October 30, 2012

Murray-Darling Basin: a small win

Gillard Labor announced that the Commonwealth will spend $1.7 billion to increase water return to the Murray-Darling River by a further 450 gigalitres. The extra 450 gigalitres will be achieved "largely" through on-farm investments. The extra water savings are in addition to the draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan that recommends 2,750 gigalitres be returned to the environment, taking the new total to 3,200 GL.

The announcement, which is a small win for South Australia, may start to see a reversal of the environmental degradation at the lower end of the basin system due to the overallocation of a water by the various state governments. It is 'may' because New South Wales and Victoria have been campaigning for a limit of 2,100 gigalitres on how much water can be recovered for environmental flows.

If the Commonwealth attempts to override the resistance to reform the overallocations of water by New South Wales and Victoria, are we heading for a constitutional showdown being decided by the High Court? Would it not have have easier and more effective to buy back the water? The reason is that the basin irrigators in New South Wales and Victoria have largely rejected that market based approach.

It's a depressing scenario but i see little chance of co-operation at the level of CoAG. The history has been one of conflict between, not consensus amongst, the states with respect to reducing the overallocation of water. Overallocation of water for irrigation is not fair use.

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August 28, 2012

Murray-Darling Basin: still negotiating

The states are still negotiating the Murray-Darling Basin plan. The current plan on the table, designed by the independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority, suggests a range of between 2400 and 3200 gigalitres, depending on water-saving measures plus a small increase in the amount of groundwater extracted from the system. NSW wants much more groundwater extracted.

The southern states of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia are where the contests over water and related funding are most severe in that Victoria and NSW believe the target should be 2100 gigalitres returned to the river.

RiverMurrayMouth.jpg River Murray mouth

The conflicts over water and funding are there because this is where most of the over-allocation has occurred, and the Murray-Darling Basin plan, reinforces and asserts the eastern states' hegemony – again. From this perspective South Australia is the recalcitrant state because it wants too much water returned to the river to sustain wetlands. The SA figure is 4000 gigalitres.

The policy impetus can be gleaned from the Windsor Inquiry's report--- Of drought and flooding rains: Inquiry into the impact of the Guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The key recommendation is that the government build irrigation infrastructure instead of buying back water entitlements from willing sellers.

The aim was to find measures to increase irrigation efficiency, in response to rural angst about water buybacks. The investment in regional futures involving investment to improve irrigation efficiency would allow water to be reallocated. However, it is quite apparent that inappropriate and largely unproductive agricultural enterprises based on inefficient irrigation practices are no longer sustainable.

South Australia's position is that if a deal is done with NSW and Victoria which sells out South Australia's interests then the SA Government will challenge that plan in the High Court.

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June 5, 2012

conserving declining river systems

The central problem in water policy in the Murray-Darling Basin is that the various basin states spent most of the last century handing out water rights like they were manna from heaven and picking up the tab on irrigation projects that failed along the way.

The consequences are well known: there has been increased salinity, algal blooms and loss of native species; plus many of the agricultural products (eg., dairy) not attracting market prices that covered the costs of production, including irrigation.

FPHindmarshIS.jpg Gary Sauer-Thompson, Hindmarsh Island, South Australia

The initial Guide to the Basin Plan and its revision --the Draft Plan which cut the volume of groundwater to be extracted, --- has seen farming communities and environmental interests. Irrigators have continued to claim the new limits would be too severe whilst environmentalists argued that not enough water would be transferred to the environment.

The bad public policies have continued, namely, ongoing taxpayers’ money on irrigation infrastructure based on the idea that irrigation infrastructure can generate water for the environment and miraculously transform the economic malaise of related industries. The better public policy is the buy-back of water rights and it is cheaper for the taxpayer.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 9:39 AM | TrackBack

November 28, 2011

Murray-Darling Basin: environmental rollback

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.

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June 8, 2011

Murray-Darling Basin: communities first

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) | TrackBack

May 26, 2011

Murray-Darling basin: water reform?

I've been going through my photographic archives and I'm starting to upload some of the images I took of the River Murray around 2004 when the drought was deeply entrenched, water reform was beginning to make some headway in Canberra, and the water wars were in full swing.

Today we can see what the reform has amounted to. In Water wars: the battle between public and private Ian Douglas states it succinctly:

The unbundling of water rights from land title has been the lynchpin of water reform, enabling water entitlements to be leased, treated as equity, bequeathed or permanently traded...Australian water is now effectively commoditised: allocated to whoever is willing to pay the going price. The market cares not whether you intend to drip-irrigate vegetables, cultivate cotton by flood irrigation, water golf courses - or merely hold your allocation as an investment for a rainy, or not so rainy, day. We are told that water trading will promote the allocation of water to “high value” uses, but the concept of “value” is far from precise.

Those who benefit are the ones with deep pockets--- the large-scale agribusiness enterprises--whilst those who will lose out in the long rum are the small farmers. That is how capitalism works--it becomes ever more concentrated.

It was pretty clear by around 2004-6 that the Murray-Darling Basin Commission did not have the power to act in the national interest---it was unable to restore the environmental flows the ecology of the basin needed. Big Ag ensured that. It did the same with the Commission successor-- the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. The latter has been forced to reduce the proposed environmental allocation to 2,800 gigalitre increase rather than the nearly 4000 litres previously recommended as a lower limit.

The decrease comes from a political fix premised on the reality that the Murray-Darling river system exists primarily for development by the water extraction industries. That is why politics trumps science. What next? Dumping voluntary water buybacks to reduce the over allocation of water entitlements? A return to increased efficiency of the extraction of water through the ongoing public subsidy of Big AG?

The long term strategy of Big Ag in an era of climate change is to ensure that more water for them is extracted.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:22 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

January 6, 2011

Big Ag: delay water reforms

Big Ag has found another reason to block water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin. National Farmers Federation president Jock Laurie says that the enormous volume of water flowing into the system from the Queensland rains buys the government time to sit back and make sure they get this right.

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Getting it right for Big Ag and its political allies -eg., Senator Barnaby Joyce and the Nationals ---means ensuring precedence is not given to the environment over the needs of rural communities and food producers. Decoded that means stopping the reform process to reduce the over allocations that continue to benefit Big Ag. How will they argue? That recent flood events indicates that there is enough water in the basin for everyone?

That reform process, as outlined in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's (MDBA) recently released guide, recommends buying back 3000-4000 gigalitres of water from the allocations of farm irrigators - or up to 37 per cent of entitlements - in an effort to protect the ecological health of the basin that has been devastated by low to no river flows.

The rhetoric is that the Guide's one option of taking back water is currently a plan which risks the future of river, farms and people. The Greens and their talk of environmental sustainability are the enemy. There is no need for any cuts to irrigation use as the capital cities such as Melbourne and Adelaide can reduce their use of River Murray water. It is senseless to have water flowing out to sea when Big Ag can use it to make profits from agricultural exports.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:47 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

November 17, 2010

Murray-Darling Basin: nothing changes

I have to agree with Brian Toohey's argument in his Rethinking the Murray–Darling buybacks at Inside Story that what happens with irrigation water in the Murray-Darling Basin is one of the great public policy failures of recent Australian history. This failure is not just the past--it is also being continued by the Gillard Government.

His argument is that despite COAG agreeing in the 1990s that full cost recovery would apply to “all rural surface and groundwater based systems” except for some small community services that meet social and public health obligations, the Australian Government has no intention that the $5.8 billion public investment to upgrade commercial irrigation infrastructure will not be recovered.

In line with Rudd’s approach, Gillard has no intention of recovering a cent of this public spending from the irrigators who benefit. The $5.8 billion is meant to “save” water by reducing leaks and seepage from canals and pipes, with half the savings going to irrigators and half retained for the rivers. Much of the savings, however, would have found their way back to the rivers and groundwater systems as part of the basin’s normal hydrological processes.Apart from large-scale spending on off-farm engineering works of direct benefit to farmers, at least $720 million has been allocated to upgrade on-farm irrigation infrastructure. This spending gives an even bigger boost to the value of these farmers’ properties without any of the costs being returned to the public purse.

Toohey adds that the water minister, Tony Burke, proposes to spend more money on infrastructure, this time to create extra water for irrigators by diverting it from wetlands and other environmental assets intimately linked to the basin’s rivers. Again, farmers won’t pay a cent for the extra water.

It is a policy failure because it amount to a gigantic public subsidy for the irrigation industry, which regards the water flowing into the nation’s rivers or underground aquifers as belonging to them. They erroneously consider a water access entitlement as giving the irrigator the right to a guaranteed amount of water; and a right without any responsibility to use this water in a way that ensures the sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin.

We still have the state subsidising water development, standing behind Big AG, and ensuring that the irrigation gets its water at the expense of the wetlands. So it is a surprise to find Graeme Batten in his A response to the Guide to the proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan at Online Opinionthat a simple and rapid reduction in water allocations to irrigation communities is not acceptable unless the effects are countered by measures that lead to improved water delivery and utilization efficiencies.

Batten's argument that Irrigators deserve recognition for the gains in the more efficient use of water they have made already is fair enough, but his argument that an increase in the efficient utilization of the water available through public investment in infrastructure upgrades and funding research and development of water-efficient irrigation carefully avoids COAG's user-pays principle that was endorsed by the 2004 National Water Initiative.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:38 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

October 27, 2010

Murray-Darling Basin reform: its war

The Canberra Press Gallery are saying that the Gillard Government is not managing the reforms to the Murray- Darling Basin well.

We are being informed that the revolt in the streets is due to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority guide supposedly placing all the emphasis on restoring water to the environment and ignoring the social and economic consequences of water reform on regional communities. By not taking into account the devastating impact water reform has on local towns and farmers, the Murray-Darling Basin Report will turn towns into ghost towns.

MoirAMurrayDarlingplan.jpg

Tosh. There is a concerted political campaign being conducted by the irrigators---eg., the National Irrigators Council to prevent water reform to reduce the over allocation of water licences. That campaign is led by the NSW Irrigators Council ----the irrigators have declared war on the Gillard Government, just like the miners did, and they are using similar astroturf tactics. This is a campaign based on deception and fear--from foodbowl to dustbowl.

The signs in this Mildura meeting say that the (lack of) river flow is caused by drought not farmers. Therefore, no water should be taken from irrigators.

What the authority has been doing is figuring out the environmental requirements of the river system first and then looking at how to minimise the social and economic impacts of having less water for farm use. Returning to the river system at least the minimum amount of water needed for ecological health was supposed to be the point of this long and supposedly independent process.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:59 PM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

October 19, 2010

Water reform: conservatives rise to the occassion

The conservative commentariat is so predictable in their response to the water reform in the basin, as they endeavour to rise above their cartoon understanding of water reform and show their grasp of policy. The basic position is that there does not need to be any change to the current levels of water extraction; or if there is to be change, then it should be others not us) who change business-as-usual.

SpoonerJRiver.gif

For Gerard Henderson in the Sydney Morning Herald it was simply a case of the culture wars:

the plight of "these people" involved not only farmers in the basin but also that of butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. . It was the classic disconnect between the inner-city, well-educated professional with a secure job and guaranteed superannuation and the less-educated small business operator or employee in the regional centres or outer suburbs.

Yawn. For Henderson water reform has nothing to do with the overallocation of water entitlements by state governments or the need to return the basin to ecological health in order to protect its economy.

For Niki Savva in her Lead on reform or lose way in The Australian it was an example of Julia Gillard's bad leadership:

Gillard's inability to lay out a clear agenda for Labor and for the government - the penchant for committees, reviews, round tables, guides and the need to take deep breaths - means she is in danger of being swept along by events either outside her control or initiated by others...Labor's problems run wide and deep. It has a profound identity crisis, the kind political parties usually undergo in opposition and which government often masks. It has yet to work out its policy program, formulate its strategic thinking, prove its administrative capabilities or devise credible media management.

Savva says that Gillard failed miserably to take charge and to shape debate or lead the national conversation on at least two critical issues----pricing carbon or water allocations---confronting the government and the community. It was just a case of the Gillard Government using bureaucrats as human shields in the water debate.

Really? Savva does not mention of the work being done by Tony Burke, the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. Or the Gillard Government's clear statement that it is determined to push ahead with water reform as it is developed in the forthcoming basin plan. There was no mention of the parliamentary inquiry into the social and economic impact of the cutbacks in water allocations.

What is probably happening here is that Gillard Labor is allowing its opponents to frame the debate on water reform with their talk of "getting the balance right", even though "getting the balance right" is irrigator talk. The irriigators refer to getting the balance right between between social, economic and environmental goals, by which they mean that the reform process has prioritized the environment too much, and "the balance" needs to be swung back to the social and economic big time. It's the environment v the economic for the irrigators, and they use it like a sledgehammer to crack skulls to resist reform.

What the Gillard Government should be saying is that the destruction of the ecology of the basin by taking too much water out for irrigation causes the decline in the economic base of regional towns. This is especially so in the content of climate change which is drying out the basin. That is why the environment has to be given priority and irrigators have to adjust to making do with less water. As Tim Flannery said on Q+A:

Over the last decade the water for agriculture has decreased by about 68 per cent. Value of the produce produced in irrigated agriculture has decreased by about one per cent or less. So and that's because water trading allows you to trade up to the most valuable crop.

In the absence of this kind of reform narrative from Gillard Labor, the tactic of relentless, strident and aggressive negativity cuts though and fill the vacuum. It is being deployed with great effect by the regional populists fighting their never ending war against Canberra.

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October 12, 2010

Judith Sloan on the Murray-Darling basin plan

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) | TrackBack

October 7, 2010

Murray-Darling Basin: basin plan

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is due to be released late tomorrow afternoon by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. What will be released is the first instalment of its plan for the basin. The first instalment is a guide to the proposed plan. It will be followed by a draft plan, then the final plan. The bureaucratic wheels turn slowly.

TandbergRRiverMurray.jpg

Though the drought has broken in the Basin with the winter rains and water is now flowing though the system down through the lower lakes in South Australia, the political reality is that it is necessary to ensure that economic activity in the basin is aligned with ecologically sustainability. It is widely accepted that there had been an overallocation of water rights across every river catchment in the basin. So the plan must cut back the amount of water currently diverted for irrigation and to factor in the effects of climate change.

The background notes to the basin plan state:

At the heart of the Basin Plan will be limits on the quantities of surface water and groundwater that can be taken from the Basin water resources. These are known as ‘sustainable diversion limits’ (SDLs). The SDLs will take into account the best available science, and the ‘precautionary principle’....SDLs will limit the quantity of surface water and groundwater that may be taken from the Basin water resources as a whole. There will also be SDLs to limit the quantity of surface water and groundwater that can be taken from individual water resource plan areas and particular parts of water resource plan areas within the Basin. These areas will be defined in the Basin Plan and will draw upon current state water resource plan areas.

The mechanism to achieve this is the government spending billions of dollars ($5.4billion?) over the coming decade buying back permanent water rights from irrigators; and possibly redirecting government spending away from irrigation subsidies to the buyback of water rights "to achieve greater environmental benefits at lower cost.

This raises the question of where will the buybacks be targeted?

Rumors have it that the proposed cuts to irrigators' entitlements, are in a target range of between 27 and 37 per and the goal is to take 3000 and 4000 gigalitres litres from irrigators entitlements to add to water already quarantined for environmental flows.

That means that many irrigators would exit agriculture altogether because the plan will fail to deliver the water necessary to continue farming under the current over-allocated system. The targeted regions are the irrigation along the Murray and the Murrumbidgee. It is expected that the guide to the Murray-Darling Plan will recommend uneven cuts across the basin, with the Murray, the Murrumbidgee, the Goulburn Valley and Condamine-Balonne among the regions to face the greatest cuts.

The irrigators and the Nationals will oppose the cuts in the name of protecting the economics of regional communities and the social costs of the cutbacks. They assume that the drought is over, the rains will continue for several years, and that climate change will not impact on the Murray-Darling Basin. They will call for balance meaning that the policy goal of sustainable use in the Basin has shifted too far to the environment.

Update
The guide to the basin plan is here. Finally we have a step in water reform that is based on the Water Act 2007. This requires the Murray-Darling basin Authority to:

• give effect to relevant international agreements
• protect, restore and provide for the ecological values and ecosystems services of the Basin
• promote the use and management of Basin water resources in a way that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes
• ensure the return to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction for water resources that are overallocated or overused
• maximise net economic returns to the Australian community from the use and management of Basin water resources while protecting, restoring and providing for the ecological values and ecosystems services of the Basin.

Though the Authority proposes to cut allocations by around 3000-4000 gigalitres the report said that this would not yield enough water to satisfy all environmental objectives, and consequently environmental ''tradeoffs'' would be required.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:40 AM | Comments (18) | TrackBack

August 10, 2010

water politics in a neo-liberal world

If politics in a neo-liberal world has become a manufactured reality little different from a reality TV show, then we citizens in a democracy do have to be sceptical of politician's promises. Our experience of politics is of a simulation of reality.

In this world that is ours the advertising slogan has become reality. The simulacrum ("likeness or similarity") is no longer a copy of the real, but becomes truth in its own right: what Jean Baudrillard termed the hyperreal. In this manufactured world of surfaces the carefully manufactured image is reality.

The Advertiser is reporting that the ALP is making a commitment to buying back all the water required to save the River Murray. Gillard says:

We anticipate that by the time the Murray-Darling Basin plan comes into effect (in 2014) federal Labor's buybacks and infrastructure investment will have already delivered much of what the rivers will require to be sustainable. If re-elected, we will bridge any remaining gap between what has been returned and what is required to be sustainable. A Labor government will do this by continuing to buy back water each year beyond 2014 until it had returned all the water the Murray-Darling Basin Authority determined the rivers needed in the final basin plan, due next year. Any buybacks will be subject to the availability of water for purchase from willing sellers. Now, farmers can move forward with confidence knowing they will have options to sell their entitlements when the basin plan comes into force.

The promise or the slogan is the reality. The promise is being made in Adelaide for SA and it is composed of references with no referents.

Remember the narrative of resistance to buyback: a 4% cap trading cap imposed by Victoria until 2019, and the intense resistance from Big Ag to any form of water buyback. In this narrative the dominant, politically powerful groups used language to obscure rather than reveal reality.

There are no figures, no targets. If If there is a reference it is to the basin plan which is not even the release. This plan is just another sign that has no referent. What we have is an election slogan, the ALP positioning its brand in the SA market. For the ALP the simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth --it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum or promise is what is true.

The substantive problem--ie., the referent--- is that the drying out of the southern part of the Murray-Darling Basin is due to global warming party caused by greenhouse gas emissions from coal fired power station. Since the ALP is doing very little to address global warming with some form of pricing on carbon (a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme) the basin will continue to dry out, as will our rivers. This referent is never mentioned in this content by the ALP --only the Greens are willing to do so.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:07 AM | Comments (16) | TrackBack

July 28, 2010

the election: smile and look positive

I have pretty much tuned out from the over-scripted and staged current election campaign, apart from listening to the headlines. I find it mind numbing in terms of its slogans and talking points of stopping the boats, end the waste, the Liberals obsession with deficits and debit, Labor's attempts at greenwash and the debate on population policy. Both sides are driven by their party polling research and that is essentially the same.

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Bob Brown should have been a participant in the leaders debate. The Greens are in government in Tasmania and the ACT and they have something to offer on climate change that goes beyond the 'not yet.'

When are the two major parties going to realize that there is a now third force in Australian politics, which will soon exercise its balance of power through the Senate? Underneath all the waffle of the staged sound bites of safety first the political ground is shifting. We are moving beyond the two-party model.

In an op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald Ross Gittens makes two good observations about the election campaign. Gittens' first observation is that:

The paradoxical truth is that modern election campaigns are aimed at those who aren't much interested in the topic. Swinging voters are assumed to be completely self-interested and short-sighted, driven by emotion rather than intellect, ill-informed and easily conned by slogans and television ads...Hence all the nonsense we're hearing from both sides.

He says that for those of us who do take an intelligent interest, the best response is to conduct our own debate, ignoring the silliness as much as we can. That's good advice. Gittens' second observation is that:
This election is the battle of the scare campaigns. Pollies are trying to frighten us about big new taxes, the return of Work Choices, the threat from boat people, and deficits and debt. I've written a lot in recent times about why we don't need to be too worried by budget deficits and public debt.

What is needed is investment in urban infrastructure to improve the quality of life in our cities (eg., better public transport, people orientated inner city, better food etc ) and more sustainable.

Sustainable, for someone in southern Australia, means environmental sustainability, and that means doing something about water in the context of climate change. That means harvesting storm water and waste-water reuse as well as desalinisation plants.

What we don't know is how the federal and state governments are planning to make our cities more liveable and sustainable in the context of economic growth being the top priority and climate change. I suspect that there is not much planning.

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June 9, 2010

Murray-Darling Basin: obstacles to reform

A more sustainable Murray-Darling Basin (reduced water allocations, greater environmental flows, better agricultural practices) has been on the agenda for several decades. The recent drought and climate change have made this more urgent, especially when the recent floods in Queensland will not reach the lower Murray.

There is not enough fresh water to keep the Lower Lakes artificially fresh any longer.

MurrayDarlingBasin.jpg

Many policy analysts were buoyed by the recent CoAG reforms which signalled a move to a more rational allocation of water resources and greater concern for the underlying requirements to maintain ecosystem health. The Commonwealth’s assumption of greater control over water policy has been justified on the grounds that a ‘national approach’ to the problems in the Murray-Darling Basin is required to resolve the ills of the Basin.

Reform is slow and difficult. The changes required are substantial--eg., the Wentworth Group estimates that irrigators will have to reduce the amount of water they take from the Murray-Darling by 30 per cent if the river is to return to an environmentally healthy state.

The Nationals and the National Farmers Federation oppose any attempt to favour the environment at the expense of the needs of rural communities and farmers. So do the state governments in practice, in spite of their often strong advocacy of the reform agenda. Their conception of reform states that increasing efficiency in agriculture can provide a solution to the water crisis in the Basin and result in ‘wins’ for all players. Water-use efficiency’ is portrayed as an environmental saviour and thus deserving of support from the public purse.

One of the major obstacles to a mire sustainable basin is is Victoria's attempts to keep as much of the River Murray water for its own irrigators in the Shepparton and central Goulburn foodbowl area and to take River Murray Water for Melbourne through its north south pipeline. This takes the form of a $2 billion food bowl modernisation of the rundown existing irrigation system--spun as a national building project by the Brumpy Government.

That means it is in the national interest akin to the Snowy Mountains scheme and the Commonwealth has agreed to fund 90 per cent of the project costs. Is it?

The "water-use efficiency" policy of the food bowl project is one designed to save water through public investment in new irrigation infrastructure (more subsidies) rather than reducing water allocations to irrigators and so shrink the irrigation system. It is a subsidy because the irrigators are only paying around $100 million of the $2 billion cost; a subsidy designed to prevent Victorian irrigation districts being forced to close down.

It is dubious policy because it is investing in infrastructure for farms that will eventually be rationalised; the claimed water savings from improved irrigation infrastructure are just not there; and what are deemed leakage actually seeps back to underground aquifers pumped by farmers and to the river. There is lot of mythology surrounding irrigation efficiency and increased productivity and in all probability we may well be left with a whole heap of irrigation infrastructure that will sit there like a giant white elephant.

What this shows is that state governments have generally resisted calls for national control of water resources, unless coupled with substantial financial incentives usually from the commonwealth. Decision-making at the state level also encourages excessive investment in local water-saving projects since this maintains the resource, and the benefits that accompany that resource, in a given jurisdiction.

In this decision making irrigators, have been, and still are, being put ahead of environmental needs.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:49 AM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

March 29, 2010

Ken Henry on water

Unlike the state Treasurys that are into slash and burn, budget surpluses and GDP as a measurement of population wellbeing the Australian Treasury under Ken Henry, the Federal Treasury Secretary, has a progressive tendency, especially when it comes to wellbeing, the value of the environment and water issues and the plundering of natural resources by Australians. The core argument is that development that did not respect conservation was not development at all because it denied freedoms to future generations.

LeakJoycewater.jpg

At a forum staged by the Weereewa festival based at Lake George near Canberra Henry at the Winds of Change forum told the truth: that water management on this driest inhabited continent on earth has been a disgrace, and that there had 'massive environmental destruction'' as a consequence of fishing, hunting, forestry and farming practices.

In his speech entitled “Sustainable development - implications for human activity” (not online yet) Henry said that water extraction from the Murray-Darling Basin this year amounted to 93 per cent of the average natural flow to the sea. In the past decade, inflows into the Murray-Darling had been below average. ''In three of these 10 years, water extraction actually exceeded inflows.''

There we have it. It is not just the drought. It is bad water management by the states, irrigators taking all the water they get, free riders and the resistance of the national party to water reform. Thus the opposition's new spokesman on water, Barnaby Joyce, is saying that he did not accept it was necessary to return the Murray-Darling Basin to health by buying back water entitlements. Joyce's politics are to support the irrigators whose conception of restoring health to the Murray-Darling Basin is the increased profitability of the irrigation industry.

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March 17, 2010

SA election: city forgotten

The state government planning documents of our cities that aim to direct or shape growth usually talk in terms of “strong communities” and “smart growth” to build a successful city. Peter Spearritt in Trouble in the city at Inside Story says that:

If you want to find out what is happening in Australia’s cities today, don’t go to the well-doctored planning glossies. You would be much better advised to attend a major railway station at peak hour, sit in a freeway traffic jam thirty kilometres out of town, bid at a house auction or inspect the abandoned excavation for a failed inner-city office block or apartment tower. Thank goodness the “Rudd Bank” never got up, otherwise we’d have an even greater rash of energy-intensive buildings that require us to burn coal merely to allow their occupants to move from floor to floor.

Fair comment. But you also need to go and look at the state of our rivers since cities require water to function.

In South Australia water is an issue in the forthcoming state election. The current catchcry is “waterproofing” our city, which means cutting Adelaide's dependence on the dying River Murray. The Rann Government's water proofing strategy is desalinisation plants whilst the Liberal's waterproofing strategy is storm water retention. And so they fight and squabble over which is the best plan.

Don't we need both if Adelaide is going to become a sustainable city?

We do not hear much about creating more public spaces for reflection, for gathering, for contemplation; more trees and greenery in Adelaide's inner city; Victoria Square being better used as a public space; less cars in the city; or making the city area the vibrant cultural heart of the city. The future of Adelaide is a green economy hub – with renewable energy and good public transport at the centre.

Update
The most plausible scenario is still that there is a strong statewide swing to the Liberals, Labor will lose seats (possibly 5), that it will lose its majority and face a hung parliament and the independents will hold the balance of power. If the independents do end up holding the balance of power, then they decide whether Labor or the Liberals govern the state for the next four years. William Bowie differs--he tips a one-seat Labor majority for the third state election in a row.

It is disappointing that I see no desire amongst the independents to change South Australia's electoral system to a Hare-Clark one which is far more democratic. Democracy is not really an issue in SA.

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February 6, 2010

Tasmania: river problems in Launceston

As I'm off to Tasmania for a holiday next week with Suzanne. It's a break from work for Suzanne and a photographic roadtrip for me.

ratrace.jpg

So I'm interested in what is happening in that island state, environmentally speaking. One issue is the Tamar River silt problem, which refers to the massive amounts of sediment flowing into upper Tamar Basin near Launceston. Close to 30,000 cubic metres of silt is deposited each year. Boats now sitting in the mud at what was once a very picturesque part of the city's riverscape.

One consequence is that the increased amount of mud in the Basin effectively limits the space for the rising river waters---a one in 50-year flood event would lead to significant property damage and an emergency evacuation response in the low-lying suburbs of Launceston. The solution has been dredging and building flood levee banks around the city.

One cause of the increase silt is the diverted water flow down the Cataract Gorge that now passes through the Trevallyn Power Station. This has reduced the natural flows down the Gorge of 20-50 cubic metres per second has been reduced to 1.5 cubic metres per second. There is not enough water entering the basin to flush the silt away.

The increased sediment that is choking the Tamar to death with silt can be traced to the North Esk River and the North Esk catchment, rather than the tides bringing silt up the estuary Its bad catchment management. There needs to be a vegetation buffer zones (up to 100m wide) tree planting, cattle control and better regulation of agricultural and forestry practices.v

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January 21, 2010

community cabinet in Adelaide: water

Federal Cabinet was in Adelaide last night at the Norwood Morialta High School in the marginal, Liberal-held seat of Sturt. This is the third community cabinet held in South Australia. The local Labor marginals, Kingston to the south and Wakefield in the north, have already hosted community cabinets of their own.

This is a rustbelt state facing a crisis in manufacturing as the local car industry winds back production and exports due to GM crash into bankruptcy last year. As Hendrik Gout points out at Crikey, the Holden Commodore is no longer exported to the US, and production at Holden's Elizabeth plant is now well under capacity with shifts shortened or cancelled.

Exports were seen to be a key part of Holden's strategy to continue building large cars in South Australia in response to Australian sales of large sedans having dropped for the past 15 years. The outlook here is grim. is SA moving from the Rust Belt to the Green Belt.Is it a technology state focused on the future of green manufacturing?

03January02_Adelaide, Milang_185RundleMall.jpg Gary Sauer-Thompson, Milang, Lake Alexandrina, 2008

As would be expected, the main issue to surface at the Sturt community cabinet was the lack of water flowing into the Lower Lakes of the Murray-Darling Basin, despite the recent deal that had been reached between NSW and SA that guarantees 148 gigalitres of floodwaters from NSW will flow into the Lower Lakes region, with a Federal Government injection of 20 gigalitres on top of that.

The unexpected environmental flows may buy a year or two for the lower lakes and Corrong. The concern expressed at the community cabinet was about the decline of the local communities, due to the lack of water in the lower lakes. This kind of protest will happen more and more across the Murray-Darling Basin due to the effects of climate change. Victoria's solution, to impose a cap on water trading and so retain the water for itself, is an example of the dysfunctional governance.

My position is that, given the incapacity of CoAG to deal with the water crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin, the only long term and sustainable solution to the problems of the Lower Lakes and Coorong is to return the Lower Lakes to a saline estuary. This can be accomplished by the following:

• Allow seawater to flush out damaging acidity and prevent further deterioration.
• Modify the barrage gates to be operated remotely and quickly to take advantage of tidal cycles and wind induced heads of water.
• Remove accumulated sediments inside the Murray Mouth.
• Build a weir or lock between the Lakes and the River.

This would create a biologically diverse Ramsar wetland rather than wind swept dusty paddocks of acid sulphate soils. Of course, that still leaves other regional communities along the river facing their decline.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 9:38 AM | Comments (15) | TrackBack

January 7, 2010

Murray- Darling Basin: waiting for the new basin-wide plan

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.

nswriversystem.jpg

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.

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December 12, 2009

Murray Darling-Basin: blocking water reform

Sooner, rather than latter, the flows in the chopped up River Murray will become less and less. The river, in its climate-change-driven decline, will strangle many of the irrigation projects in the arid landscape around it, as there is not enough water to support the heavily subsidised agribusinesses.

The junk science of the industry --the rain will follow the plough!--and that of their state government boosters who based their projections on what we now know was the unusually wet 20th century will become ideological relics of cultural history as many of the towns along the river become ruins. Aridity will kill off much of the agriculture whilst the water to sustain the towns is already vanishing. The waters are insufficient for this kind of desert civilisation.

The way chosen by CoAG to adjust to this new arid reality is the market in the form of water trading, which is designed to facilitate water being traded to its highest value use. These market instruments are opposed by Victoria, who has imposed a 4% cap trading cap on permanent water rights in any irrigation district in its state. Only 4% can be sold in a financial year, and this is to remain in place until at least 2014.Victoria is anti-reform.

Consequently, South Australia has launched a High Court action to force the Victorian government to lift the cap on water trading along the River Murray on the grounds that it is unconstitutional imposition on trade and is therefore invalid.

Vicotria is anti-reform because in cap is done is designed to protect the vulnerable, drought-stricken communities from being destroyed by huge volumes of water being traded out of their area. As irrigated areas shrink, northern Victoria becomes even more important as the state's food production centre. The Victorian state government has no inclination to buy back water entitlements from its irrigators. Such purchases are left to the Commonwealth, and so there is no fundamental change in the Victorian allocations regime, despite the widespread recognition that some of the Basin’s water resources need to be redirected to the environment.

The Victorian approach is to obtain water for the environment is by subsidising the cost of upgrading infrastructure in its food bowl region by reducing losses to leakage and evaporation in exchange for the rights to some of the water ‘saved’. This is designed to ease irrigators’ transition to lower levels of water availability; to recover water for the environment; and to protect viable irrigation communities by ‘securing’ a long-term future.

The Productivity Commission says that it has examined the experience of Australian programs for recovering water through subsidising infrastructure and concluded that they tend to be slow, cumbersome, and generally much less cost effective and efficient than buybacks.

For example, the buyback has obtained high reliability entitlements in Victoria for approximately $2400 per megalitre (ML). In comparison, an investment of $1 billion planned for the Stage Two Food Bowl project in Victoria is expected to yield water for the environment at a cost of up to $10 000 per ML. Subsidising irrigation infrastructure projects that benefit private irrigators is a poor use of taxpayer funds, relative to buybacks, and is inconsistent with the cost recovery principles agreed to by governments under the NWI. It can also impede rather than facilitate structural adjustment, and it is inequitable for those who have
already made such investments privately at full cost.

This infrastructure modernisation is not about achieving a permanent reallocation of available water to the environment. It is about subsidising and protecting the state's irrigation industry in an era of climate change at the expense of South Australia.

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November 6, 2009

restoring the River Murray?

As we know the rivers and wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin experience water scarcity because state governments divert too much water primarily for irrigation. This is the over-allocation problem that the federal government is struggling to fix.

Richard Kingsford, the director of the Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre, University of NSW, is optimistic. He says in the Sydney Morning Herald that:

Australia has embarked on one of the world's most ambitious river restoration efforts for the Murray-Darling Basin.It is the equal of restoring the Florida Everglades, flooding the northern part of the Aral Sea, or even re-engineering the Rhine for salmon. It is massive, yet we don't know if it will work.

Whilst this is true disagree with his optimism. We do have a lot of moving rhetoric about river restoration, but there is little in the way of action or increased environmental flows in the River Murray.

It is also true that the federal government has begun to buy back some water. But there is no attempt at all to systematically prioritise wetlands, estuaries and rivers assets for conservation and restoration management; or to remove weirs, levees and other water management infrastructure that significantly fragment river, wetland and estuarine habitats, disrupting movement of animals, dispersal of plants and altering water quality.

As Kingsford himself points out:

The National Water Commission was scathing this month of the states' inability to deal with over-allocation. More than 40 per cent of water plans were not in place and even some in place were not operational. Recent behaviour by the states shows why rivers and borders don't work. NSW shut up shop to further federal buy-backs of environmental water in June because too much of its water was going to the environment. Victoria remains the spoilt child of the family, with its what's-mine-is-mine attitude: it allows only 4 per cent of its water to be bought and transferred out of the state in any one year.

SA is giving any increased water to its irrigators whilst Queensland is activating sleeping/dozing allocations on its rivers in the Basin.

The Murray River has become a series of pools of water for irrigators; a long irrigation channel if you like that is being defended by fair means and foul. So why the optimism, given that Kingford knows all the above? He says:

Let's hope Australia can show the world that not only are we good at reviving our rivers, but we know what we are spending it on.

Kingford only hopes that we are reviving the health of our rivers. Maybe it is good to have hope that the overallocation problem will be fixed when history indicates otherwise.

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October 30, 2009

Cubbie Station: farewell

So Cubbie Station, which sits on the Culgoa River in Queensland, near Dirranbandi, south-west Queensland, (on the border of New South Wales and Queensland) is to be placed in voluntary administration. The National Australia Bank is seeking the urgent repayment of a $320 million mortgage and Cubbie Station cannot pay off its debt. It is not a going concern without decent rains. its liabilities exceeded its assets a year ago, and it had breached its banking covenants.

It is hard to feel sorry for this icon of the way that the states have messed up the management of water in the name of development. The water-guzzling cotton farm has become a sign of all that was, and is, wrong in the way the Murray-Darling Basin has been managed. So there is no mourning for what might have been, as this kind of irrigated agriculture is unsustainable.

It is not Cubbie Station per se that is the problem:---if there was no Cubbie Station the irrigators in NSW would have grabbed all the water flowing down the Darling River (it would activate dormant water licences) from the Culgoa River, leaving nothing for the Basin's rivers and wetlands. That kind of regime is how the states managed water for over a century, and the history that culminates in Cubbie Station shows that you cannot trust the states---any basin state--when it comes to water and development.

The Nationals can jump up and down about the regional communities of Dirranbandi and St George, pray for rain to end the drought, and dream on about irrigated agriculture all they wont. But that won't alter the stark reality that climate change is now impacting on the Murray-Darling Basin, and that the old water development regime is a historical relic in a heated up world. That is what the Nationals and irrigated agriculture industry continue to deny with their talking point about the drought, it breaking, and drought is a normal, natural, cyclic factor of our environment natural cycles.

The reality is that there isn't nearly as much water available as once expected. Relying on, and talking up hope, won't change that. It just shows they out of touch with the real issues in the climate crisis.

The end result of that old water development regime is what you'd expect from examples elsewhere: rivers that no longer flow, dried out wetlands, and lakes that become dustbowls. The states, of course, simple blame one another, and continue to evade all responsibility for the destruction they have individually and collectively wrought in the name of development.

Cubbie Station's bankruptcy still leaves us with the states resisting water reform to ensure that reducing the over allocated water licences that are the cause of the problem. It is not just the Nationals who refuse to accept the need to address the overallocation by reducing water licences--it is the states as well. They are going to retain their command and control water regime and slow down the implementation of a water market which they signed up at CoAG. The Queensland government still plans to transform Cubbie's water allocations into a secure, tradeable licence.

The states have very dirty hands on water management.

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October 5, 2009

Ballarat + water

From what I can gather from my brief visit Ballarat has severe water problems.

It appears to rely on Moorabool River for its water; a river that is already so over utilized that it does not have enough flow in it to support the amount of water taken from it. Without this river Ballarat has no reliable source of water.

09October04_holidays _072.jpg Gary Sauer-Thompson, Lake Windouree, Ballarat, 2009

Hence the Goldfields Superpipe, which transfers water to secure supplies for Ballarat and Bendigo (for the next 50 years?) from Lake Eppalock.

This water strategy does not address low rainfall and inflow into the lake, the amount of water taken out of the lake by irrigators and the increasing number of farm dams. The hope is that the rains will return and there will be water for everybody.The Victorian government blurb says that the

Victorian Water Grid further links our water systems across the State by building new connections and pipelines. This allows water to be moved around Victoria to where it is needed most and reduces the impact of localised droughts in this era of climate change...This gives us a network of almost 10,000 kilometres of pipeline to deliver water to those areas that need it most.

It is a stop gap 19th century solution that buys time. How does expanding the Water Grid to pipe water around the State in the context of declining water supplies and increased demand provide water security.

The long term strategy in a world of climate change is...what? There seems to be hostility to water recycling in Victoria.The assumption is that the desalination plant is all that is needed.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:23 PM | TrackBack

September 27, 2009

they mine water in SA

Despite the threats of climate change to Australia it is still business as usual. Resources are the key to Australia's prosperity. Australia is selling as much gas and coal and uranium as we can whilst paying lip service to the environment.

Excess.jpg Bill Leak

No where are the contradictions starker than in SA where the Rann Government is spruiking the long-term economic and social benefits of mining development.

BHP Billiton has been mining the Great Artesian Basin for years at no cost for the Olympic Dam copper and uranium mine at Roxby Downs.It plans to increase the amount of water it mines from the Basin as part of its proposal to turn Olympic Dam, in far-north South Australia, into the world's largest open-cut mine. The price BHP Billiton will pay for all this water is nothing.

The Rann Government's response is don't worry baby any concerns about the use of water will be addressed by BHP Billiton. The Rudd Government says that there s no indication that the use that's being made of groundwater by BHP is unsustainable. All three concentrate on the economic benefits and ignore and downplay the environmental costs.

For them it is acceptable that BHPBilliton expects to continue to extract water from the Great Artesian Basin AB for free.

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September 17, 2009

Skukuza 2009: River Murray

The ANU Water Initiative is co-sponsoring the 2009 workshop of the Skukuza Freshwater Group, a biennial gathering of experts from academia, governments and environmental organizations to discuss a key emerging issue in freshwater conservation. Skukuza 2009 will be held on the estuary of the River Murray in Australia, a major Ramsar site at the end of a river system that is severely impacted by river regulation, diversions, over-allocation, deteriorating water quality and climate change.

There was an open meeting in Goolwa on September 9th with the members of the Skukuza Freshwater Group. The key message was that removing the barrages separating the Lower Lakes from the sea will give them the best shot at recovery; and that Ramsar isn't fussed on whether the Ramsar listed wetland was freshwater, seawater, estuarine water or brackish. So long as it is a wetland is what counts. So the lower lakes and Coorong certainly can be marine estuarine, since there is no reason why we cannot change wetlands.

The Skukuza 2009 communique focuses on the management of environmental flows within a changing climate and it emphasize that our societies know enough now to take action to improve the health of our rivers.

Personally I'm in favour of treating the Coorong and the Lower Lakes as one estuary, opening the barrages to the sea, and moving the barrages back to Wellington---pretty much in line with the old Murray-Darling Basin Commission's River Murray Barrages Environmental Flows Report in 2000. The lower lakes and Coorong should not have those 1940’s barrages separating them.

This is in contrast to the Murray Futures, government/community outreach program favouring a freshwater solution only. For the latter seawater is a 'last resort’. The assumption of this position appears to be that the Lower Lakes have predominantly contained fresh water for over and only occasionally become a more estuarine environment for a short period of time. Therefore they need to be kept fresh.

Those who support this position appear to be placing all their eggs in the freshwater basket, with little to no consideration being given to possible management strategies if there is insufficient freshwater available to maintain lake levels above sea level. Currently, there is insufficient fresh water available. The irrigators and state governments have made sure of that.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 5:56 PM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

September 1, 2009

River Murray: it's climate change not drought

Finally, some sense on the causes of a warmer south eastern Australia that has seen the annual inflow of one of Australia’s largest river basins drop nearly 80% in the seven years. The hotter drier conditions here have usually been put down to a big drought, with the implication that the drought will break and things will return to normal. 'Normal' in this context means the wetter conditions of the 1950s-1970s.

This is the position of most of the loud irrigator groups along the River Murray. They argue that the federal government needs to modernize the irrigation infrastructure, especially in Victoria (the Foodbowl Modernisation Project) since wetter times will return. The rains will comeback is the position of both the Coalition, who are opposed to the buy back of over-allocated water licences, and it, would appear, the Murray Darling Basin Authority.

03January02_Adelaide, Milang_185RundleMall.jpg Gary Sauer-Thompson, Clayton, Lake Alexandrina,South Australia, 2008

The South Eastern Australian Climate Initiative was set up in 2006 to find the causes for why south-east Australia had experienced a dramatic loss of rain. The crucial question is the why (drought or climate change?) and, secondly, how the drier conditions in the Murray-Darling Basin will affect stream and river flows in the Basin.

My understanding was that the loss of rain, and the weather patterns in southern Australia shifting to a dry phase was simply due to the rain-bearing storms shifting south off the continent. I had assumed that while the precise role of cyclical changes versus the impact of greenhouse gases remained unclear, changes in the basin are consistent with CSIRO computer modelling of the impacts of increased concentrations of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

Melissa Fyfe reports in The Age that scientists working on the research programme have discovered that the 13-year even of hotter drier conditions is not just a natural dry stretch--a drought--- but is a shift related to climate change.

They found that the rain has dropped away because the subtropical ridge - a band of high pressure systems that sits over the country's south - has strengthened over the past 13 years. These dry, high pressure systems have become stronger, bigger and more frequent and this intensification over the past century is closely linked to rising global temperatures.

The Wenthworth Group in their submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Coorong and Lower Lakes stated that we must reduce our extractions of water to:

(1) correct our over-allocation during a period of plenty, (2) to be more sustainable under climate cycles we have experienced in the past and (3) to adjust to declining water availability under climate change.....If we are to maintain healthy rivers and provide high quality water to produce food, our analysis suggests that the consumptive use of water across the Murray Darling Basin may have to be cut by between 42 and 53 percent below the current cap. This will require a re-design of our irrigation industries to bring the demand for water into alignment with the greatly reduced supply capacity from the rivers and groundwater.

If the likely future is one of reduced river flows, then the policy pathway for the Commonwealth is to acquire 300 to 400 GL of river flows into Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert, to secure a sufficient reserve to maintain lake levels to avoid any significant release of acids this coming summer and autumn. I cannot see that happening myself.

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August 21, 2009

Cubbie Station: up for sale

The Cubbie Station cotton farm, located near Dirranbandi, Queensland, is up for sale for $450 million. It has has been financially hammered by the drought. The station, which was created by amalgamating 12 floodplain properties to give Cubbie a total of 51 water licences, siphons off an enormous amount of water from the Murray-Darling system --it has 70 gigalitres of water licensed for extraction and 538 gigalitre storage capacity. That's a difference of 468 gigalitres that is siphoned off.

Should Cubbie Station be part of the Commonwealth water buyback program? Or should the Commonwealth's emphasis be on bringing Queensland into line over those 468 gigalitres?

Cubbie Station exemplifies all that is wrong with the management of water by the states. Cubbie Station's access to water is based on a 70GL extraction from the Balonne River, and the remainder -- 469GL -- comes from "unregulated, unlicensed, unmetered, free" overland flows. This system enables Cubbie Station to boast about the small amount of water that it takes from the Murray-Darling system. The overland flow from the floodplain would, if undiverted, enter the Balonne and Culgoa Rivers. Cubbie draws off up to half of every flood in the catchment, preventing it from entering the Balonne-Culgoa.

Recently, on Lateline Senator Bill Heffernan points to how the Bligh Labor Government in Queensland plans to deal with the situation:

Under the proposed resource operating plan for the Lower Balonne under the proved operating plan for the lower Balonne there's a proposal in the case of Cubbie to issue a license for 469,000 mega-litres of water, which will also include a neighbour downstream on that licence...the licences that are now proposed to be issued will be issued on the basis of the size of the bulldozer used and storages produced by that bulldozer and the banks to intercept the overland flow ... there was legislation passed in the Queensland Government so that they were exempt from any environmental planning as long as the storages were kept under five metres in an area...which has 2.5 metres of evaporation.

In effect the vast majority of Cubbie’s diversion remains unlicensed. Heffernan argues that what should happen is ending its vast and unsustainable diversion of overland flows, not who owns the property.

The water licences proposed under the draft plan are not sustainable and they shouldn't be issued. The trouble here is that Queensland couldn’t care less about the health of rivers either on their side of the border or beyond. They continue to trot out the line that they take only 5% of water from the Murray-Darling. It’s literally correct  — that’s what they take out. It’s what they prevent from entering the Condamine-Balonne region of the Murray-Darling system from run-off that is the key.

Heffernan says that:

The water licences proposed under the draft [Queensland] plan are not sustainable, they shouldn't be issued. If the Commonwealth wants to buy back Cubbie Station, it should only allow Queensland to issue licences at a level that's sustainable and could continue to be farmed.

However, the Federal Government doesn't have the power to stop the Queensland plan to issue a license for 469,000 mega-litres of overland water. As Heffernan says:
The flaw in the present scheme for the new body that's been set up to man control of the Murray-Darling Basin has one flaw in it: that is every state has a veto power for some years to come yet on changing the proportion of water flowing out of that state.

The Queensland Government  — regardless of political orientation  — simply doesn’t care about anyone downstream.That is what needs to change. The state's veto on water management of the Murray Darling Basin is akin to the fox guarding the chook house. The Commonwealth should only allow Queensland to issue licences at a level that's sustainable.

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July 9, 2009

Murray Darling Basin: sad news

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority reports that storages across the Murray-Darling Basin are low after nine dry years. Inflows for 2008-09 were the third-lowest in 118 years of records, with the soil so parched even the runoff from heavy rains in the northern basin have failed to make it south.

The effect in the lower lakes (Alexandrina and Albert) and the Murray Mouth region of the basin is this.

In The Australian Siobhain Ryan and Asa Wahlquist report that almost half the water entitlements purchased by the Rudd Government under the national Murray-Darling rescue plan last financial year will never reach the distressed Murray system except in times of flood. They say:

New figures reveal the Rudd government made NSW's Lachlan, Gwydir and Macquarie catchments the top targets for its big-spending buyback program in 2008-09, despite the fact that they all terminate in wetlands. About 182,000 of the 397,000 megalitres of water entitlements bought across the basin last financial year are now confined to catchments that rarely flow into the main Murray system, which has been devastated by drought and over-extraction.

It is true that the Gwydir and Lachlan catchments as in poor and very poor health with internationally important wetlands that provided homes for threatened or migratory species and they do need water. But why spin these buybacks as helping the Murray? Though we have a Basin Planin process -- ie., a strategic plan for the integrated and sustainable management of water resources in the Murray–Darling Basin---very little water has actually been returned to the River Murray's environment.

The plan's emphasis on the integrated and sustainable management of water resources in the Murray–Darling Basin is a joke, given the barriers to trade that have limited the purchase options of the the federal buyback push. Thus there is major resistance from the states, with NSW boycotting further sales to the commonwealth while Victoria's 4per cent limit on the trading of water out of individual irrigation areas remains in place. South Australia is pushing ahead with a High Court challenge to the Victorian policy or limiting trade.

I should qualify my remarks about the Basin Plan. It is stated by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority that:

The plan will provide a fundamental framework for future water-planning arrangements, and will be based on the best and latest scientific, social, cultural and economic knowledge, evidence and analysis. In preparing the plan, the Murray–Darling Basin Authority will consult extensively with Basin state and territory governments, key stakeholders, and rural and regional communities across the Basin.

However, all we have us is a concept statement about the Basin Plan, since the first Basin Plan is to be released in 2011. So all we have is the concept statement that explains in general terms the key elements and approach being taken in developing the Basin Plan, what it will contain, and when and how it is being developed.

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June 30, 2009

urban water planning

Peter Cullen, who was thinker in residence in Adelaide in 2004, said in his Flinders Research Centre for Coastal and Catchment Environments Schultz Oration in late 2007 about water and climate change. I thought that I might revisit this in the light of the focus of the forthcoming Adelaide Festival of Ideas on limits.

Cullen draws attention to what is becoming increasingly obvious. He says that:

Much of Sth Eastern Australia is drying out and is now in serious water deficit. It is no longer prudent to believe this is a drought that is about to break. There is every likelihood that we are seeing real climate change and this must be a driver to let is start managing our water resources as thought they were a scarce and valuable resource upon which we all depend.

He adds that the consequences of southern Australia drying out is that:
The demands on our dwindling water resources are escalating. Everyone believes their use of water should be the priority. The environment has been largely sacrificed with the Coorong rapidly becoming like the Dead Sea. We are facing a crisis. There will be a horrible shakeout in rural Australia and our cities are going to have to lift their games in water planning.

Adelaide, he argues, is faced with reduction in water availability from both the Hills catchments and from the Murray River. To its credit, Adelaide has moved beyond hoping for rain to meet the 245 GL it needs per annum with its projected population increases. What, then are the best options to plan for water security into the future?

Adelaide has the following options for augmenting its water supply are to purchase water from upstream irrigators, desalination, recycling and groundwater. The first is unrealistic in the long term whilst groundwater is not an option because the groundwater in the Adelaide Plains is over allocated. That leaves recycling and desalinisation.

Desalinisation has been the primary strategy with water recycling a very distant second. Although South Australia has been a leader in using recycled water for irrigation it has not supplemented this strategy to use reclaimed water to relieve the pressure on the city’s drinking water supply. There is no recycling of grey water into Adelaide's drinking supply, and there is a minimal use of recycling storm water. There is about 160GL every year of storm water going out to sea and the best expert advice is somewhere between 90 and 110GL could be captured from that.

However, only 5 per cent of the capital program for SA Water is going into stormwater recovery. Existing harvesting schemes only yield 6GL a year, with projects already committed expected to generate an extra 12GL a year. The Water for Good plan states that greater Adelaide's stormwater use for non-potable needs, such as gardens and toilets, is planned to be 20GL of stormwater a year by 2014, 35GL a year by 2025 and 60GL a year by 2050. Moreover, only households in new suburbs will be supplied with the stormwater because of the expense of fitting new pipes.

That is a very slow response.

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June 26, 2009

Murray-Darling Basin: water theft

Miles Kemp in the The Advertiser reports that the state governments of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland are turning a blind eye to water theft and manipulation of irrigation rules to protect their irrigators in the Murray-Darling Basin. That is what the water politics is about----protecting irrigators at all costs.

Kemp outlines how the various ways by which water is being stolen by irrigators across the Murray-Darling Basin; ways that indicate the indifference of the irrigators to the health of the River Murray. These include:

Tampering with water meters to stop them recording water use.

Frequent breaching of water use caps without prosecution.

Inadequate policing of water theft.

Earthworks which divert floodwaters, bypassing water metering.

Recapturing downstream of water destined for environmental flows.

Poor control of groundwater use.

The most significant regulatory issue was that legislation needed to be reviewed and updated to control water harvesting from flood plains and multiple channels. Flood-plain "harvesting" and its diversion to storages in Queensland and parts of northern NSW was extensive, and once the water gets out on the flood plain state governments have no idea how much there is or what is being taken. Nor do they care, it seems.

Adelaide has a water problem, and it desperately needs to cut its reliance on River Murray water for its critical human needs. Hence the belated turn to a desalination plant, near the now disused Port Stanvac refinery. The refinery will be dismantled by Mobil.

That still leaves the slow drying out of both Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert because no water is coming down the River Murray. The pumping of water from Alexandrina to Albert, which has kept the latter going as a lake, will soon stop. The effect is that the Lake Albert will dry out during the summer. Lake Alexandrina will follow.

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June 2, 2009

riesling threat

Inside Story is looking to increase (free) subscriber numbers to its newsletter.

You can actually learn things from Inside Story essays. Like this one from Charles Gent, which I personally found quite alarming. More alarming than swine flu or terrorism or Steve Fielding.

Goyder's Line is something of a relic from South Australia's early surveys, drawing an 1865 line between arable and non-arable land bang on the edge of a precious vineyard collection. It's been moving south at an unfair pace and is threatening to take some of the best riesling country with it.

Maggie from The Cook and the Chef must be beside herself.

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May 29, 2009

Murray River: Twynam water buyback

I caught a grab on TV last night about Rudd and Wong spending $303million to return water to five NSW river systems under the Restoring the Balance in the Murray-Darling Basin program. A figure of 240 gigalitres was mentioned.

Digging around I find that the Twynam Agricultural Group, the nation’s largest private water holder, has sold general and supplementary water licences to five systems—the Gwydir (63.5GL), Barwon (14.6GL), Macquarie (41GL), Lachlan (52.3GL) and Murrumbidgee (68.4GL). The NSW Government reacted to the sale by placing an embargo on any further buybacks in the state and demanded that Victorian irrigators be called on to sell their share of water licences.

Two points can be made. Removing Twynam’s allocation from the system does mean more water over the long-run for environmental flows. However, these licences have yielded, on average, 107GL of real water—or less than half the 240GL entitlement—each year. Climate change may well reduce that amount to less than 100GL in public hands. Though little of that water will make its way to South Australia and to the lower lakes and the Corong, it will help give the Gwyder and Macquarie wetlands a drink.

Secondly, this buyback by the Commonwealth is addressing the bad policy by the NSW state government, which over-allocated the water in the first place--- in the 60s and 70s under Wal Murray-- and which has failed, nay refused, to claw back the over-allocations of water priced far too low. They have ducked the issue of subsidizing irrigated agriculture that trashed the environment.

This is happening at a time when the Victorian state government is building a pipeline to take 75GL for Melbourne. Rudd, Wong and Garrett say nothing. How can taking more water from the River Murray be a good thing? The Commonwealth is saying that health of the Murray-Darling Basin is in decline that available water is currently over-allocated, and this problem is likely to become worse as water availability declines due to climate change.

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April 10, 2009

Murray River: a toxic drain

I flew back into Adelaide from New Zealand across Lake Alexandrina and saw an utterly parched Murray River system basin. I then heard that inflows into the Murray Darling Basin are at record lows and that the Murray River has become a toxic drain, due to a discontinuous blue-green algae bloom in an 800km stretch of the river from Lake Hume to Barham. Hell, Lake Albert near the Murray's mouth, is in danger of becoming equivalent of battery acid.

Good news though. The Murray-Darling Basin states and the Commonwealth have established a high-level panel of leading experts and senior officials to advise on the ongoing response to the blue-green algae outbreak currently affecting the River Murray. No worries then.

But we have the politics of the water as well its administration. Tim Stubbs, from the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, says:

If we no longer want this national treasure to be little more than a toxic open drain we need to reset the system. We need to ensure we have enough water to keep the river, floodplains and wetlands healthy and use what is left to grow more produce with less water. The potential impacts of climate change underline the need to make this adjustment sooner rather than later so that we are in a position to manage out future in a more proactive way then just praying for rain.

The damage is self-inflicted. It is not just the drought (record low inflows). Nor is it just climate change. If irrigators take water out according to a set of rules and too much water is being taken out within the rules, then the problem lies with the set of rules and those who set the rules. Those who historically set the rules are the states and now the Commonwealth. They have mismanaged the system to the point of turning an iconic river into a toxic drain.

We are taking about 80% of the water from the Murray-River with around 70% taken by agriculture and flood irrigating dairy pasture, rice and cotton; the companies and agri businesses currently pay very very little for the water (13c ents a litre)l; and the states gave away too many rights to use water that was not really there. Developmentalism still rules, even though the consequence of developmentalism for profit is a trashed system. There is now not enough water for agriculture in the lower part of the Murray-Darling Basin.

The implication of no river flows is that the southern lagoon of the Coorong becomes Australia's dead sea. The most likely solution for the southern lakes is that the barrages are moved upstream to Wellington, sea water flows into lower lakes, and the dairy industry around the lakes ends without compensation being paid.

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March 6, 2009

Murray-Darling Basin: cooperative federalism?

Finally SA says that it will legally act on the decline of the Murray River caused by over allocated water licences and the protection of irrigation industry by state governments. This picks up on the way that the Rudd Government's co-operative federalism and the national management of the river system is under threat by the current action of the states. Lawrence Springborg has suggested that a Liberal National Party government would pull Queensland out of the deal should it win the state election on March 21.

South Australia is now saying it will go to the High Court to force states upstream to release water and pay damages under section 92of the Constitution. This targets Queensland, NSW and Victoria over water trading restrictions and SA will use the law to force them to release permanent water flows into the river and to seek damages for the harm caused by SA.

The specific target is Victoria's insistence on a cap for licensed water trading out of its jurisdiction, even though this is to rise from 4 per cent to 6 per cent this year under the COAG deal. Victoria's refusal to abolish the cap for another four years was a "barrier" to rescuing the river. It is also a barrier to interstate trade Victoria argues that easing the cap on permanent water trading out of irrigation districts would destroy farming in Victoria.

Jamie Walker in The Australian says:

Right back to square one, with the nation's greatest river system dying and the premiers bickering over who should control what remains of it.....Rann's nakedly cynical gambit makes a mockery of Rudd's co-operative federalism and should be called for what it is: an exercise in the parochial, petty politics that were supposed to have been taken off the table when the states agreed to refer their powers over the Murray-Darling to a new, commonwealth-backed authority and trouser the billions Canberra threw at them.

Pressure does need to be applied as the Rudd Government has done a deal with Victoria and tacitly supported the artificial barriers imposed on water trading.

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February 13, 2009

Xenophon stands his ground

So Nick Xenophon stood firm on Rudd's the Nation Building and Jobs Plan in the Senate. His reason was that there was not enough money for the communities in the Murray-Darling Basin, and no commitment on the fast-tracking of billions of dollars for water buybacks and irrigation projects in the Basin. Xenophon wanted $2 billion extra to help regional communities adjust to farming reductions and the acceleration of a $5 billion infrastructure and buyback plan to help the Murray-Darling river system.

Swan and Rudd were only willing to bring forward $400 million to fast-track water buybacks.They were not that interested in stimulating economic activity in the basin, despite their rhetoric about the need for creating jobs and ensuring sustainability. Yet "saving" the Murray-Darling Basin belongs in the stimulus plan just as much as a community-building project.

Xenophon is right that governments have ignored the Murray-Darling Basin for far too long. If this resistance is what it takes to get some action, then so be it, despite the usual mutterings and flak from the peak bodies of business and unions about loss of confidence and jobs. They talk as if the Murray-Darling Basin is not about business and jobs. Consequently, the wrangling over the Rudd Government's $42 billion economic stimulus package will continue today.

Update
Senator Xenophon met with Treasurer Wayne Swan and Water Minister Senator Penny Wong this morning, where he secured more than $1 billion worth of funding, to be brought forward, for infrastructure and water buy-backs for the Murray Darling Basin: it included $500 million for water buybacks, $200 million in funding for local governments for re-engineering works and $200 million for stormwater recycling. Finally some action.

Much more investment is needed for water buybacks and stormwater recycling in SA ----especially in the Riverland. It should be $2 billion for water recycling as a starting point.

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December 5, 2008

Canberra watch: water

So it has come to this in the Murray Darling Basin. South Australia will have to buy water to guarantee supplies for critical human needs in Adelaide and towns next year. Necessary water supplies to Adelaide and towns across the state are at this stage not secured from July next year, and this has forced the Rann Government onto the open water market. Authorities must have 201gigalitres in reserve to ensure the water needs of the nation's fifth-largest city and the rest of the state are able to be met.

And Victoria is taking water from the River Murray for Melbourne. And the Rudd government ducks and weaves on the issue of the new pipeline to Melbourne. Is the pipeline the price that Rudd Labor pays for Victoria to sign up to the commonwealth taking charge of Australia's largest river system? There is to be no cap on the water taken from the River Murray in Victoria until 2019!

What kind of deal is this? Isn't the Rudd Government committed to a more sustainable use of water in the Murray-Darling Basin?

The Murray-Darling Basin Commission reports that inflow into the Murray last month was 140 gigalitres, just 18 per cent of the long-term average of 780gigalitres. November was the 38th consecutive month of below-average inflows. Under the River Murray dry flow contingency plans, the first priority is given to critical human needs. Yet the modernization of Victorian irrigation is premised on "normal" flows of 780 gigalitres, not on the more realistic reduced flows in a warmed up world.

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November 28, 2008

recycling water----Queensland backs off

The rains have come in Queensland and the Bligh Government has used the big wet to back away from both building the Traveston Dam and investing in recycled water so that recycled waste water could be pumped to Brisbane's Wivenhoe Dam. That still leaves Brisbane dependent on one source of water supply ---dams that are dependent on the rain falling in the catchment area of the dam. In backing away from making the shift to a more sustainable mode of urban life Brisbane remains vulnerable in terms of water security.

Urban Australia is still too reliant on single sources of water - mainly rain-fed dams. Australian cities can no longer rely on one source of water, whether it be dams or the River Murray as for Adelaide. Water security, especially in a warmed -up southern Australia requires a diversification of water supplies that includes recycling storm and water water since these are less-climate dependent sources of supply.

The National Water Commission says that:

Australian cities of the future will be designed water sensitively – and it is important that water recycling continue to be available as the backbone for more enlightened water sensitive urban designs.The National Water Commission therefore regards water recycling in all its forms as a vital option to re-build Australia’s water security and as an enabler for water sensitive urban design. The Commission believes it should be considered on its merits with an open mind alongside other less-climate dependant water sources such as desalination, stormwater capture and inter-basin water transfers.

The opposition to recycled water from the conservative side of politics, notably The Australian's campaign against what it calls "recycled sewerag"e, over looks the history of recycling of water for non-drinking purposes long been widely accepted across Australia, for use by industries, irrigation and households.

Moreover, recycled water has also been used for drinking purposes for zonks – with many communities in Australia drawing on water supplies --eg., the River Murray --that contain treated wastewater discharged from upstream sources.

Given the effects of global warming Australia needs to all put all water supply options on the table and invest in the development and commercialising of new water technologies including de-salination technologies. Issues of sustainability, long given lip service by politicians and decision-makers, do need to become a substantive part of the formal agenda of politics.

It is difficult to understand the entrenched opposition to making use of different water supplies in favour of relying on rain filled dams given the lack of water in parts of regional Australia, lessening river flows, water restrictions in urban Australia, and the way that storm water just runs into the sea.

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November 24, 2008

Murray-Darling Basin: more bad news

A report by CSIRO on ground and surface water resources in the Murray-Darling Basin warns that climate change will threaten already strained resources in the Basin. It says:

The south of the MDB was in severe drought from 1997 to 2006 and the catchment runoff in the southernmost parts of the MDB was the lowest on record. This event would occur once in more than 300 years without climate change. Such conditions will become increasingly common. The drought conditions in the south of the MDB have worsened in 2007 and 2008.

Though the impacts of climate change by 2030 are uncertain the report says that surface water availability across the entire MDB is more likely to decline than to increase and that a decline in the south of the MDB is more likely than in the north. The six most accurate climate change models predict a drier future for the southern part of the basin than the full range of models:
Under the median 2030 climate, diversions in driest years would fall by more than 10 percent in most New South Wales regions, around 20 percent in the Murrumbidgee and Murray regions and from around 35 to over 50 percent in the Victorian regions. Under the dry extreme 2030 climate, diversions in driest years would fall by over 20 percent in the Condamine- Balonne, around 40 to 50 percent in New South Wales regions (except the Lachlan), over 70 percent in the Murray and 80 to 90 percent in the major Victorian regions.

The report predicts that by 2030 there will 50% less water flowing at the end of the catchment ----the Murray Mouth end in South Australia ---- than now, if the climate change conditions of the past ten years continue. It says that there will be increased use of groundwater even though current groundwater usage is unsustainable in seven of the twenty high-use groundwater areas in the MDB. Surely the Murray-Darling Basin Authority will set caps on future surface and groundwater use.

Why then is the Brumby Government in Victoria building a pipeline to take water from the Victorian part of the Murray River for Melbourne? It is from that threatened southern Murray-Darling Basin that 75 billion litres will be diverted down the Goulburn pipeline to Melbourne. The State Government is investing $1 billion in new irrigation infrastructure in the hope of stemming the amount of water that is "lost" each year, and thus keeping both farmers and city domestic consumers happily supplied.

Sure Melbourne's water storages are at 33.3 per cent capacity compared to 40.2 per cent at the same time last year and the threat to move to stage 4 water restrictions, under which all outdoor watering would be banned, looms. But why that pipeline option instead of capturing storm water and recycled water? Why is the Commonwealth Government merely looking on whilst this happens? Why did it agree to this pipeline?

The Brumby Government and the water policymakers are not willing to encourage urban and regional water re-use when they have committed large chunks of money to a questionable pipeline and an expensive desalination plant with its high cost of water. Isn't it about time it started looking at reducing the amount of land used for irrigated agriculture (which consumes 77 per cent of the state's water) rather than continuing to prop up uneconomic irrigation farms?

At some point the Commonwealth Government is going to have to take some serious steps to making the irrigation practices in the Murray Darling Basin more sustainable. One step requires pressuring the states to prevent the projected rise in ground water.

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November 5, 2008

Murray-Darling Basin: reform movement

Finally the Rudd Government has shown some initiative on putting the Murray-Darling Basin on a more sustainable basis. It has taken them some time to do this, but they are finally beginning to move against the recalcitrant state governments.The Rudd Government is particularly keen on removing two barriers to water trading in Victoria:

■A limit that prevents more than 4% of water being traded outside an irrigation district.

■A limit that prevents non-landholders such as the Federal Government buying more than 10% of water entitlements in a system.

The Federal Government wants the rules removed so they do not hinder the Commonwealth's buy-back of irrigation water for the Murray-Darling river system.

Senator Wong has declared that the grants for small-scale farmers (those with less than 15 hectares of land) to cease irrigating would be paid only to farmers whose home state had abolished certain barriers to water trading. That means farmers seeking financial incentives ( worth up to $150,000 for each farmer) to quit irrigating will be unable to receive money from the Federal Government until Victoria removes a series of barriers to water trading.

Finally Victoria has been placed in the spotlight. The move forces the anti-reform Brumby Government to effectively choose between two groups of farmers in Victoria. It spits those farmers seeking to leave the irrigation industry ----farmers in Victoria's Sunraysia district---against those who wish to remain irrigating under the current trading protections, and politically wedges the Brumby Government between the two groups.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 6:37 AM | TrackBack

September 24, 2008

grabbing the water

I've always thought that the Victorian Government's north south pipeline, which pipes water from the Goulbourn Murray River to Melbourne, was a bad policy in terms of sustainability. It assumes that there is extra water in the Murray-Darling system that could be used to increase Melbourne's water supply when all and sundry are saying that there is no water to save the lower lakes of the River Murray and the Corrong wetlands.

I see that Tim Flannery concurs:

Why would you take the water from an already stressed river system, and then they say 'Well, we're actually making more water in the end', which is bullshit. Sorry, there is only a certain amount of water in the system.Why would you do that rather than trying to do something about coal-fired power plants, which consume 20% of the water used in the state?

Critical human needs is the rationale. If so, then why is there little attempt by the State Government to store storm water in aquifers, or recycle storm water? Why the intense opposition of the Brumby Government to household water tanks?

Oddly enough, Flannery doesn't mention water in his quarterly essay Now or Never A Sustainable Future for Australia. He deals with coal, geothermal energy, growing forests to sequester carbon, sustainable agriculture within a framework of Gaian imbalance. But no mention of water or cities. Strange.

In the essay Flannery says that he has focused on the most urgent crisis ---the climate problem---in order to forge a sustainable way of living in the 21st century.

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September 12, 2008

Institute of Public Affairs: water

The Institute of Public Affairs' September issue of Review has an article by Mary Jo Fisher, a Liberal Senator for South Australia entitled 'Nanny state is a poor guide to policy design.' This article is about individual freedom being restricted by Adelaide's 4 year old backyard water bans.

Fisher argues that these bans are an example of the Rann state government being a nanny state wagging its finger and imposing a ban prohibition or punitive measure on our basic right to choose. Fisher's next argument is that debate about the bans or prohibition becomes a smokescreen for government inaction on what should be the real agenda. She says:

Adelaide's four year-old backyard water bans are a good example. They're unnecessary and don't save water. They cause our communities pain. And they won't help the Murray-Darling River. Even in cities and regional towns which don't rely on the Murray Darling, water restrictions are a cover for lack of genuine infrastructure are a cover for lack of genuine infrastructure planning and government inaction.

I concur with that. The current problems in the Murray-Darling Basin are the result of history of bad management over a long period by the states plus a long drought.

It is the next step Fisher's argument about what constitutes the real agenda that is problematic:

Addressing South Australia's water problems includes separating Adelaide from the Murray and allowing our farmers and river communities full access to to the Murray's available water. Adelaide has a long coastline with consistent winds. Re-using waste water and combing wind energy with desalinisation would afford coastal communities and Adelaide itself access to green and plentiful solution, at a price within our ability to pay.

It is the phrase " and allowing our farmers and river communities full access to the Murray's available water" that is problematic. Good water management in the Murray-Darling Basin requires reduced access--(reducing the over-allocated water licences) to water by irrigators and increased environmental flows for the river. So the Liberal Party, on this account, still resists reducing over -allocated water licences and increasing envirornmental flows to save the lower lakes and Corrong. The River Murray is there for the irrigators. It is their freedom from the nanny state that is paramount.

That anti-environmental position is buried amidst a green rhetoric about human needs

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September 4, 2008

Melbourne + water

An interesting article on Melbourne's water supply and ensuring the city does not run of water in The Age by Royce Millar. Like Adelaide, a punishing decade of drought, culminating with record low rainfalls for winter and spring Melbourne is faced with a scenario of running out of water. With climate change the situation was possibly permanent.

The response by the Bracks/Brumby Government was turn away from the policy of engineering tempered by the logic of economics and the science of the ecologist to big engineering solutions:

plants and pipes that would delivered water fast, albeit at big financial and environmental costs: the energy-intensive, $3.1 billion desalination plant at Wonthaggi and a $1 billion north-south pipeline to link Melbourne to the river network north of the Great Divide....With desalination plants and other water initiatives coming in, the rainwater tank has been singled out as something that may not be warranted in the future

Millar says that the upward trend in water use in Melbourne and the anti-tank campaign have fuelled concern that Victoria is hitching itself to a water future more in keeping with 19th-century rather than 21st-century thinking; that is, a centralised system under which water is pumped from outside the city to consumers with little idea or interest in where it came from, or where it will end up. An increasing population and climate change means more desalinisation plants.

The Australian Conservation Foundation's sustainable cities campaigner, Kate Noble, says on current evidence Victoria's politicians are unlikely to make the long-term commitment necessary to avoid a string of additional desal plants.

In 2050, we will be in the odd situation (much like today) where we put huge amounts of public funding into desalination plants so we can use drinking water to flush our toilets, water the lawn and cool our power stations, while we watch stormwater equivalent to our annual metropolitan water use flow straight down the drain.We will have more empty dams in 2050 than we have now, because at some point one of the governments of the day had the bright idea that another dam would save us from climate change.

What is pushed aside in the big engineering approach that has dominated water policy is the other more sustainable options (e.g. rainwater tanks properly plumbed into the house, storm water recycling, indirect potable water, etc This alternative conception sees Melbourne movingto a more decentralised approach to water management and that the city will indeed have become a water catchment with tanks recycling, sewer mining and stormwater harvesting part of our daily lives.

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August 21, 2008

Queensland irrigators

So know we know what we'd always suspected about the lack of flow into the lower lakes of the River Murray this year. Queensland irrigators took record amounts of water from the Murray-Darling Basin over the past year, as other state governments wound back irrigator allocations to combat the worsening crisis in the system. And the Bligh Labor Government in Queensland supports Queensland's extraction of water on the grounds that their irrigators were simply taking advantage of the increased water supply and the ability to store water.

This is a state government that refuses to cap the water allocations in the state, effectively its nose at the rest of the Basin, and so sidesteps its Murray-Darling Basin commitments. The federal Agriculture Minister Tony Burke acknowledges that Queensland irrigators are taking vast amounts of water out of the Murray-Darling river system.

So why no action? Why isn't the Federal's Government's $400m water buyback money being spent acquiring the water allocations of the Queensland irrigators? Why just more talk when properties are on the market?

What we have is this kind of talk by Burke:

The critical problem in the Murray-Darling basin is one that no government can easily fix. In an age of climate change and during a prolonged drought, we simply have less water in the basin....The nature of the water system is that the further south you go, the tougher people tend to be doing it, right through until you reach the end of the system in South Australia. So I can absolutely understand the frustration that so many farmers feel and the water that they know would produce a profitable crop in a properly irrigated area simply isn't available on zero allocations.That is the reason why we are looking at the buyback and why so much of it is geared towards the northern end of the system.

The use of climate change here is increasingly looking like a cover for inaction to address the overallocation of water licences in the Basin, and the failure to get a recalcitrant Queensland to sign up to the cap, introduce proper water management plans, and separate water licences from land titles.

Why only $400 million on buyback when $6 billion is spent on upgrading irrigator infrastructure. Why upgrade the infrastructure when many of the irrigators will have no water allocations due to less rainfall from climate change? Where is there no federal pressure on Queensland to act on its Murray-Darling Basin commitments?

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August 14, 2008

gross mismanagement of water

It looks as if the calls for restoration of environmental flows to the River Murray through buying up properties along the Barwon-Darling River and releasing water stored in the Medindie Lakes will go unheeded, despite the growing political pressure about the years of inaction by state governments, who have been captured by irrigator interests in the Basin.

If it is true that 80% of the water released upstream would be lost to evaporation because conditions are so dry, then the finger can be pointed at state and federal governments for not buying back water licences to reduce the overallocation of water to irrigators. There has been a marked failure since the 1990s to restore environmental flows in the Murray-Darling river system.

Inaction has been the norm. Well, we do have a new new, independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Whoopie!. The stalling tactics adopted by irrigator interests,and they managed to ensure that the Murray-Darling Basin Commission bowed to these stalling tactics, as well as senior bureaucrats in state and federal governments.

As John Quiggin points out in todays Australian Financial Review:

The restoration of some environmental flows would not have prevented low flows in the current drought. But it would avoid the situation where low flows are the norm, and an extended drought is sufficient to push the whole system over the edge. At this point, calls for the compulsory purchase of irrigator's rights are growing louder. Unless there are are significant inflows of water soon, it is hard to see how the voluntary, market-based approach can be sustained.

Gross mismanagement in the past, and the continual refusal by the 'duck and weave' Rudd Government, to move on buyback has resulted in the current triage operation being applied to iconic sites of the Murray. If Queensland, NSW and Victoria are acting to ensure that South Australia will bear the brunt of the crisis, then the Rudd Government is not even working within the market since it is not even buying properties of irrigators will to sell up.

The Chowilla and Corrong wetlands along with the irrigators in the lower Murray are being sacrificed to protect Queensland, NSW and Victorian irrigators. It is unclear which vital ecosystems will be saved in the River Murray and it is unclear that the new Murray-Darling Basin Authority will be the power to do anything more than work towards another agreement to develop yet another plan to fix the Murray Darling Basin until 2011. After all, that is all that CoAG does, and so the state and federal bureaucrats are in no hurry to do anything more than develop another plan.

Update
The Rudd Government's latest cabinet meeting took place in Adelaide. After the meeting Rudd announced an independent audit of the water storage in the Basin; extended a buyback of water rights to include purchasing entire properties in northern NSW and Queensland and the federal Government would co-fund a doubling of the capacity of a planned desalination plant for South Australia.

They need to do something as Nick Xenophon has refused to rule out using the Murray River as a bargaining chip as the Government seeks to push contentious measures through the Senate. He has said:

Any government that doesn't do anything that can be done, that should be done, to save the Murray, to save irrigators, will stand condemned. South Australia shouldn't bear the brunt of environmental policy failures upstream. We shouldn't wear the brunt of failed policies, of failing to do things that should have been done many years ago. Water policy in this country has been an abject failure ... and now South Australia is seeing the sharp end of that. It's not just in South Australia's interest, it's in the national interest not to let an ecosystem die, not to allow one of the most water-efficient food bowls in the country, the Riverland, to wither and perish because we haven't got our act together.

So Rudd bowed to political pressure in South Australia and made some modest concessions. An audit only tells us how much water is there; it does not tell us what water is available to save the Corrong wetlands and lower lakes. Secondly, though buying farms and not just licences is a move in the right direction none will be bought in Victoria and nothing is being said or done about the illegal irrigation on the Paroo River in Queensland.


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August 7, 2008

River Murray: greenwashing

The ecological state of the River Murray is now pretty dire.The condition is most noticeable in the lower lakes are near the Murray's mouth in SA, where I have been photographing this last week.

ValdmannRiverMurray.jpg Valdmann

Unbelievably, the Rann Government in SA is spinning the ecological disaster in the Lower Lakes of the Murray River in the form of water dreaming. It is painting a rosy future even as it plans to built a weir at Wellington to protect Adelaide's water supply. This is one issue where the state government's spin is at odds with reality. As a response to the community protests on the issue, its spin highlights its failure on water issues and its strong greenwashing. Lake Alexandrina is now 35cm below sea level, and acidification would be triggered at negative 1m, which is estimated in June 2009.

In contrast, Senator Wong, the federal Water Minister, has effectively written off the lakes, saying there was not enough water in the River Murray system to fill them:

There is not enough water in the system to bring down the sorts of quantities of water you'd need to fill the Lower Lakes.Even if we did make a decision to not give any allocations (upstream), there is insufficient water currently in storage – less the critical human needs issue – for us to viably manage the Lower Lakes with the amount of water that we have. That is extremely unfortunate and extremely difficult for the community down there.

What water there is left in NSW and Victoria--we don't know how much---has been reserved for critical human needs (drinking water) along the River Murray. A weir is quietly being built at Wellington to preserve the drinking water by preventing the sea water plume that has got beneath the Goolwa barrages from going upstream. A recent estimate by CSIRO scientist Bill Young was that up to 50% of water released from Menindee Lakes would reach the lower Murray. So how much water is reserved in NSW?

Maywald has been denying that work on the weir is underway when she has been addressing local communities in the Lower Lakes this week. She is still talking in terms of a freshwater solution and the possibility of adequate rain falling next winter. She is saying nothing about the annual 4% trading cap has already been reached on the Campaspe River in central Victoria, which flows into the Murray, and that a major water acquisition has been rejected because it will breach the cap – barely a month into the financial year.

Odd that the Rann Government is putting no public pressure on NSW or Victoria, nor even calling for a public audit of water reserves in the NSW. Their silence and spin means that they have been bought off at CoAG.

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August 1, 2008

Mayo by election

Will water feature strongly in the upcoming Mayo byelection? It was not even mentioned on the ABC's Q & A, which I watched last night, even though most of the programme was taken up with climate change.

The Mayo electorate includes the lower reaches of the River Murray, and Brendon Nelson was down at Lake Alexandrina campaigning for the byelection. Nelson said that he would do everything he could to force the Rudd Government to provide a $50million emergency assistance package for locals and the environment, with the money to be spent on carting water for farmers and assisting the tourism industry.

Nelsonwoes.jpg

The ALP is not going to contest the seat. This is Liberal heartland. Nelson got a bit carried away as he publicly canvassed the option of forcing farmers to sell their water rights to tackle the crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin. Dr Nelson's spokesman later clarified the Opposition Leader's remarks, saying compulsory acquisitions would only be countenanced if drinking water supplies were under threat.

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July 13, 2008

death of a river

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.

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July 2, 2008

blocking water reform

The level of Lake Alexandrina, near the mouth of the River Murray is currently half a metre below sea level. If it drops to 1.2m below, as predicted if inflows to the Murray did not pick up, the exposed lake bed would become acidic. The South Australian Government has recently began pumping water from Lake Alexandrina into the smaller Lake Albert to avert that waterway reaching such a trigger point. Things are looking bad there.

Meanwhile COAG meets Thursday this week and the River Murray is on the agenda among other items once again. The Federal Government is proposing to lift the 4% cap on the amount of water that can be traded out of the irrigation district to speed up the process of returning water to to the Murray Darling. Victorian irrigators oppose this, as they fear that this will depopulate or even close down towns in their state. The Nationals repeat the message.

The Victorian Government, of course, stands behind its irrigators in resisting any reform, towards a market based approach despite its free market and can do rhetoric. Command and control is the governance style of the parochial, state based approach of the Victorian Farmers Federation when it comes to water. It's their water and no one else can have it is their position. So the Brumby Labor Government is aligned with the Nationals to block an increased role for the market in the Basin. It is concerned to get the best possible deal for Victorian irrigators and to hell with the river.

The core goal is to protect the productive irrigation industry at all costs. In the face of Victoria's recalcitrance towards market reform, Canberra should use its previous commitment of up to $1 billion towards the second stage of the Foodbowl Modernisation Project as a way to force Victoria's hand. CoAG is a test of both cooperative federalism and the process of reform under Rudd Labor.

Update: 3 July.
The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting has signed off on the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) on $3.7 billion of projects to restore the health of the Murray River and it is being heralded as creating the vehicle for the long-term reform of the much challenged Murray-Darling Basin system. There is mention of lifting the 4% cap on water trading to 6% so that water can be traded to where it is needed. But that increase will take place a year from now.

If the IGA is the vehicle for long term reform in the Basin then the $3.7billion funding on water projects is about looking after irrigators: a $100 million in extra funding for irrigation projects in Victoria's Sunraysia area; $600 million for water projects in SA that are about basically building a pipeline from Tailem Bend to get irrigatrors in the lower Murray much higher quality water; and NSW?

How is this a success in restoring health to the river? Under the Murray-Darling basin agreement, only $170 million of the $3.1 billion in water buy-backs is scheduled for the 2008-09 financial year.

Update: 4 July
An editorial in The Age puts it well:

COAG's deferral of the Wong plan could be catastrophic for the lower lakes in particular. If there are insufficient flows of fresh water to flush out the increasingly saline lakes, Senator Wong and her state counterparts may have no alternative but to open the barrages that regulate tidal flows, and allow the sea to claim the lakes.In other words, at this COAG the states did not in fact put their conflicting interests aside in order to allow concerted action that would keep alive the lower reaches of Australia's only great river system.

It goes on to say that since COAG chose not to heed the urgent warnings in the scientific reports about the Murray-Darling Basin [in the wake of the South Australia's Murray-Darling Basin Natural Resource Management Board's advice, the Murray-Darling Commission's audit of the 23 rivers in the basin gave all but three of them poor or very poor ecological report cards], the leaders of Australia's governments could at least have shed the spin cloaking yesterday's official statements.

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June 20, 2008

Canberra watch

CoAG recently agreed to the development of a “Basin Plan, which will include a sustainable cap on surface and groundwater diversions across the Basin.” CoAG’s intention is to try to fix Murray Darling Basin problems by putting a sustainable management regime in place.

It is probably too late given the Sustainable Rivers Audit released by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission.

MurrayRiverenoaction.jpg Moir

The best that can be done is put a sustainable system in place and cross one's fingers so that when the rains come in the net decade or so, the river and its ecology will receive their fair share before the irrigators try and take the lot for themselves.

Such a sustainable system will need to be one that is able to not only cope with extreme climatic variation, and long dry periods but shift to a drier climate as well. Is CoAG up to the task?

Thee Sustainable Rivers Audit showed that of the Murray-Darling's 23 rivers, only the Paroo, flowing from Queensland into northern NSW, was rated as having a good level of ecological health. Two more rivers, also in Queensland, were rated moderate, seven as poor and 13 as very poor. You cannot blame that on the drought. Presumably irrigators now realize that poor river system health means poor community well being. Their community well being means restoring ecological health rather than letting it die. Now is a good time for SA to cuts its dependence on River Murray water and invest in more waste water recycling and desalination.

Some will argue that ‘water reform’ within the Murray Darling Basin has been on the national agenda since federation and that much progress has been made. They would cite the salinity and drainage strategy of 1988, imposition of a national cap on extractions in 1995, an inquiry into the restoration of flows to the Snowy in 1998 and in June 2004 the Howard government announced a new ‘National Water Initiative’ and then in January 2007 a ‘National Plan for Water Security’.Lots of plans but little water restored to the river to ensure its health.

The Australian Conservation Foundation has suggested the governments look at the feasibility of the following:

â– Reducing allocations to irrigators in the Barwon-Darling Rivers (upstream of the Coorong) who now have 300% of their entitlements.

â– Releasing some of the 1200 billion litres (three times Melbourne's annual water

use) that is stored in private dams in northern NSW.

â– Releasing water from the Menindee Lakes storages on the Darling River.

â– Irrigation industries lending water to the environment.

â– Reducing irrigation allocations by a small percentage at the start of the season.

These are options because Victoria refuses to buy back water entitlements from irrigators for the Murray River even though the Federal Government has set aside $1.2 billion over the next four years to buy back water and return it to the river.


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June 18, 2008

Murray-Darling Basin woes

The rains in the lower Murray-Darling Basin have been modest, irrigators are on a drip feed, the wetlands are dying and the lower Lakes near the Murray's Mouth continue to dry out.

MurrayDarlingdry.jpg Tandberg

Drought and climate change have forced south western Australians to realise we cannot take our water for granted. The basin is an arid one. We have traditionally relied on dams for our water supply. But dam-building in this country has all but ceased. With the decrease in rainfall, flows into dams have declined markedly because we can no longer rely on rainfall to fill our dams.

Asa Wahlquist in a feature article in The Australian draws out one implication of this changed situation:

irrigation needs a radical overhaul. Most of the watering systems were built and allocated during the wet decades of the 1950s to '80s. They were government-driven, subsidised and based on old beliefs - such as greening the desert - rather than on science or sound economic principles. The irrigation infrastructure in some parts of the country is old and not financially sound, wastes far too much water and earns far too little. Such systems do not have the resilience to survive climate change. Because governments set them up, governments - and that means all of us - must become involved in the solution. Some irrigation districts will have to be retired, which is no easy act when the channels' drying up means the end of local communities.

As the country dries out further and we continue to extract more and more water, so we will lose plants, trees and fauna before we realise we had them.

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April 29, 2008

Murray-Darling Basin: buy-back

Maybe there is some movement on water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin under the Rudd Government. I see that Penny Wong, the Water Minister, holds to the view that we have been taking too much water out of the basin for far too long, that we have overdrawn the Murray and that we now need to restore the balance. The Rudd Government is going to address this by both spending $3 billion to buy back water rights in the Murray-Darling Basin, and saying that there will be no cuts to existing programs.

This only matches the amount committed by the former Howard government. The chance to spend more on buybacks has been passed by. So we still have ratio of $6 billion allocated to water infrastructure and just $3 billion for water buybacks.

What is new is the $1.5 billion in new spending to honour Labor election commitments: including $1 billion for urban water programs, including desalination, $250 million for water supplies in towns with a population of fewer than 50,000, and $250 million on improving the use of rainwater and grey water.

What is on the table is a 10-year, $12.9 billion plan entitled Water for the Future which Wong will release at the Australian Water Summit----the flagship forum for Australia’s $90 billion water industry--in Sydney.

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March 31, 2008

River Murray and political spin

Glenn Milne argues in The Australian that the $1 billion paid to the Victorian Government to bring it to the table is neither new nor extra money---it is simply part of Howard's original $10 billion national water funding with the irrigation upgrades in northern Victoria being one of the projects to be considered under the $10 billion. All the rhetoric about that extra $1 billion was spin by the Brumby Government that was tacitly supported by Rudd + Co.

MurrayRiver.jpg Spooner

So we have this kind of spin rather than a serious attempt to find extra water for a dying Murray River by buying back the over allocated water licences issued by the basin states beholden to the irrigation industry.There is not much water water in the lower lakes---Alexandrina and Albert---and what is there is too salty for stock to tolerate and is not even suitable to use on olive trees.

The River Murray will remain in crisis until a sustainable regime of water management can be put in place. Under the Memorandum of Understanding signed at CoAG in Adelaide the Commonwealth Minister will have the power to determine the cap. However, the as-yet- unspecified cap on water extraction from the river system for irrigation will not become fully operational for more than a decade. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority will not produce a plan until 2011. The state's existing water resource plans will remain in place until they expire . For SA this is 2012, 2014 for NSW and Queensland and 2019 for Victoria. Under the agreement the states maintain control of the water in their territory.

Though the Commonwealth is committed to spending $50 million on buying back irrigated water allocations this is a fraction of what is required to improve the River Murray. Little is being said about increasing this by any Government ministers, even though it has been known since 1997 that too much water was being taken out of the river. That is why a basin cap was put in place, yet Queensland is still refusing to put a cap in place for its rivers.

I am not convinced that Howard's basin plan that Rudd has now put in place is the right one---too much emphasis is placed on subsidizing irrigators. There is not enough emphasis placed on buying back the over-allocated water entitlements and on winding back irrigation in unsuitable areas---those with unsuitable soils, have rising or saline ground water---and practices---flood irrigation for cotton, rice and dairy farms.

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March 26, 2008

CoAG + water: limits of co-operative federalism

The word coming from the Rudd Government is that CoAG means business. It will be the reform workhorse of the nation and it will deliver on the reform promises made in December. Just watch this exciting space of co-operative federalism with everybody working together and in such wonderful harmony.

I am watching this space on water and the governance of the Murray-Darling Basin. I do not like what I am seeing, given our history of having taken too much water out of our rivers for too long. I see very little movement towards putting water back into the river soon. That history continues to shape the present.

CoAG.jpg Nicholson

What I am hearing is that Victoria is refusing to sign to any deal that would disadvantage Victorian irrigators. Since any deal is going to involve cutting back on irrigator's entitlements to water due to reduced flows into the Murray, all I see is that Victoria only willing to play ball if it gets its own way. Yet the Brumby Government is willing to take water from its irrigators to ensure that Melbourne's water supply continues.

Oh, I understand that high level talks are taking place amongst senior bureaucrats and ministers and that progress is being made according to Penny Wong, the Federal Water Minister. The progress? States would retain their powers to set yearly water allocations within their borders. So how does that square with the basin wide need for major reductions in water allocations?

It would seem that water and sharing river flows discloses the limits of co-operative federalism have been reached, inspite of all the spin about a deal being close to breaking the Murray deadlock.

Update
Well, a deal has been struck. Victoria keeps control of 50% of its Murray allocations, with current water plans for the state to remain in force until 2019. Victoria will also secure $1 billion in federal funds for the Food Bowl modernisation project across the north of the state.The federal $1 billion would come on top of $1 billion already pledged by the State Government, with water savings from the ambitious scheme to be split equally between Melbourne, farmers and the environment.Victoria would also have a seat at the table of a new body set up to manage the river in the decades to come.

MightMurray.jpg Nicholson

If Victoria has the best and most irrigation system in the nation then why does it need $1 billion to upgrade irrigation in the Goulburn and Murray valleys to prevent leakage from leaks evaporation and other inefficiencies. They held the nation to ransom to get commonwealth money to modernize their ramshackle irrigation system. It's a patchup job that refurbishes old systems that may never meet the demands of modern agriculture in a basin that now averages 37% of its long term average inflows.

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March 5, 2008

Ken Henry on water

Currently we don't have have well-functioning water markets; not in cities, or the irrigation areas in regional Australia.Instead, we have administered prices, legal protections on restraint of trade and, as a consequence, rationing. The states have really made a mess of water. They used cheap subsidized water to foster development in rural Australia, and they done little to deal with the negative consequences of their incompetent management. It's a mess.

Ken Henry argues that the state should allow the market to allocate water resources instead of the state governments rationing demand through regulation. Henry says:

About 2 1/2 years ago, I identified energy, water and land transport as three key candidates for the development of national markets, arguing that the case for governments facilitating the development of highly efficient national markets for key business inputs in a country as remote and geographically fragmented as ours is overwhelming. Our achievements to date have fallen well short of that goal. It may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the only significant business inputs for which we do have national markets are financial capital, post, telecommunications and aviation.

Rationing is not a long term solution when there is a long term reduction in water supply due to global warming. Of course, the irrigation lobby talks in terms of a drought not climate change and puts its hand out for ever more subsidies to help it get through the "temporary" difficulties.

So why the deep resisitance to reform? Is it because of the National Party--those agrarian socialists---blocking the government buying back water entitlements as I have argued? Henry takes a broader perspective

The central explanation for slow progress in these areas is an aversion to the logic of markets. That aversion seems to be based on a fear of distributional consequences. Of course, there are legitimate reasons for governments to be concerned about the distributional consequences of markets. But Australian governments have numerous policy instruments available to them to ameliorate distributional consequences.And they have not been afraid to use them.

He says that though transfer payments are not without their problems, including adverse effects on work and saving incentives, but they generally achieve more transparent distributional - as well as more efficient - outcomes than interference in markets through administered prices and rationing.

In this article in The Canberra Tines Henry argues that:

If we had a well-functioning market in water, all users would pay a price that reflected the amortised costs of water storage and reticulation infrastructure, and also its scarcity value. Moreover, while water wouldn't have the same price everywhere, arbitrage would ensure that any difference in water prices between any two places and/or two points in time would be no larger than could be explained by the costs of transport and storage.

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February 27, 2008

rain, water plans, Murray-Darling Basin

It hit me when I flew into a lush and green Brisbane on Monday. The heavy coastal rains that have fallen on eastern Australia have fallen outside the Murray-Darling Basin catchment. Though there has been some rain in the catchment, it is not enough to alleviate the chronic water shortages. Climate change needs to shift to the top of the agenda for managing the Murray-Darling Basin.

Since the future is one of significantly less water, and a drying of the southern rivers, the old issue of the over allocation of water entitlements--especially in NSW--- remains to be addressed. A new regime is needed.

Howard's old water plan for the Murray-Darling Basin was biased to assisting irrigators to improve the efficiency of existing irrigation infrastructure, whilst the buying back of water entitlements was more or less an afterthought that was never acted upon. That irrigator friendly plan, based on unfettered irrigation, was all about protecting the regional power base of the Nationals in Victoria and NSW.

The emphasis needs to be reversed. The buy-back process must be the core of any water plan. It must target the dairy farmers in the Goulbourn and Murray River catchments and give the environment an equally secure share of the water.

So it is good to see that Mike Young, the water economist, advocating that the 10-year Howard plan to hand out nearly $6 billion to irrigators for efficiency improvements should be scrapped. He proposes that $5 billion of this would be spent during the first term of the Rudd Government to compensate the 15,500 irrigators in the basin for the permanent restructuring, and in most cases cutting of their permanent water entitlements. About $1 billion would be spent on efficiency upgrades but only after the reallocation of water to deliver equal property rights to irrigators, the environment and all other direct and indirect users of water in the system.

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February 20, 2008

water flows in the Murray-Darling Basin

As I suspected the flood waters coursing down some of Australia's big inland river systems in the upper Murray Darling Basin have identified old cross-border feud between Queensland and NSW as most of the water is staying in Queensland.

The cotton irrigators in the St George irrigation area in south west Queensland have taken much of the water that's flowed down the rivers from the St George weir since late last year. Queensland Government figures show that little more than 25 per cent of the water finally made it across the border. But landholders in New South Wales claim it's closer to 17 per cent.

The problem is that the flood water belongs to everyone in the Murray Darling Basin and doesn't belong to favoured few cotton irrigators in one state. The water needs to be managed for the future of the Basin. How can that be done with much reduced water flows in the Basin, due to global warming?

We have the $10 billion plan to save the important Murray-Darling system in place. So what now? Peter Cullen says:

We've got the framework for a plan that will take us forward but there are still some critical decisions. We've got to work out how much water can we take from the rivers and still have a healthy river. Governments have been committing to do that since the 1984 reforms but haven't really done it yet. Then we've got to work out how we share that water between the competing users. All the farmers would like to have access to it, cities are now wanting to delve into it. So whilst we have the framework in the new bill and a commitment to develop a Murray-Darling Basin plan, we've got a fair bit of detail still to work through.

However, priority of the Howard $10 billion plan---- most of the money was to go to cutting back water wastage with more infrastructure--- needs to be changed. The bullet needs to be bitten:
We've got a situation where the inflow into the Murray are perhaps dropped about 40 per cent over the last decade and that really means, I think we've got to reduce the entitlements and I don't think we've been getting very far over the last decade by incremental improvement in the system and I think it's now time to accept the reality that we are in a dryer climate in the Murray-Darling basin and reduce the entitlements appropriately probably by 40, 50 per cent and compensate people who we are taking licences away from. So I would give that a priority for the money.

Reducing the water allocations by up to 50 per cent, that would dramatically change the farming landscape in the basin.

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February 11, 2008

The Australian: water politics

Water politics brings out some strange views doesn't it? Here is an editorial in The Australian:

Politicians like to hide behind climate change, but the root cause of the water crisis in Australian cities has been the failure of successive governments to build dams. They also like their water authorities to make money, and while consumers endured tough restrictions last financial year, the water utilities of Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane paid dividends to state authorities totalling $857 million. It's time the profits were reinvested in infrastructure.

In case you missed it the root cause of the water crisis is repeated:
For householders and businesses across the nation, the water crisis has been a wake-up call against water waste. Tanks, grey water systems and recycling plans mean that water usage per capita is unlikely to climb back to pre-restriction levels. Governments, unfortunately, have not been as efficient over the years and until adequate dams are built, cities and towns, especially in growth areas, will remain vulnerable to the protracted droughts that are a normal part of the Australian climate.

How this applies to southern Australia is beyond me. There have been no rains and the dams in the Murray Darling Basin are at very low levels.

On the Australian's account the lack of water in southern Australia has little to do with rain or the over-allocation of the water that is available to subsidize irrigated agriculture.

This little snippet indicates that The Australian, in continuing to advocate conservative politics will run with the most dubious views---politicians hide behind climate change (a smokescreen) to cover their inaction over building more dams. Dam-building is what is needed to drought proof the country. It sounds like the 1950s voice of the irrigated agriculture doesn't it; one that has updated itself to speak as a climate change denialist.

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January 19, 2008

saturation point

Next weekend the Gold Coast will enjoy a 'wet weekend'. The spillway at the local dam is doing what spillways are supposed to do, spill, for the first time in ages. If we get very much more rain before the pipeline between here and Brisbane is finished the overflow could threaten to flood some areas. Poorer ones. The golf course flood plain has had a wall built around it that would make Israel proud. This bit of the story wasn't mentioned in the local paper though. Instead there was celebration in anticipation of a weekend when Gold Coasters will be allowed to wash their cars, houses and driveways. Lord knows the driveways need a good hose down after weeks of rain.

The fresh water showers at beaches will be turned back on until further notice. Hooray. We can have a dip, traipse back up the beach in the rain, then have a nice fresh water shower. And so can all the tourists.

We've got local council elections coming up so every story that can possibly be politicised through that lens is politicised to a stupid degree. I'm sure readers of the Gold Coast Bulletin were vastly impressed with the huge pic of their mayor in a bath, in a suit and tie, with no less than six rubber ducks and a floral shower cap. We don't do humiliation around here.

Celebrity gold medalist and mayor Ron Clarke and half a dozen Labor MPs are credited with winning these concessions from the wicked Queensland Water Commission which wanted to keep us on level 10,000 water restrictions regardless. It's not our fault the dam that supplies Brisbane was built in the wrong place. And besides, we've been better at reducing household water use than Brisbane.

Meanwhile, another Qld dam where the spillway was starting to look like a sick joke has runneth over. There are teenaged kids in the area who've never seen this in their lives.

When we're talking about a commodity that's essential for life, surely we can organise its management in some non-partisan way? Don't hold your breath. The furiously conservative population of the Gold Coast has been disciplined and blessed with rain, and the profligate Labor government in Broncos supporting Brisbane wants to tell us what to do with all our hard earned wetness. And there are people who have lived through several changes of government at local, state and federal levels with no experience of why a spillway is called a spillway.
.

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September 22, 2007

Adelaide: water crisis

There has been little rain in Adelaide this winter. Consequently, the city is facing shrinking supplies, exacerbated by declining flows into the Murray River. The river still supplies 40 per cent of the city's water in an average year. However, inflows are at record low levels in the Murray Darling Basin, and the likelihood of permanent plantings like grapevines and orchards being lost has increased.

Experts have warned that Adelaide, which is under advanced Level 3 restrictions, could run out of water by the summer of 2008-09. Adelaide's current predicament is that this is not an average year, and so the city is currently sourcing 90 per cent of its water from dwindling Murray River supplies.

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Atchison

The city's reservoirs are a buffer against further deterioration of water quality (increased salinity) in the River Murray. Currently filled to about 80per cent of capacity, they provide eight months' water supply for Adelaide and will operate as a final emergency tank if supplies from the Murray run out.

Current water management under the Rann Government is restriction on demand. The "temporary" ban on domestic outdoor watering through September to help conserve water for summer continues. Level 3 water restrictions relate to nurseries, car washing, pools, spas, fountains and ponds remain the same and there is a ban on the use of household sprinklers, hoses and irrigation systems. However, drippers will be allowed after October 1, due to political pressure.

Adelaide is on long-term water restrictions as the key solution to managing our water requirements. We citizens are being increasingly told that urban water scarcity is inevitable, and we must learn to use less water to survive – buy low-use shower fittings, only water our lawns at night and wash our cars with buckets.The current policy is to deal with water scarcity by accepting another summer of water restrictions.

Although water restrictions have a part to play, they do not address the fundamental cause of our urban water scarcity – which is a lack of investment in new water supplies to meet the demands of growing populations and to cope better in the drier conditions of global warming.

Extra water is needed for Adelaide. The SA Government is planning to build a desalination plant to shore up Adelaide's water supply, but that won't be operational for another five years at least. Until then the water should be cut from irrigated agriculture. Total agriculture in the Murray-Darling area takes about 13,000 gigalitres per year, and the total income from that agricultural activity, without deducting any of the expenses like environmental degradation, the river degradation and so forth, is $2 billion a year. That's pretty expensive water, which really means that all this agricultural activity is very strongly subsidised indirectly by this water.

Time to cut the subsidies.


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September 5, 2007

Adelaide + water shortages

There is a danger that Adelaide could run out of water by the summer of 2008-09 after disappointing rains this winter failed to recharge the city's main supply from the Murray River. Little rain means little runoff. The possibility of the South Australian capital forced to rely on emergency supplies of water from January 2009 can be averted only by well-above-average rainfall next winter in the Murray-Darling Basin.

However, the chances of the city's estimated eight months of storage being replenished before next winter are fading because the likelihood of above-average rain over the next three months is low.

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Bateup

The implication is that we are now running the system on inflows without any dams. Where is the water going to come from in the future? How come Adelaide has not planned for alternative water supplies, including desalination, water recycling and stormwater harvesting?

The Rann Government has been hot on publicizing climate change but has done no planning for water apart from restricting demand for water in the form of a bucket-only watering policy. This is in such a contrast to Western Australia, which is approaching the water scarcity problem with a long-term solution in mind Perth has a desalination plant that has been operating since November and has the capacity to deliver 45GL/annum. By 2011 another plant there will deliver an additional 50GL/annum with possible upgrade to 100GL/annum. That 95GL is equivalent to about half what SA Water delivers to Adelaide each year.

Why not Adelaide? Why is a taskforce just looking at this? Where are the plans for storm water retention and recycling? Why isn't the Rann Government being pro-active to take advantage of the opportunity to become a world leader in water management and then export our expertise and solutions across the world?

Update:6 September
Darryl Gobbett, an economist writing an op-ed in The Advertiser says:

Adelaide needs to turn off its Murray tap and leave this valued water resource to our state's irrigators and rehabilitation of the river. We must look more closely at desalination plants and place more focus on harvesting the city's rainfall, recycling, making our water distribution more efficient as well as getting the right price structures in place. Adelaide should be securing its own core independent water supply and possibly building three or four water desalination plants over the next five years, harnessing stormwater and increasing recycling.

Gobbett rightly points the finger at the Rann state government. He says that the State Government's blinkered focus on cutting water consumption by merely turning off the taps is hampering SA's long-term ability to solve the water crisis, and:
The State needs to adopt a new mindset to solve its water crisis. By putting all our eggs in the Murray basket, we are closing our minds to market-based and technological solutions on our doorstep. There is also no certainty the other states will continue to let the water flow even if it rains heavily. We should be under no illusions – they will look after their own businesses, farms and householders first for power and water.Already water restrictions in the eastern states have reduced their electricity generation. We need an independent solution.

What we have is an incompetent Government that is unable to plan long term for water infrastructure investment . The State Government's long-term strategy for the state's water supply has been to pray for rain while tinkering around the edges. This has resulted in the imposition of harsh water restrictions as a means of conserving existing supplies.

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July 25, 2007

water woes: to the High Court?

I see that John Howard will use constitutional powers over corporations, external affairs and interstate trade and commerce powers to enforce commonwealth government control over water in the Murray-Darling Basin to solve its problems.

I must admit to being surprised by what has happened with the management of the Murray-Darling Basin. Good bye co-operative federalism, hello Canberra takeover. Is this a case of electoral politics overriding good policy? Is Steve Bracks just defending the water licences of the Victorian irrigators? Just what are the key areas of concern between the Commonwealth and Victoria?

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Bill Leak

I'm also ambivalent. It is a national issue and so Canberra should be centrally involved and call the shots, as the states have made a mess of things with their overallocation of water to foster regional development and refused to address the issue. But the states also have control of water, as stated in the Constitution, and so they should also be involved, as Victoria insists.

The constitution does not grant express power to the Commonwealth over rivers or systems such as the Murray-Darling. This is one reason the Howard Government has spent months trying to entice the states to cede their powers in return for a $10 billion investment.

So why do the states need to refer all their powers to Canberra? As we know from Kevin Henry, the Treasury Secretary, that Howard's $10 billion Murray-Darling rescue plan was poorly designed and done on the back of an envelop.

Howard is blaming the states as usual (election politics) when the real obstacle up to water is the Nationals who oppose any reduction in the over-allocated water licences and refuse to acknowledge the effects of climate change on the Basin---reduced basin stream flows by 20 and 40 per cent by 2030. Yet the indications are that in some of the southern catchments in the Murray-Darling Basin we are getting close to the predictions for 2030 under climate change. That spells the end of the expansion of irrigated agriculture.

The new commonwealth plan centralises water management, includes the setting or overall caps on water use, funding to buy back over-allocated water ad funding to increase the efficiency of irrigation. It will develop salinity plans and accredit individual water plans in catchments. The Commonwealth will not be able to get involved in in individual water river operations or seasonal allocations of water.

Are we now headed for the High Court? Section 100 of the constitution says:

"The Commonwealth shall not, by any law or regulation of trade or commerce, abridge the right of a state or of the residents therein to the reasonable use of the waters of rivers for conservation or irrigation."

This applies only to the trade and commerce power, and it just protects "reasonable" use of the waters. That leaves the corporations power. So what will the big irrigators do?

Update: 26 the July
I see that centralists are arguing that the real problem is our federal system of governance.Thus George Williams in the Age says:

The underlying problem is Australia's dysfunctional federal system of government. Our 1901 constitution fails to set out clear responsibility for the Murray-Darling and other waterways. While the management of a river system that crosses state borders should be a matter for federal government, the constitution fails to say this.

This ignores the resistance politics of the irrigation industry supported by the Nationals. The National Party attack good science as it opposes a mass compulsory buy-back of irrigators' licences that could devastate farming towns. Climate change may well achieve that.

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July 7, 2007

Blogging the Adelaide Festival of Ideas 2007: water

One of yesterday's mid morning sessions that I attended at the 2007 Adelaide Festival of Ideas was Peter Cullen's talk on water and climate change was entitled Drought Proofing Australia: Heroic Fantasies and Sobering Realities, It was in the gorgeous Bonython Hall situated on the gounds of the University of Adelaide, and it was standing room only. Water is a hot button issue in Adelaide.

As Cullen says: What if the Murray goes ---in the sense of the water being too salty or there being no flows due to lack of rain? What then for Adelaide? It's reality --not science fiction, as there is 40% less runoff and river flow into the Murray-Darling Basin. Adelaide only has enough storage for 35 or so days, Adelaide people use more water than people in other capital cities, and the groundwater on the Adelaide plains is being pumped as if there is no tomorrow. Adelaide has a big problem with water, or rather the lack of water.

So do the other capital cities for that matter, and climate change is going to make the situation worse. Though the "National Water Initiative is in place and we know what to do nothing much happens. Why is that?

Cullen argued that special interest groups across the basin act to block and delay reform for as long as possible. Their strategy for doing is follows a particular template. This says we lack knowledge even though we know enough to devise water accounts for the different catchments in the basin; deny the problem by denying the cause (over-extraction); confuse the issue; then threaten scientists who tell the truth so as to stop them speaking; then blame others in a different state.

In tricky times people tend to adopt heroic fantasies and simplistic solutions. They suggest we pinch some one else's water) (eg., the northern rivers), transport water long distances (eg., the proposed canal from Kimberley's to Perth). We tend to assume that we live in a wetter world than we do (drought is always an exception) and so build permanent irrigation (eg., irrigation on the ephemeral Darling at Bourke) in a land of variability. Politicians now turn to focus groups for wisdom and they have run down water policy planning in the agencies that were once based on good science.

By sobering realities Cullen meant that visionary politicians relying on focus groups were no substitute for serious water planning that involved technical, economic and environmental considerations. As it is not possible to drought- proof the Murray-Darling Basin there is a need to accept climate variability, live within our means (eg., accept the Goyder Line) rather than rely on hope, and realize that water is going to become expensive and that a carbon tax will make water even more expensive.

So we need to become smart. We know the way forward, the politicians want to do something and there is money floating around. Being smart is to make sure that water policy drives development and not the other way around.

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May 30, 2007

Gittens on water

Ross Gittens has a good op-ed on water policy in the Sydney Morning Herald. He identifies the problem succinctly:

The nation's water problem comes in two parts. There's the destruction of our inland river systems because of over-irrigation, and there's the acute shortages of water in the capital cities - shortages that may just be the temporary consequence of a severe drought or may be a harbinger of the climate change to come.Irrigation accounts for about 70 per cent of all water use in Australia. Households take only about 10 per cent, sewerage and drainage takes another 10 per cent and mainly city-based industry takes the rest About 85 per cent of irrigation takes place in the Murray-Darling basin. City water prices are about 10 times the price of (admittedly, untreated) water for irrigation.

He adds that the obvious way to alleviate the cities' problems would be to allow them to buy some of the irrigators' water allocations. Many irrigators would make more money from selling water to the city than from using it to produce low value-added crops. For the cities, buying rural water would be a lot more economic than spending a fortune on recycling and desalination plants.

But Howard's plan doesn't contemplate such sales. Why not? It's contrary to National Party policy. The Nats don't want to see any decline in irrigation activity, no matter how ecologically damaging or uneconomic it may be. The Coalition is beholden to the Nationals.

What has been rejected is a water policy would concentrate on making sure water - city and rural - was correctly priced to reflect its scarcity and on maximising the opportunity for water to be traded in markets so it finds its most valuable use.

Gittens then addresses Howard's big plan in terms of rural water users and the irrigation industry:

The plan has two main elements and both are ill-considered and wasteful. The first is to spend almost $6 billion providing irrigators with modernised infrastructure, mainly lining or piping for their major water channels.The Commonwealth would pay $4 for every $1 the farmer paid. In return, the Commonwealth would get half the water "saved" for return to the river and the farmer would get the other half. Not a bad deal, eh? Especially when you remember that much of the water "saved" through reduction of seepage and run-off would have found its way back into the river, anyway

This is the Government subsidising improvements that irrigators hadn't considered worth making themselves - mainly because their water's so cheap they don't mind wasting it. This is the Government picking a single, infrastructure solution to the farmers' problems and, in the process, trying to keep irrigators right where they are.

It ignores the Productivity Commission's findings that "'saving' water via major infrastructure works is often costly compared with other options" and "subsidies that seek to improve the uptake of particular technologies or practices solely to increase the productivity of water use are likely to be ineffective".

Gittens then says that:

The plan's second element is to spend $3 billion buying back from farmers the grossly excessive (and hence often unfilled) water entitlements given to them by state National Party ministers, particularly in NSW. Not bad if you can get it. Trouble is, the Howard Government's tender to buy back entitlements under an earlier scheme has just collapsed because the price the farmers demanded was too high. They think they're sitting on a goldmine - why wouldn't they?

Th plan is a giant subsidy to the irrigation industry. So much for good economic rationality.

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May 18, 2007

water woes

It is what I had feared. It is not just the dams (Hume and Dartmouth) along the river system are at just 5.7% of capacity, and are in real danger of running dry, or the continuation of the low record of inflows into the system this year. Significant rains and inflow are needed in June.

There is less water (stream flows) flowing into the Murray-Darling Basin that has been previously estimated because surface water and ground water have been regarded as separate systems and so allocated as separate sources, when they are interconnected and around 40% of the inflow into the Murray-Darling comes from ground water.

Blinded.jpg
Peter Brooke

According to the AFR today (subscription required, p. 8) hydrologist Richard Evans states that ‘if (groundwater) extractions continue to grow, by 2050 the loss to the River Murray will be around 711 gigalitres’. Such a loss is equivalent to half the water that needs to be put back in the River Murray to restore its health.

John Quiggin has more on this, as does Harry Clarke.

So there is less water for agriculture and urban use (including Adelaide) than estimated and greater pressure for cut backs in water allocation licences. The Nationals, who oppose any cut backs, are being pushed into a corner. As are the downstream irrigators who rely on the unregulated use of ground water, and state governments who have allowed the unregulated use, and mismanagement, of ground water when the cap was placed on water taken from rivers. If you pump out a lot of the groundwater, then there isn't much left for the river.

Will this overcome the current denial about the extent of the country's water crisis and its long term implications? The Nationals argue that water should be returned to the environment through efficiency gains rather than buying back licences and that the state should fund the improvements in infrastructure to achieve the efficiency gains.

At the moment the Government is doing very little about water on the ground, whilst Malcolm Turnbull, the Minister of Environment, is being pretty flaky on water. He dismisses the ground water issue, downplays the commitment to buying back water allocations on a voluntary basis, waffles on about the reasons for postponing the implementation of the hastily prepared $10 billion water plan, and refuses to release information and reports supporting the water plan. Presumably the Nationals are blocking. Eventually the Nationals will be forced to back down on their opposition to cutting back the overallocation of water licences.

What will also need to change is the water restrictions policy whereby urban consumers make relatively small cuts in their water use, as this is not a sustainable way to plan for the country's future water supply. Recycled storm and wastewater is a better approach. So is repairing leaky ageing infrastructure. State governments governments have resisted calls for more spending on the nation's dilapidated water infrastructure. They continue to strip $1 billion from the profits of their publicly owned water bodies, with most of the money being redirected by the states for spending in areas unrelated to water.

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April 24, 2007

water futures

Severe water shortages are not just in south east Queensland. I've just spent five days holidaying on Kangaroo Island. Many parts of the Island ran out of water in October 2006. The Kingscote dam is near empty.

Water is being trucked in at great expense. Even the source for the trucked water--a private dam --- is not secure.

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Alan Moir

The Island is drying out compared to five years ago when I was there. The immediate water crisis is the same as in in the Murray-Darling river system. It is the lack of rain and run off. So little rain has fallen this year. It hasn't rained for over a year in Kangaroo Island. The weather was like summer time. Everywhere we went there were signs about needing to conserve water. Most of the explanations by the Islanders were in terms of the drought --not climate change. Climate change was rarely mentioned.

What I was seeing was a hot dry world with little water. The Island already has a desalinisation plant at Penneshaw. More will be needed. The Island's economy was struggling as the old drivers of growth were doing it hard. Agriculture was on its last legs, whilst pastoralism was barely surviving with food or water. Without significant rain soon there will be no water for these industries in 2007-08. It is (international) tourism that was keeping the Island's economy going. Flinders Chase, which sells heritage, is a major economic player on the Island in terms of economic growth and employment.

If we come back to water futures then we need to think in terms of the long-term decline in runoff, less river flow and water as the effects of human-caused climate change, not just the drought. That means water allocations will need to be reduced for irrigated agriculture in the Murray-Darling Basin--- for past over allocations and reduced river flows in the future.

Update: 26 April
It's been raining all day in Adelaide. Will it be the same pattern as last year--good autumn rains then nothing? Hence a year of below average rain?

John Quiggin has an interesting post on water. He says that in Queensland:

there is talk of evacuating towns that are running out of water. This seems an over-reaction (or more likely media beatup) to me. A reported cost of $8000 per week for tankers to supply water to a town of 1500 people is not a huge sum. Stlll, unless rainfall returns to higher levels soon, a lot of communities are going to face decline and maybe in some cases disappearance.

Quiggin also has an op-ed in the AFR on the politics of water as opposed to long term policy that addresses the long term effects of climate change. He rightly argues that Howard's Murray-Darling Basin takeover plan mainly consists of funding for on-farm works and is inadequate to the severity of the problem.

Quiggin has just posted the AFR op ed on his weblog.

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March 14, 2007

Peter Cullen at the Brisbane Institute

Peter Cullen is speaking at the Brisbane Institute tonight on the severe shortage of the precious resource of water. Many, including to Premier Beattie, respond to this shortage by throwing money at a few big projects, such as reviving the Bradfield Scheme. According to his speech notes in the Courier-Mail Cullen's argument is that:

The Murray-Darling Basin appears to be drying out. In the past six years inflows to the Murray River have been about 40 per cent of what has been recorded in the long term.This seems to be a combination of a drought that will eventually break, and climate shift that will not. Since the river was over-allocated before this happened, it is now clear that we are going to have to adjust to taking less water from the basin. Over-allocation means people do not get the volumes they anticipate, and the environment becomes degraded.

That is the history of water development in the Murray-Darling Basin. We have climate change at a time when our groundwater aquifers have just been emptied. That history indicates that the water crisis is not simply the result of historically variable rainfall being made more unpredictable by climate change, along with the pressures of population growth. The water problem is also a consequence of poor understanding and management of our water resources in the past.

Cullen adds:

It seems that with the climate shift we are now experiencing inflows to the basin that are about half what they were in earlier and wetter times, and it may be that the annual allocation of water will now only ever be about half of what the entitlement notionally says.This is how the system has always worked, and entitlement holders cannot expect to get access to water that doesn't exist, nor should they expect to pinch someone else's water, including that allocated to the environment.

That means an an efficient irrigation industry that can create enough wealth to pay its way and not rely on public subsidies re cheap water as it has in the past. It may well be that climate change will eliminate irrigation from many areas.

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March 11, 2007

limits of water restrictions?

The reserves of water for our capital continue to drop and the the next level of restrictions are due to cut in, which mean banning the outside use of water by domestic users. Melbourne's water storages are at 34.1 per cent, while the trigger point for stage 4 is 29.3 per cent. Storage levels are estimated to fall at a rate of 0.5 percentage points a week. Everyone is hoping for the autumn rains .

What I continue to find surprising, especially in Melbourne, is the policy of Brack's state government to restrict the domestic use to achieve a cut in water consumption --even to the point of having water officials patrolling the streets of Melbourne. Yet the savings achieved are but a drop in the ocean compared with industrial and farming use. Whilst people stand in the shower with a bucket so they can have water for their gardens industry and agriculture are not required to reduce their use of water.

As this report in The Age indicates Melbourne households are bracing for a compulsory total ban on watering gardens under stage 4 restrictions, that is likely to be in force in May. Whilst Melbourne households contemplate targets to cut consumption by 17.5 per cent

Industry will be asked to reduce water usage by just 1 per cent a year over the next 10 years asunder tougher water restrictions...In a move that puts increased pressure on domestic users, the demands on business are described by the State Government as "aspirational". This means industry will not be forced to achieve the 1 per cent saving and there will be no punishment for businesses that fail to meet the target....Industry and agriculture [which] use up to 30 per cent of Melbourne's water and industry [are] yet to face specific curbs on water use.

There is no balance of equitable sacrifice in this. Where is the greening of production? Why cannot industry recycle the rain water and the water that it uses?

The National Party isn't interested in taking real action on Australia’s water crisis. They have been opposed to any purchase by the Commonwealth of over-allocated water entitlements and refuse to accept that the problem of over-allocation was the most serious issue in the Murray Darling Basin. The big irrigation interests have been effective in lobbying the National Party to block this reform.

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February 25, 2007

forever hopeful

Well now. Howard delivered to SA on water last Friday.

He guaranteed a minimium flow in South Australia of 1850 gigalitres,with a strategic reserve kept for aside for drought conditions. So Howard ensured South Australia's water security. He also agreed that the basin should be managed by an independent commission of experts, and that there would be a review of the takover after 7 years.

That should boost his prospects for hanging onto the Liberal marginal seats in Adelaide at the next federal election.

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Matt Golding

That's one issue politically put to bed. The commonwealth is in control and now needs to get on with the job. A way forward has been found and Howard can take the credit.

Now for climate change. It's connected to water as it means less rain and runoff in the southern part of the Murray-Darling Basin. Alas for Howard, he's more rhetoric than substance on this issue.

Update: 26 February
On the ecological side of the water issue it is now probably necessary to start thinking in terms of reducing water use because the inflows into the Murray-Darling system will likely be reduced in the future, and the rivers are already stressed due to the basin wide over-allocation problem. Given the notable failure of the states to address over allocation of water in the Basin, the sustainable level of extraction is what is now needed. The water is just not there. This sustainability needs to include:

maintaining river health at an acceptable level;
serious cost-benefit assessment of irrigation proposals;
extensive use of drip irrigation technology;

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February 23, 2007

governing the Murray-Darling Basin

There is no doubt the Murray-Darling Basin needs to be run as one basin, by an authority empowered to make some very hard decisions. Howard is right on this. However, the decision to do that, and how to do that, may not be made at this Friday's meeting since Victoria is out on a limb.

In terms of the battle over federalism and water Victoria positions itself as squeeky clean--it's doing all the right things by the environment and the problems really do lie with the other states. Victoria says that it has been leading the nation on water reform since 1999, stopping the privatisation of water authorities, implementing hundreds of projects that are safeguarding Victoria's water supplies for the next 50 years, and meeting the objectives of the National Water Initiative. It's the other states that are dragging the chain on reform. This squeeky green image underlies Victoria's response to governing the Murray-Darling Basin.

The problem with Howard's takeover plan for the governance of the Murray-Darling Basin Steve Bracks says is that:

'it appears that this national reform effort is a scrapbook affair — a paper-thin improvisation cut and pasted outside normal departmental and cabinet channels.....With so little hard detail, all we have to go on is the Prime Minister's good word. Personally, I don't believe Victorians are ready to trust the Prime Minister with total control of our state's water security in northern Victoria. To do so would risk leaving farmers, communities, the environment and our rivers literally high and dry.

Bracks is right to be concerned about on the lack of detail on such an important issue. Most of the states were less than impressed, hence their proposal for a review after 5 years. Although the Commonwealth plans to address the over-allocation problem in the MDB head on” through two major programmes for water recovery (one based on infrastructure and efficiency and the other on buying entitlements and structural adjustment), the plan is light on detail and timelines or targets for dealing with overallocation and over-use.

Paul Sinclair, director of Environment Victoria's Healthy Rivers Campaign, says that four areas need to be addressed in terms of greater detail. There needs to be timelines for returning enough water to the Murray and Darling rivers to make them healthy; real water must be returned to the Murray, the Murray and Darling must be managed in terms of water and degraded catchments; money needs to be allocated to monitoring programs to make sure government investment is improving river health.

Victoria has proposes its own governance plan, which it says is much better than Howard's. The other states are not so convinced. So is Victoria as squeeky clean as it claims? Paul Sinclair lifts the veil:

In 2003 the Victorian Government's green paper on water reform identified the Goulburn, Campaspe, Loddon, Murray, Wimmera and Snowy rivers as rivers "likely to be stressed". A scientific assessment in 2004 found that zero per cent of the Murray as it flows through the Mallee was in good condition. The Loddon has 3 per cent in good condition, the Campaspe zero per cent, and the Goulburn 26 per cent. Seventy-six per cent of our freshwater fish species are considered to be at risk of being pushed to extinction. Meanwhile, the Victorian Government allows the Barmah wetlands, one of the Murray's iconic sites, to be grazed to dust by cattle. Victoria will be well positioned to claim Commonwealth funds to fix sick rivers.Victoria continues to refuse to buy back entitlements from irrigators. Victoria is spending up to $4000 for each megalitre saved by fixing leaks in irrigation channels, while the market price is $2000. So for every megalitre saved by fixing channels, two could have been bought on the market.

Victoria, like the other states, approaches water issues in terms of protecting its irrigators first. On the Victorian side of the Murray, farmers are getting 95 per cent of the water; on the NSW side most farmers have general security licences, and this year are getting zero allocations—not one drop. Those few farmers with higher security licences are getting 48 per cent. On the South Australian section of the Murray, farmers are getting 60 per cent of their allocations. Bracks is determined to defend the Victorian situation. Victoria's interests must come first.

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February 20, 2007

Beattie's water dreaming

When Premier Beattie speaks about water he often sounds like the National Party--more dams to "droughtproof" Queensland, and modifications to the Bradfield's Depression era plan to divert northern rivers (including the Burdekin and Tully) through western rivers ( the Warrego and Thomson rivers) and into the Murray-Darling system. Neither make economic or ecological sense.

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Leahy

Beattie 's view is that his state's got water in north Queensland that gets poured into the sea, is wasted and that it should be used to open up additional mining and agriculture in the state's north. It's the old 1950s water development view pure and simple that is being spruiked.

Presumably there are big government subsidies involved in the development since cost estimates by the South Australian Government price water from the scheme at about $6 a kilolitre, more than five times the price of urban water and up to 30 times that being paid by most irrigators who would use most of the new water.

No doubt the water development lobby will sell the idea of the Bradfield Scheme as another Snowy Mountain style project, and then add, to ensure a public subsidy from the Commonwealth, that this scheme will divert excess flood waters from the north into the increasingly parched southern part of the Murray-Darling Basin. It's the old dream of making deserts bloom and creating an agricultural and mining paradise in inland Queensland. Beattie simply has his hand out for cash to develop water resources in the north.

The Murray-Darling Basin has become the battleground for a water war.The irrigation industry in the Basin does not pay its way, and it is dependent on, and expects, massive public investment. If Beattie wants development up north the irrigators should build the necessary infrastructure. The upgrade to the water channels to prevent leakage and e evaporation in the southern part of the basin should be funded by the irrigation industry.

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February 9, 2007

the politics of water

And I thought that all the states would sign up to Howard's big water plan for the Murray-Darling Basin. The four states, which control the Murray-Darling system , were being asked to hand over control of the rivers to the Commonwealth in exchange for a huge upgrade of irrigation infrastructure and measures to address water over-allocations. But, to my suprise, it was not to be.

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Bill Leak

Suprisingly, I agree: the states should not be required to surrender their constitutional powers over their rivers.The states expressed concern over inadequate financing for the plan, the lack of written guarantees of minimum water flows, and the Commonwealth's demand for a veto power over developments on flood plains.

I guess the premiers will sign eventually.That means that most of the direct benefits will flow to the many prosperous irrigators lining the banks of the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin. That is the cost of getting the Nationals onside for a reform of the governance of the Murray-Darling Basin.

What is good about Howard's plan is the $3 billion to buy out excess allocations is some allowance for structural adjustment to finance unviable irrigators to leave the industry. What is bad about it is the big spending on upgrading irrigation infrastructure such as lining channels so there is less water loss from seepage, which will certainly deliver more water to irrigators.Why should the Government should fund it. Why isn't it all the irrigators benefiting from irrigation infrastructure spend the money to maintain and upgrade it. Why not increase the price of water delivered to irrigators as a way to change their behaviour?


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February 7, 2007

Adelaide & water politics

SA's water future is bleak, given the extremely low inflows, low storage levels and over-exploitation of water in the Murray-Darling river system. That presents significant problems for water management in SA next year and the next decade. SA needs to make better use of the resource it has instead of relying on others upstream to sacrifice a share of theirs, and it should lead the way in efficient water management.

So what is being done?

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Atchison

There is a project to build a desalinisation plant in the Upper Spencer Gulf to supply water for Whyalla and the Eyre Peninsula, and so lessen their dependence on River Murray water. However, most of the water from the plant will be used by BHP Billiton to service the $6.5 billion expansion of the Olympic Dam mine.

What, then of Adelaide? Given the talk about waterproofing Adelaide, what is actually being done, apart from the imposition of water restrictions to reduce consumption? Well, the Rann Government does look busy in terms of its management.

It is toying with building a weir near Wellington to secure water for the city; closing Lake Bonney and other wetlands to reduce evaporation; modifying four major pumps that supply Adelaide and country towns; pump an extra 60 gigalitres of water into Mt Lofty Ranges storages to provide a buffer against water quality problems; and build new water filtration plants for 15 country towns along the Murray. However, these management actions merely use River Murray water more efficiently, when it is the reliance on the river for the city's water that is the problem.

There has been little attempt by the Rann Government to address the alternative sources of water for Adelaide. It is missing in action on this. Does Adelaide need a desalinisation plant? Apparently not, as it is would force up water prices. I would have thought the price of water is going to increase no matter what. So how much reliance should there be on recycling storm and grey water in Adelaide? When are water restrictions going to give way to better water pricing to help ensure responsible use.

If Adelaide is at risk, as Premier Rann keeps saying on the national stage, then what kind of long-term planning to find alternative water supplies is being done? Well, the water proofing Adelaide project team have spent time examining such proposals as harvesting icebergs from Antarctica, piping water from the Ord River, the Bradfield scheme for piping water from the rivers in northern Queensland and piping groundwater from the South East of South Australia. Why take this stuff seriously when we know the answer---aquifer storage and recovery of the storm water that flows from the Adelaide Hills into the sea?

Do we detect a lack of desire by the Rann state government to actually make any positive step to increasing the water supply. Is it just like the other state governments, with the exception of WA.

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January 30, 2007

water politics: more subsidies

Andrew Macintosh, a deputy director of the Australia Institute, has a succinct account of the environmental strategy of the Howard Government, that puts its big water plan into a political perspective. This is a plan which, as John Quiggin points out, places the emphasis on enginneering solutions--the lining and piping of the open irrigation channels from the river to the farmer's property. What played second fiddle was the market purchases of water entitlements. Full-cost water pricing was never mentioned.

Macintosh says that:

The Government's solution to water problems has largely involved providing public money for water infrastructure, much of which has appeared in the form of subsidies to the agricultural sector. Thursday's announcement of the $10 billion water package signalled that this policy is unlikely to change. The Government's plan states that the bulk of the money will be directed to farmers to improve water efficiency and irrigation infrastructure. The lion's share of the money is intended to provide further subsidies to what is already probably the most subsidised industry in Australia.

What is firmly rejected is the neo-liberal or free market approach that involves a buy back of water licences for the environment, apply full-cost water pricing, establish tradeable water rights, reduce agricultural subsidies and then allow the market to do its thing subject to appropriate environmental restrictions.

All you hear on the radio these days is subsidies for the agricultural sector, which undercuts its public image of being the least subsidized agricultural sector in the develped world. Macintosh d goes on to say that because of the Government's ties with irrigators:

it has (for the most part) refused to buy back water for the environment, does not support full-cost water pricing, opposes environmental regulations and has provided an unprecedented level of subsidies to the agricultural sector. Under the new plan, it appears these subsidies will continue to flow and buy backs will remain a last resort. The same approach has been adopted to greenhouse policy. Enormous subsidies have been provided to the fossil fuel sector in the name of growth. Then to solve the problems caused by burning fossil fuels, the Government has provided more subsidies.

He says that it is unlikely that Turnbull will be given the scope by the Prime Minister to radically alter the direction of environment policy: he will be given his running orders from Howard and he will be expected to follow them. Hence it is unlikely that Turnbull will push the argument that free markets are the best means of determining the allocation of scarce resources, and that government's role should be confined to supporting rather than directing market forces.

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January 29, 2007

Adelaide's water future

It is now accepted in policy circles that the shift in rainfall in Australia has been substantial during the past 50 years. Southern Australia is receiving ever less rain--- 250 millimetres---than they did back then. Larger and larger amounts of rain--- 250 millimetres--is falling over parts of the north-west are receiving.

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Bruce Petty

Scientific evidence is indicating that rising temperatures are being caused by an increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. It is argued that these gases are also thought to be causing at least part of the rainfall decline across southern Australia, though land clearance and natural variability of rainfall may also be having an impact.

Where to for Adelaide now? The CSIRO estimates that by 2020, average annual flows to the Murray-Darling catchment may reduce by 15 per cent due to climate change and other factorsI

SAhas to guarantee Adelaide's water supply by taking pressure off the River Murray, which means that SA state must find new sources of fresh water instead of relying on the Murray, with SA needing to move to non-climate dependent sources of water. The Liberal opposition in SA has trealized this and taken the first steps by proposing that the desalination of seawater is the long-term answer to the state's water crisis; greater use of greywater on lawns and gardens from domestic washing machines and capturing the recycled wastewater discharged to the sea;

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January 25, 2007

Canberra Watch: water

I see that the Howard Government has started shaping up for a federal election with a cabinet rehuffle that makes Malcolm Turnbull Czar of water and environment, or a water supremo. The next step was a Big Plan to seize control of the water debate and take the governance of water from the states. This centralisation of power is a strategy designed to sideline Rudd's earlier ALP initiatives for a water summit, drawing together all State and Territory leaders to have a summit.

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Sean Leahy

Water is now definitely on the political and political agenda, and Howard's action plan indicates that climate change is now centre stage politically speaking. Howard and Co did need to claw back lost ground and reconnect with the shift in public opinion on climate change. Does that mean the Nationals will be sidelined on water?

They have resisted water reform, put a stop to the commonwealth government buying back overallocated water licences, and limited water reform in the form of claw back from efficiency gains. The viability of the irrigation districts is what is paramount for the Coalition. That leaves room for the ALP to move in the cities. What will the state premiers do now in their capital cities? How will they move beyond water restrictions?

Irrigated agriculture, such as cotton and rice, does need to start making the shift out of the southern Murray-Darling Basin to northern Australia. Though this is being considered by the Howard Government, its Big Plan involves $1.5 billion is going to promote more efficient water use on farms, the nation's biggest consumers of water. Around $6 billion is being used to modernise irrigation infrastructure to improve structures like pipes and channels in a project aimed at saving 3000 gigalitres of water a year.

What happens to that saved water? How much of that goes back to irrigators? How much goes to environmental flows? The proposal is to spend $6 billion on efficiency improvements aims t:o

achieve efficiency gains of around 25 per cent of total irrigation water use. This programme will generate water savings of over 3,000 GL per year, with over 2,500 GL per year saved in the MDB. Water savings will be shared 50 per cent with irrigators to help meet the challenge of declining water availability, and 50 per cent to address over-allocation and sustain river health.

So the implied return of water to the Murray-Darling Basin is around 1250 GL, which is close to the 1500 GL recommended by the Living Murray program as the minimum needed for sustainability. What is the time frame for this ambitious project?

What is less noticed, but of crucial importance, is that $3 billion is explicitly being used to help ease farmers off the land and to buy back water licences as farms are sold. So we have broken with the state's evasion of restoring environmental flows to the Murray-Darling Basin's rivers by buying back the over-allocation of water licences. Howard's $10 billion plan depends upon the governance arrangements for the basin are put on a proper national footing-- ie., all relevant state and territory leaders will have refer to the Commonwealth their powers of water management within the Murray-Darling Basin.

How will the ALP states approach federalism now. The federal ALP has always been deeply centralist. Will the ALP states give Canberra their control over water, only to see water policy continue to be along the lines of the Nationals---protecting irrigated agriculture and keeping the Murray-Darling Basin's rivers as irrigation channels? Isn't that the current practice of the states? If the Coalition is politically beholden to the cotton industry and the rice industry and the upstream irrigators are in control of water, then what will SA do?

Should the federal ALP respond by placing the emphasis on water reform in the capital cities, couple it to an increase in environmental flows by buying back water licences from the cotton and the rice industry, and encouraged the cotton and the rice industry to shift to northern Australia?

Then again, Howard could well be very serious in addressing the crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin and more than willing to sideline the Nationals. Maybe.

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January 23, 2007

Water crisis in SE Queensland

Brisbane is now a very large and thirsty city built on a very small river catchment. It is argued that the heat generated by the city combined with the cooling effects of the Wivenhoe dam has caused the storms to change track8, leaving Brisbane’s major dams in a rain shadow. According to this story in the Courier-Mail, the water crisis in South East Queensland is deepening:

Although the southeast has received about 40mm of rain since Christmas, none of the rain created significant inflows into the Wivenhoe, North Pine and Somerset dams, which are at 23 per cent of capacity and falling about 1 per cent every three weeks. By June, it is possible the dams will be down to 17 per cent of capacity.

Brisbane is running out of water, and with insufficient rainfall, Brisbane and environs will be without sufficient water in 2 to 3 years. If current conditions continue, Brisbane will run out of water by early 2008. As Ian Mackay argues it's lack of rain, not just population pressure, that's the primary cause of the water crisis. As he says the problem for SE Queensland is that the water crisis comes from an almost total reliance on dams for water supply. More and bigger “dams equals more water” is the ethos. Yet without good run-off rain, a dam is just an expensive wall. Though the proposed water grid takes steps towards integration of the water cycle, it has minimal water recycling and rainwater harvesting. Recycled water is inevitable for south-east Queensland.

I notice that the Beattie Government is still pushing ahead with the controversial dam at Traveston Crossing near Gympie, west of the Sunshine Coast. I understand that the Traveston project will cost of about $1.7 billion, and that this represents almost a quarter of the Beattie Government's $8 billion water plan. It is a huge financial and political investment. I discern a bit of a noose around the neck of state Labor on this. Virtually no one outside Queensland supports the proposed dam, with many inside the state also opposed.

Water does need to be treated as a commodity and pricing policies should replace water restrictions over the long-term as a rational and efficient way of addressing the issue of water scarcity. Currently there is a market for water irrigation, whilst urban water is controlled through restrictions. That means households, which account for 8-10% of total annual water consumption, comply with water restrictions,whilst industry is not being held to account in the same way.

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