WATER POLICY by Neil EagleNews Weekly
The nation's main irrigation system is being dismantled
, June 6, 2015
While recently travelling between Deniliquin and the junction of the Barham-Moulamein Road in the Murray irrigation region, I counted only four properties that had watered a small area of autumn pasture.
This region of Australia’s major food bowl, the Murray-Darling Basin, would normally have large areas of autumn pastures being irrigated. But today a tragedy is under way. Irrigation farming has been hit by a triple whammy.
First, the separation of water entitlement from land by governments has resulted in water being treated as a freely tradable commodity. Second, the federally imposed Water Act 2007 and subsequent Basin Plan have required a vast amount of water to be taken out of irrigation farming for the environment. Third, many farmers were forced to sell their water to ease financial pressures during the millennium drought. This water has been sold to federal and state government environmental water holders; water speculators, who may or may not own land; and some other irrigation regions.
The current water shortage has been exacerbated by a low inflow year which has triggered a NSW general security allocation of only 61 per cent, pushing the temporary water market price to over $130 a megalitre. Some farmers desperate to augment their allocation are buying at this price, but it is unsustainable long term.
A growing number of people, including Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, realise the need for further development of our water resources, including new reservoirs.
Australia cannot become the food bowl of Asia, but the quality of our food is recognised internationally due to our high safety standards
It is ironic that discussion about new water infrastructure in northern Australia is taking place at the same time that existing irrigation infrastructure in the Murray-Darling Basin is being dismantled, shutting down productive irrigation communities.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan requires the equivalent of the Hume Dame to be discharged each year into lakes Albert and Alexandrina, and then out to sea. This is in addition to traditional environmental flows. This folly has been driven partly by anti-irrigation environmentalists falsely claiming that the basin’s rivers were being severely degraded and in need of restoration.
This claim was refuted by the 2004 House of Representatives Interim Report into the Living Murray, which was endorsed by 10 of 11 crossbench MPs. The report said: “The science was not adequate to justify any water being removed from productive use.”
The disaster was also driven by the accompanying false claim that that “the rivers are over-allocated”.
In fact, allocation of the basin’s rivers is now strictly prioritised: first allocation is to cover transmission losses, then for critical human needs (towns, stock and domestic), then to the environment, and then, only if any water remains, is it allocated to irrigation.
To illustrate this process, during the 10-year millennium drought up to 2010, NSW general security irrigators experienced two years of zero allocation, one year of 9 per cent and one year of 10 per cent allocations. This folly was the foundation of the Howard-Turnbull Water Act 2007, which usurped state powers over water, and then the Murray-Darling Basin Plan devised by water ministers Penny Wong and Tony Burke.
Recognition of the magnitude of the damage being inflicted on the basin’s producers and communities has come from Federal Victorian Senator John Madigan, who is seeking a Senate inquiry into the Basin Plan.
The basin’s problems were profiled by Ken Jury, a South Australia environmental journalist at Goolwa, in his Muddied Waters documentary, which featured scientists Ian Roban and Peter Gell.
The late Professor John Briscoe, a world water expert at Harvard University, also critiqued the Basin Plan. He had been invited to review the plan by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. He said Australia had been considered the world leader in arid-zone water management, but it had lost is way and would not reclaim its high status until the Water Act 2007 was redrafted to restore the balance between socio-economic and environmental needs.
Professor Briscoe said the Water Act was really an “environmental act” that prioritised water to the environment over socio-economic needs.
The loss of irrigation water is devastating local communities, like my own Wakool Shire. A survey shows an estimated 500 job losses in a shire with a total population of about 5000.
Across the basin, businesses are closing, the population is falling in irrigation areas, schools and other services are shrinking. Government compensation grants cannot make up for the loss of water and agriculture.
Neil J. Eagle AO helped to develop the original formulae for water allocations in the Murray River. This became the template for all NSW river allocations. He has been involved in agriculture and water issues for over 50 years.