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Gillard announces 3,200 gigalitres back to the Murray

By Various experts

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced a plan to return 3,200 gigalitres of water to the Murray-Darling Basin (an extra 450 billion litres) from 2019. The Gillard Government has pledged $1.7 billion over a decade from 2014.

“The MDBA has undertaken modelling of additional water recovery scenarios to evaluate environmental outcomes. Delivery of 3200 GL with key constraints relaxed achieved 17 out of 18 MDBA-defined environmental indicators, compared to 11 out of 18 for 2750 GL, across the four indicator sites of Barmah-Millewa, Gunbower-Koondrook-Perricoota, Hattah Lakes and Riverland-Chowilla Floodplain. Additional evaluation of the MDBA model outputs…demonstrated that 3200 GL was the absolute minimum that could supply enough volume on an annual basis to satisfy South Australia’s environmental watering requirements.

While there are significant ecological improvements evident with 3200 GL compared to the original proposed 2750 GL Basin Plan scenario, many of the South Australian Government defined metrics are still not fully met. This suggests a further increase in flow might achieve even greater environmental benefits. Furthermore, the management of the timing, frequency and duration of the water flows actually delivered to South Australia remains vitally important to achieve the best possible environmental outcomes for South Australia.”

Dr Tony Minns is the Director of The Goyder Institute for Water Research


There has never been any scientific analysis, released by the Murray-Darling basin Authority or any other scientific institution, to suggest that returning 3,200Gl of water to the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin will deliver a healthy working river system. Having said that, the information presented in the latest modelling suggests that 3,200Gl with eight relaxed constraints will deliver significantly more benefits than the 2,750Gl currently proposed.

The problem is, the Authority is also proposing to increase groundwater extraction by 1,700Gl. Groundwater is linked to river water. Even if 25% of the increased groundwater take impacts on the rivers, then in reality there will be less than 2,800Gl available and the outcomes claimed in the MDBA 3,200Gl scenarios will not be achieved. A net target of 2,800Gl has no chance of restoring the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin to health.

Whatever reduction target is finally set by the Federal Environment Minister, Minister Burke, he should not present a plan to Parliament that allows any increase in groundwater extraction unless he is satisfied that it is either not likely to result in loss of river flows, or if it does and the volume can be quantified, a surface water entitlement can be purchased to compensate for the loss.

Peter Cosier is Director of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists


“I think this is an important historic initiative. It is good to see the bipartisan approach coming back. There is significantly more water coming back into the system than in the proposed plan which is important. It meets more of the environmental objectives than the previous amount of water. The downside is that it will be over a reasonably long period and if we have another dry cycle we may lose parts of the environment. Cooperation with the states will be critical to remove or relax the constraints.”

Professor Richard Kingsford is Director of Australian Wetlands, Rivers and Landscapes Centre at the University of New South Wales


“The government has announced its plan to increase the amount of water to be returned to the environment in the Murray-Darling Basin to 3,200 GL. An increase in the allocation to the environment is a move in the right direction. The method of re-allocation through subsidised infrastructure investment may be criticised for not being the most efficient method. Previous research shows that water buyback at fair market prices is the most cost effective approach.

Currently, from the perspective of long-term environmental sustainability of the river as a system, in an average rainfall year an extra environmental flow of 4,000–4,500 GL seems warranted. This level of flow represents a transfer of between 36% and 41% of irrigation water to the environment. Given the adaptability seen in the human aspects of the system and the fact that all water is bought back from irrigators at commercial rates, there would be small economic cost of the transfer. Indeed, across the Basin as a whole some projections of the effect of such a transfer have a small increase in household consumption compared with business as usual.

Hence, the costs of transferring water to the environment seem generally to be small, but may be higher in a few local areas particularly dependent on irrigated agriculture. Also the impacts will be more severe for those businesses dependent on irrigated agriculture which do not have water rights to sell, and hence cannot obtain compensation. Also, some farmers who decide to continue as irrigators may suffer cost increases because there will be an increase in the cost of delivering water to them as a result of other farmers in their region selling their water rights and withdrawing from the system.”

Professor Kevin Parton is an agricultural economist with the Institute for Land, Water and Society at Charles Sturt University, NSW


“This extra water is good news for environmental protection. The key issue will be to ensure that it is used in ways that brings some consensus between stakeholder groups. The citizens of the Murray-Darling Basin have been at loggerheads over the production impact of water for the environment and it is important that this water is used in ways to not make this worse. It is also important that this water be seen as improving the health of rivers and aquifers and this will preserve these for future generations. This concept of the future users of water is one that has created the most conflict in the past.”

Professor Jennifer McKay is Director of the Water Policy and Law Group at the University of South Australia


“In a global study on ‘Rivers in Crisis’ published in Nature in 2010, the Murray-Darling Basin was the only river system on the continent of Australia that exhibited crisis-level exposure to the combined effects of pollution, water regulation, flood plain fragmentation and other threats. The decision to increase water allocation to support river integrity is an excellent signal to the people of Australia that our core ecosystems matter. If we can steer water policy through the treacherous waters of competing uses in multifunctional systems, our efforts to achieve ecological, social and economic sustainability will be a more reachable goal.

Of course irrigated agriculture is important in the basin, and farming production systems provide core employment and income support. Furthermore, in terms of food security, farmers in the basin play a vital contribution, not just in Australia, but in the region more widely. Nevertheless, it has long been recognised that water use in agriculture is often not the most efficient use. There is much scope to significantly improve agricultural water use efficiency, with innovative technology and changes in crop choices. For once, let us applaud the fact that the voice of the river itself has finally been heard!”

Dr Caroline Sullivan is an ecological and environmental economist at the Marine Ecology Research Centre at Southern Cross University, NSW


“The Government’s decision to fund the removal of ‘constraints’ to river flows is obvious and sensible – a statement of intent, but also six years or two terms of Government into the future, hence there’s some uncertainty.

The anticipation of adverse reactions from NSW and Victorian Governments is pure politics, pure gamesmanship. We are in the middle of a pure example of Game Theory as applied to the Commons of water for irrigation ‘rights’ as played out across the world’s irrigation communities many, many times. Why should those at the head of the source contribute to the maintenance of the Commons (of water) of those further downstream? Victoria won the last iteration in the Game of access to water when COAG, in 2008, awarded Victoria an extra $1 billion as a reward to enable the Government to announce that all the Murray Darling States and Territory had agreed to surrender part of their statutory rights to river management to the Commonwealth. Viewed with this lens, the announcement is an acknowledgement that cooperative behaviour through an overarching network of a shared value is the only way to achieve a solution to multiple use conflicts of a Commons we need for our survival”.

Dr Jonathan Sobels is a human geographer in the School of the Environment at Flinders University, SA