April 14th 2007

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Howard's Coalition - fewer options left as election looms

EDITORIAL: The high cost of 'symbolic' politics

THE ENVIRONMENT: Bushfire victims take NSW, Vic govts to court

WATER: Details of PM's water plan - disaster for farmers

NSW STATE ELECTION: When will Liberals, Nationals ever learn?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Why young people read less / NSW's Knight with the Mournful Countenance / Journalistic hooliganism / The Easter Rising

INTELLIGENCE CORNER: Losing the war on the home front / Assessing the terrorist threat

SCHOOLS: Labor's standard threat to schools

MEDICAL SCIENCE: New developments in stem-cell science

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Australia caught between Beijing and Washington

SRI LANKA: Bloodbath looms in war-torn Sri Lanka

OPINION: An ABC of the ABC - a listener's guide


Millions squandered (letter)

Regional rail networks (letter)

Labor's Mugabe dilemma (letter)

David Hicks (letter)

Russia's Putin should not be demonised (letter)

CINEMA: Story to scare the daylights out of you - Lives of Others

BOOKS: How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

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Details of PM's water plan - disaster for farmers

by Patrick J. Byrne

News Weekly, April 14, 2007
The Prime Minister's $10 billion water plan proposes environmental flows of between six and nine times the volume recommended in The Living Murray plan, which a 2004 parliamentary inquiry roundly rejected. Patrick J. Byrne reports.

The Murray-Darling Basin has an annual river flow of 24,000 gigalitres (12,000 GL is used for irrigation agriculture), worth about $10 bn annually.

The PM's plan, outlined in A National Plan for Water Security, proposes:

• buying back water licences, at a cost of $3 billion. That amount would buy between 1,500 GL and 3,000 GL, depending on the price of water, which varies according to its security level and seasonal conditions.

• investment in water-savings measures, at a cost of $6 bn, in order to save 3,100 GL, half for the environment and half for farmers. The savings are to come from efficiency gains in water delivery, on farms, in metering and measuring, and in river and other water storages. Water experts and irrigators regard these savings targets as grossly unrealistic.

These purchases and savings aim to deliver between 3,050 GL and 4,550 GL for environmental flows down the Basin, which are six to nine times the volume of the 500 GL environmental flows under The Living Murray plan.

Fatally flawed

The plan is fatally flawed, unrealistic and threatens the shutdown of a large area of irrigation agriculture in the Basin.

A recent critique of the PM's proposal by environmental consultant, Jennifer Marohasy, in the Institute of Public Affairs' monthly IPA Review, exposes the myth of "over-allocation".

Marohasy says: "According to the National Water Commission's 2005 baseline assessment, of the 340 surface-water management areas, just one per cent is reported to be over-allocated. There are also 367 groundwater management units and, of these, just five per cent are reported … as over-allocated.

"In other words, 99 per cent and 95 per cent of our surface and groundwater management areas, respectively, are not currently classified by the Federal Government as over-allocated. These official statistics are difficult to reconcile with the Prime Minister's claims that we have a water crisis because of 'over-allocation'."

Even more beguiling for farmers is the whole notion of "over-allocation", which has been sold to politicians by green organisations such as the Wentworth Group. "Over-allocation" suggests too many licences for the available water, farmers being starved of water and environmentally-stressed rivers.

"Over-allocation" is a misnomer. First, irrigation water has been capped at half the Basin's flows.

Second, more irrigation licences simply means the same water spread across more farmers and hence lower reliability of supply. Murray farm industries, particularly cotton and rice, are geared to lower reliability of supply.

Hence, the $3 billion allocated to buy back water licences is wrongly targeted. It fails to understand that many agricultural industries are geared to low security entitlements, making the idea of "over-allocation" a misnomer.

What is more, there is a well-founded fear among farmers that, when the buyback and water-savings plans fail to meet their targets, future governments will resort to buying water, or taking water, from farmers. If more water is taken from farmers, water security of entitlement is lowered.

This leads to a further contradiction in the plan of the PM and the National Water Initiative to shift water from low to high-value agriculture.

High-value agriculture is considered to be industries such as olives, grapes and almonds. These trees and vines are permanent plantings requiring high security water. Failure to deliver adequate water in just one season will see these plants die. Replacement plantings take up to seven years to produce a crop.

But the more water that is taken for environmental flows and to achieve unrealistic targets, the lower the security of supply of water for high-value agriculture.

As Jennifer Marohasy rightly explains, permanent plantings require water every year. "Indeed, they demand a higher level of water security, which is what the Prime Minister says the new $10 billion water plan is all about.

Water security

"At the same time, however, the Federal Government claims that it wants more natural river-systems whose [environmental] water-flows mimic the seasons. But if this were the case, [the Government] would not devise plans that seek a high level of water security which favour perennial crops. Indeed, in many ways, rice and cotton suit a land of drought and flooding rains."

The PM's plan for such a massive increase in environmental flows directly contradicts the 2004 interim report of the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee. It was the first body to evaluate the science underpinning The Living Murray plan, concluding that it was totally inadequate. It recommended no environmental flows be allocated to the Murray until comprehensive science has been undertaken.

Further, the PM's plan has not addressed the largest losses from the system, over 1,000 GL evaporating annually from Lakes Alexandrina and Alberta, at the lower end of the Murray.

The plan will either founder or destroy large areas of Australia's most productive agricultural region.

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