What lessons did Victorians learn the last time Melbourne went on water restrictions during 1982-83? Not much it seems.
Between 1983/4 and 1996/7 Victorians took 39% more water from rivers and 202% more water from underground aquifers. Australia-wide irrigators were taking 76% more water in 1997/8 than they were in 1983/4, while urban and industrial drinkers were guzzling 57% more.
The way we use water is destroying the river systems that provide us with water, wildlife, recreation and prosperity. That was true in 1983 and it’s still true today.
Victorians get more than 90% of their water from rivers. Only 21% of our rivers are in good condition. Native fish are an indicator of river health and 76% of our freshwater fish are threatened with extinction. The risk of toxic blue green algae blooms poisoning our rivers is greater than ever as rivers run low and temperatures soar.
What lessons do we need to learn from this big dry? Firstly, we need to stop taking rivers and the water they supply for granted.
The price of water fails to reflect its value to our community and the environment. One thousand litres of petrol costs about $1400. One thousand litres of milk costs about $1300. One thousand litres of drinking water from the Yarra and Thomson Rivers – Melbourne’s lifeline – will cost about 80 cents. A thousand litres of Murray River water in Mildura city will cost at most 68 cents. One thousand litres of irrigation water will cost 13 cents.
There’s more to life than money, but the price we pay gives us a good idea of how important we think water is to our lives. The environmental costs of using water and securing healthy catchments must be built into the price of water.
Low-income families are already among the lowest water users, and smart pricing must continue to protect the vulnerable. But giving water away is really saying to consumers “use as much as you want, it’s worth nothing”.
The Victorian Government requires urban water retailers to pay an environmental levy to fund river restoration and sustainable water management. That will raise $225 million. It’s a good start, but not enough. We need to be generating at least $1 billion over the next 5 years.
The rivers and catchments that provide us with water are nature’s infrastructure provided for free. It’s our obligation to pay for this infrastructure to be kept in good working order.
Cities with strong water conservation targets should also be able to buy water from irrigators. Bendigo and Ballarat plan to do just that. But those cities must also meet their obligations to the rivers that sustain them. For every litre bought for a city, a litre should be returned to the river.
Secondly, we have to get serious about reducing the huge volumes of water allocated to irrigation industries. The way we use water to grow agricultural products is destroying our river systems.
The Victorian Government needs to use the environmental levy to buy back water entitlements from irrigators for river systems. Irrigation industries now account for 77% of water used in Victoria. Irrigators should be given the opportunity to give water back to the environment.
We always hear that Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth. But we’re also the fourth biggest exporter of virtual water – the amount of water it takes to produce a certain good or service. Eighty per cent of the agricultural products grown with Murray River water get sent overseas. In 2004/05 Victoria’s irrigation industries used five times as much water as the 3.5million residents of Melbourne combined. And the Victorian Government wants to increase our agricultural exports.
It’s time the state government set clear, long-term water reduction targets for irrigated agriculture.
We need smart irrigation more than ever to grow the food we need now and in the future. But we also need to invest in industries that bring in export dollars but use dramatically less water.
Finally we have to defend those qualities provided by water that are priceless.
When we go to the beach with our friends and family and wonder at its beauty remember that it’s the pulsing flows of freshwater from rivers that help keep estuaries in Port Phillip Bay, Barwon Heads and Lakes Entrance alive.
The water debate needs to be taken back from the technocrats and vested commercial interests.
Democracy, ultimately, asks all of us to act for the public good. We all have to make sure governments and business make decisions that are fair to each other, fair to other species, and fair to future generations of Victorians who have a right to inherit clean water and healthy rivers.
That’s the big lesson we need to learn from this big dry.