WATER: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Water crisis: farmers' warnings ignored
, May 12, 2007
The Prime Minister's recent warning on water shortages in the Murray-Darling Basin has led to some actions that should have been taken six months ago, reports Patrick J. Byrne.With only 360 gigalitres of water left in the main storages, Mr Howard warned that irrigation farmers might have zero water allocations next season. In reality, water allocations for next season won't be known until August-September, when winter flows from the Snowy region become clear.
Recent rains in the basin will help dry-land farmers, but the basin is so dry that it will take well above normal rains to generate considerable flows into the major storages.
On November 1 last year, a delegation of irrigators and councils along the Murray River briefed some politicians from the region and key advisors to Mr Howard and the then parliamentary secretary for water, Malcolm Turnbull. The Murray-Darling Water Crisis Management Council (MDWCMC) told the Government:
• Given the amount of water being released down the river from the system's storages, there was about 24 weeks' water left in the Murray, which was of serious concern to Adelaide, towns and irrigators along the river.
• Canberra needed to declare a state of emergency to override the tri-state agreement that enables South Australia to secure its share of the water, regardless of the needs of towns and irrigators in Victoria and NSW.
• All environmental and recreational flows needed to be stopped and the water held back in the major storages to avoid a major disaster in the basin. This water should be kept for supplying Adelaide, towns, permanent plantings and stock and domestic needs in the region.
It was pointed out that if this water was not held back in the storages and was allowed to flow down to the shallow lakes Alexandrina and Alberta at the end of the Murray, about 500 gigalitres of water would be lost in evaporation. To this end, it was strongly recommended that a weir should be built at Wellington in South Australia to conserve water for Adelaide before it entered the lower lakes.
Instead of heeding this advice, the PM, the state premiers and their water ministers announced on Melbourne Cup day that they would accelerate the opening up the trade in farmers' permanent water-rights, as a solution to the water crisis. This announcement was despite the warning that, at the rate water was going down the Murray, there would soon be no water to trade.
Then, in January, the PM announced a $10 billion plan for the Federal Government to take charge of managing the Murray-Darling Basin. This announcement still fell short of an emergency plan for the current water crisis.
Instead, it outlined plans to take from six to nine times as much water (3,000 to 4,500 gigalitres a year) as had been proposed under the Government's earlier Living Murray proposal (500 gigalitres), partly for environmental flows and partly as a component of buy-back of over-allocated irrigation licences, mainly in NSW. Whether these licence buy-backs would then be extinguished, or turned into environmental flows, is not yet clear.
Then, on April 19, the PM announced that, based on a Murray-Darling Basin contingency planning report, an emergency plan was now to be put in place for the basin. This included the premature warning that farmers may have zero allocation in the coming irrigation season, and tentative recognition of the need for a weir at Wellington.
This announcement came 24 weeks and one day after the MDWCMC had given the same warning in Canberra, which included the figures on storages, use rates and eventual rundown of reserves. It took the Government six months
to officially obtain the data and advice with which it had been provided on November 1 last year.
MDWCMC spokesman Ken Trewin says: “The failure to act then has seen at least 500 gigalitres (500,000 Olympic-size swimming-pools) of precious water from the Hume Dam released downstream only to evaporate in the shallow lower lakes ... This evaporation represents the biggest losses of water in the basin.
“Only now is the Federal Government announcing a crisis plan following a Murray-Darling Basin Commission report, which tells the Government what [we] told the Government six months ago,” Mr Trewin says.Crisis plan
Mr Trewin says that holding water back in the system would have eased this crisis, but neither the Federal Government, the states, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, the much-vaunted Wentworth Group nor the National Water Commission could put a plan in place.
“It's time for the PM to now talk to irrigation farmers and water experts to devise an ongoing plan for the basin in the national interest,” Mr Trewin says.- Patrick J. Byrne is co-author of High and Dry: how free trade in water will cripple Australian agriculture, available from News Weekly Books for $15 (+ $4 postage).