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Response to the Draft Murray-Darling plan

By Various experts

The Draft Murray-Darling Basin plan has been released.

The Draft Murray-Darling Basin plan has been released and is proposing water use cuts of 2750 GL/year. The plan is based on the premise that the maximum amount of water that can be removed for irrigation, agriculture and drinking water, whilst remaining environmentally sustainable, is 10,873 GL/year.

The draft plan is available online on the Murray-Darling Basin Authority website (http://www.mdba.gov.au/draft-basin-plan/draft-basin-plan-for-consultation). The plan is now open for 20 weeks of consultation.

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“When the MDBA commissioned me to examine the social impacts on the Lower Murray and Lakes communities of low flows and drought in 2011, I was confronted with irrigation farmers who had completely lost access to fresh (ish) water from 2007 to 2009. They hadn’t been compensated for giving up part of their water licence, they literally could not pump any water from the River or groundwater. Before the crisis they had access to fresh (ish) water because they were at the bottom of a river system over 1500 km long, draining soils which contain substantial remnant salt deposits, and water which had already been used and re-used many times over.

As this extreme social experiment continued, as the water levels receded, people had to adapt by making decisions which had permanent consequences. These decisions were not solely driven by access to water; there were individual contexts that each family, each small business, each town must account for and work within, including demographic forces, bank and financial responsibilities, market prices and mining jobs. The cascade effects, for example, included changed land use, changed business focus, alternative off-farm or ‘off-business’ jobs, vacant houses, closed schools, emergence of action groups and increased mental health problems. And yet, within these effects, adaptive decisions that people made enabled many of them to survive and prosper.

What hurt people more than loss of water was the way in which state politicians caused ‘political low flows’; the greatest fear of people of the Lower Lakes is that another drought will occur, and they will be back in the same position again. The time line is too long for full implementation; again it is a political timeline based on Victoria’s contracts with its irrigators. One can hope for but not expect better governance from the MDBA. However, based on the Lower Murray irrigators experience, I do not foresee widespread dislocation of communities from water, just modifications to business models. At its most simplistic, if the Murray Mouth is kept open 90% of the time by flows coming over Lock 1, salt will be removed from the system and allocations can be built from the bottom up. After all, the river has earned the right to be healthy: What can we do to ensure it stays that way for our mutual benefit?”

Dr Jonathan Sobels is a social scientist in catchment management at the School of the Environment, Flinders University

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“The plan includes a reduction in water use of 2,750 GL/y (compared to 2009 baseline diversions). So there is an extra 2,750 GL/y in environmental flows. Does this give the right balance? The candidates for the biggest loser are (1) the irrigators, (2) the Basin communities and (3) the environment.

The extra environmental flow is estimated to lead to a reduction in irrigated agricultural production of about 11%. But the irrigators won’t be the big losers because they will be compensated by the water buyback scheme.

Also it’s important to remember that the past over-allocation of water has meant that water has been devoted at the margin to inefficient uses. The cut-back to a normal allocation will cut out these inefficient uses, at small cost in output.

An extra 2,750GL in environmental flows is estimated to lead to a reduction of about 1% in gross regional product across the Basin. The big losers could be businesses and smaller communities that are highly dependent on irrigated agriculture, but unable to capture the benefits of water buyback. The most severely affected of this type of irrigation-dependent businesses are likely to be in locations where the climate will not allow adequate substitution of dryland agriculture to substantially replace irrigated output.

However, even here the structural adjustment programs within the scheme provide substantial benefits for affected communities. It is likely that for the most part, Basin communities will not be the biggest loser.

So the answer to the biggest loser question is: Probably not enough is being provided for the environment. It would seem to be the biggest loser. The science is uncertain, but it does suggest that a minimum of 4,000GL would be required to get us to the threshold required to achieve minimum environmental benefits. Certainly, the extra 2,750GL in environmental flows will need to be managed judiciously in key locations to garner the best return to the environment (and the least cost to the community).

It is this management aspect that is the critical part of the plan. It promises two important things. First, it suggests, at one level, that management will be devolved to communities. Second, it suggests that the Basin will in future be managed as a whole and not constrained, as in the past, by State boundaries. To achieve both of these will be an enormous step forward and, if achieved, will form the basis of a sustainable health river system.”

Prof Kevin Parton is from the Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, NSW

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“The process set in train by the Water Act of 2007 has failed in the most important respects. Instead of an evidence-based policy, we have a political compromise which will yield inadequate flows in the river system, whilst wasting billions on low-value infrastructure projects. Nevertheless, while the target of 2,750 GL is disappointing, it is important to remember that, less than a decade ago, the members of COAG could not even agree on a saving of 500 GL.”

Prof John Quiggin is Professor of Economics at the University of Queensland and currently Hinkley Professor at John Hopkins University, Baltimore, US

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Does the announcement represent the science?
“No. Action is needed now to restore the extensive areas of degraded freshwater ecosystems, whereas the government’s intention to implement this plan in 2019-2024 is likely to be too late. The amount of water to be reallocated is insufficient (2,750 GL) to sustain significant areas of freshwater ecosystems – the Government’s own Guide suggested in 2010 that as much as 7,600 GL need to be reallocated. The draft Plan makes inadequate allowances for the loss of water expected with climate change.”

How does it differ from the draft proposals from last year?
“This draft Plan is worse for the environment than the Guide in a number of respects. Rivers need water to be healthy and this Plan would allocate less water than was proposed in the Guide (2,750 GL compared to 3-4,000 GL). Even this reduced amount is proposed to be reviewed in five years’ time. The Authority proposes to rely more on “environmental works and measures” – small scale engineering works to spread smaller volumes of environmental water further. This is more risky for the environment in a number of respects: a) it relies more on good day to day management to work; b) there is less room for error with less water when state government water managers have demonstrated a lot of errors; c) it fragments the riverine environment with levees, channels and weirs and so blocks fish passage and dries out some wetland areas, and d) risks exacerbating changes to soil and water quality, for instance, by increasing salinity levels isolated floodplain wetlands.”

Will the proposals improve the environmental outlook for the basin – if not then why not?
“Not much. Returning more water to the freshwater environment will always help to a greater or lesser extent, but the draft Plan is a case of too little (2,750 GL) and too late (2019-2024).”

Dr Jamie Pittock is a water researcher from the Crawford School of Economics and Government at Australian National University who specialises in governance of water for conservation of freshwater ecosystems and in climate change adaptation

Source: AusSMC