will redirect you to the new site -whilst waiting for the few seconds it takes to load the old site quickly check out the photo of the dry weed-infested lagoon at the top of the page, that's 'my' lagoon, like all of the lagoons along the southern Murray it had no water for 3 years -that aint natural].
Check out graph 2.2., it shows inflows for the period 1892 - 2002 and 'long term median inflow' as 9000 GL/y.

OK, inflow is usually 9000 GL/y.

[The following year the MDBC revised this number DOWN to 8120]

From the above-see Figure 2.

"The total estimated irrigation water use was 12 050 GL/year for the Murray-Darling Basin in 2000–01."

OK, irrigation water usage around 12,000 GL/y

See the problem?

The total capacity for the 4 storages is less than 9,000 GL but of course its functionally less cos if you empty the dams then the walls would fall down.

So BEST CASE scenario is that we enter a year with the storages at 'full' capacity.
As we did in 2006/7.
BUT then we had a drought [ they happen you know]- I think the total inflow to the river for the next 3 years was something like around 4,000 GL/y -don't quote me- and well within 2 years:
-the dams were 'emptied'
-the wetlands went dry, the river stopped flowing, the lakes started disappearing, the water quality was shit, you could walk across the river in 2 places near where I live
-ALL the inflow for those 2 years was used
-quotas were established
-restrictions imposed on urban users.

Gee I wonder why?

Things have gotta change.
Soon -very soon, well BEFORE the next drought.

Fred, you're quoting a median inflow figure and a specific years usage. Not helpful.

I don,t know how you can state that dry lagoons aren't natural. You may not have noticed but the inflows into the MDB over those 3years should have been 90000gl instead of the 4000GL I think you correctly quote.

If there are pictures in the past of an empty Murray, it stands to reason lakes/billabongs connected with the Murray must also dry down. Did I mention these 3 years inflows were the driest in historical record. With consecutive low inflow years unheard of.

did you include the 500Gl delivered as environmental flows to the barmah forest in your 06/07 calculations?

Yes I'm aware of drought, we had no water allocation at all for 4 years, and an average 18% allocation for the whole first decade of the new millennium. We did not have the water missing from your lakes. No one did. SA irrigators did have relatively good run though.

Oh rojo rojo

1.If we are lucky we can expect something like 9000 GL/y odf water flowing into the river.
IF we are lucky, cos average inflow has halved over the last 15 years [its down to about 5,400 GL/y now] and not just from the drought. We have made fundamental changes to the Basin.
Nothing to do with climate change or drought
In addition, further reductions are predicted for the basin of about 20-30% in the future thanks to climate change.

2.In just one year, for example, irrigators took out more than the historical average inflow [a tad under 11,000 GL/y] and lots more than the 9000 above.

3.This shows that the DEMAND from irrigators is greater than the 'normal/average/median supply.

4. Thats not counting or including the fact that 'others' besides irrigators use river water eg:
-Urban [there are 2 million people using river water along the MD, not counting Adelaide or Melbourne]
- last, but certainly not least, the river itself.

If irrigation demand is near to 12,000 GL/y and average normal/median/supply is [considerably] less by several thousands of GL/y, irrigators have to decrease the quantity they use.

Because the 'new normal' is insufficient.
Under the new 'normal [thanks to irrigation demand] the river has not got enough water to flow to the mouth.
That ain't 'normal'.
Its only been happening in recent years, including before the drought.
The drought was not the cause of the problems, it only exacerbated them.
People do not understand that 'normal' inflow has decreased and outtake has increased so much that the river cannot flow.

Lagoons etc 'normally' dry out once or twice every several years or decade or so for a year maybe two with a flood or two in between.
That was natural.
But now with irrigators demanding MORE water than the river can provide, not counting OTHER users, then environmental flows are reduced to virtually non-existent. Thats what we have had in the last few years, thats what the numbers tell us will happen unless, I repeat, irrigation demand is reduced by a huge amount.

Did you look at the links?
Cos the horrifying thing is that they show:
-frequent droughts historically [this last one may have been the worst but pretty darn similar will occur in the next decade or so]
-decreasing inflow

It ain't hard to follow rojo.
Irrigators have to reduce their outtake by lots.

In The Age Stefano de Pieri makes some good points about the NSW irrigators connected with cotton and rice:

Irrigators have a spectacular ability to invoke doom and gloom for river communities if water is returned to the environment. They draw ammunition from a huge arsenal of emotional arguments. As climate change non-believers, they say the river system is subject to the normal ephemeral Australian weather conditions; that lower allocations will destroy their capacity to produce food for domestic consumption and export; that cities will run out of food in a few days without water security; that our food is the best as it is clean and green.

He adds that behind the irrigators there is always the long arm of the National Party. It is known to foment discontent among country people. It loves an emotional fight between ''them'' and ''us'', simplistic sloganeering, high rhetoric and using the other abominable tool available to all politicians - fear.

Gary, agriculture does not fair well in the GDP stakes, where nearly 70% of our GDP is service based. However it is a large contributer in export income, and if the mining industry is but 8% of GDP (yet apparently driving the economy) then it is unwise to undervalue agriculture.

It is also a fairly big call to say that ag will not increase it's share of GDP at a time when population continues to grow whilst ag production plateaus, and we further deplete our resources in fossil fuels and metal

At some point in our more globalized economy wage equalization will occur between countries and my assumption would be that ours will average down further than chinas will average up. Few industries survive better on third world pricing than agriculture.

Stefano de Pieri has a strange view of science:

he figure of 4000 billion litres is the result of years of argy-bargy, opinions put forward by scientists, some research, factual observations and so on, but it remains fundamentally arbitrary. It is a figure set high enough for an ambit claim and everyone knows it is impossible to deliver it politically.

He reduces science produced by CSIRO to the opinion of some scientists!

The proposed Basin Plan, which was released on Monday, is based on science – it is a policy proposal informed by science, socio-economic analyses and community views.

Fred, there is no doubt irrigators will lose water, only history will determine if it is too much or too little.
Droughts are natural and will reoccur. Dams capture water when it is in excess and supply water back to the river at a later time. If the dams did not exist there would have been no water for the lakes anyway, it would have simply run out to sea in the good years.

I really don't understand why you are surprised lakes dry up in drought, and why this shouldn't happen in the future.

Irrigators don't have any say on allocations nor can they demand more. it is govt that decided on entitlement issuance and grants
water allocations to those licences.

Surely you must realize that any flow in the river is an environmental one, and that just because it is heading to
a farmer does not make it otherwise.

To maintain the lower lakes evaporation alone requires some 800gl a year. Water that wasn't available through natural flows when 06/07 Murray inflow was 934gl total, and later years worse. The notion that without irrigators the lakes, small or large, would have faired better is nonsense.

I'm about ready to give in and you can claim a win rojo.
You know why?
Cos I'm tired of seeing the same old furphies and myths trotted out around the blogs and the media and people just repeating them without checking or thinking.
So a couple of those from your last post before I walk into the sunset.

"To maintain the lower lakes evaporation alone requires some 800gl a year..."

That is natural to the river system. To turn it deliberately into something else would be [is] wanton environmental vandalism on an international scale and you should be ashamed of yourself for even hinting at it.
It doesn't need artificial maitenance, it is fully totally natural, or could be pretty darn close to such with minimal care.
It ain't waste just cos some irrigator isn't spraying it into the air, its natural.
Live with it.

"The notion that without irrigators the lakes, small or large, would have faired better is nonsense"

No, that statement by you is what is nonsense.
Here check this out and find out why you are wrong.
And then ask [and hopefully answer] yourself why you believe in such nonsense and even go so far to label the reality as nonsense.
The irony!
I know many people believe what you do, that is what is so sad and why I'm close to giving in.
Bullshit wins.

Here is the key statement.
"Although the Murray Mouth would have occasionally closed under the natural flow regime, the regulated regime presents conditions that are more conducive to closure. Persistent low flows and their effects on promoting sediment build-up at the Mouth are not new, but since regulation they have increased in frequency and duration (Walker, 2002a; b)."

The 'persistent low flows' have been the direct result of satisfying irrigators needs, without such the Lakes would not, have never in the historical past, or even the pre-historical past [I'm talking thousands of years], suffered as they have recently.

"6.2.3 Mouth closure
A closure under the current flow regime has serious consequences for the local business and recreational users of the area and also for the ecology ...."

Even more [contrary to myth]:
"The only time that the Murray Mouth has closed in recorded history was in 1981 ... (DWLBC, 2002"

Here's the link.

I doubt you'll read it and even if you do I'm sure you'll find some way to rationalise it away.

The noise machine of the irrigation lobbyists is too strong for me rojo.
You win. Congratulations. In 10-20 years when I'm dead so will the Murray be.

Fred, I am well versed in the lower lakes and coorong, at least for a NSW dweller. The reason why the mouth never closed prior to 1981 is the barrages and not having the lowest series of inflows in recorded history. From memory the lakes were also back down to sea level in about 67 or so.

The literature suggests the lower lakes were fresh 97% of the time pre-development. And have continued to be.

Prior to development there can be no doubt that the lakes would have been seawater during much of last decade.

If an open mouth is the requirement remove the barrages.

Fred, if I had no water, my neighboring valleys had no water, practically no general security water holder in NSW had any, high security had next to none, where was the water to come from to maintain the lakes and mouth?

The problem is you don't seem to understand how little water there was for anyone.
Last year every farmer would have nearly had a full crop, every main storage went from empty to nearly full, every farm dam filled and yet the Murray mouth still had it's biggest flow in years. Is that overallocation?

At some point someone other than yourself realizes that very low flows will not satisfy the evaporation potential of the lower lakes, and that the water would be best saving permanent plantations. It's a harsh reality that wishful thinkers cant take on board.

They want a natural lower lakes, as long as it's permanently fresh, held 75cm above sea level, and on top of its 800gl evaporation an additional 2000gl ofto keep the mouth open. Due to the existence of the

It's not a competion, I don't wish to "win". Only to offer some truth to an emotional issue. Or at least truth as I see it.

The Murray dead in 20 years, no it won't be but it is a nice emotional button to push isn't it?

Fred, now that I've read through your link, which part disagrees with anything I've said?