Blog | 15th Mar, 2011

FACT: The government only buys water from farmers who decide to sell it.1

To Save the Murray, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority says that up to 7,600 billion litres of water needs to be delivered to rivers.

But where is all this water going to come from?

To return water to the environment, some allocations will have to be moved from the consumer pool of entitlements, to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder – a statutory position established under the Water Act 2007 – which holds, manages and delivers water for the environment.

When it passed both houses of Parliament in 2007, the Commonwealth Water Act foreshadowed the diversion of water from irrigation, back to the environment.

Forced to sell?

Since the release of the Guide to the Draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan last October, irrigator lobby groups are doing a good job of hoodwinking Australians into believing that farmer-irrigators will be forced to sell their water entitlements.

In early February, Danny O’Brien from the Irrigator’s Council suggested that the Commonwealth Government would be ‘indiscriminately ripping water out of communities’.

When the Guide was released last year, the acting chairman of water company Murray Irrigation, suggested the proposed lowering of sustainable diversion limits (SDLs) will mean irrigators will lose water they are entitled to.

But losing something, and being paid a fair and equitable price for it, are two very different things. And there’s no talk of compulsory buy-backs.2

Federal Water Minister Tony Burke has assured Australians that no one will be forced to sell their water entitlements, saying that “any purchase of water entitlements will only happen from willing sellers”. Minister Burke concluded that “[a]ny irrigator who does not want to sell their water, if they don’t want to sell it, we don’t want to buy it; we only purchase from willing sellers.”

Option to sell a benefit

What’s more, the ability to choose sell water entitlements is an advantage.

Last year, South Australian irrigator Trevor McLean explained that not enough water in rivers meant farmers had been getting less water than their licences allow – hovering around cuts of 70 percent most years. In the face of community concerns about proposed lowering of SDLs, Mr McLean cautioned “everyone in the system has got to think, ‘well, how much water have I had in the last five years?’ and I suspect what they’re offering is more than what people have been surviving on.”

The fact is that for many farmers, selling water provides and opportunity to choose to shift capital and re-invest, whereas in drought years they simply received less – or often no water, without financial remuneration.

Assistance to transition to a drier future

There is of course, some debate about what constitutes a ‘willing seller’. There’s no doubt that some farmers have their backs up against a wall and might have no choice but to sell. But blaming the Water Act, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, or environmentalists for this state of affairs is perverse. The legacy of decades of over-extraction, the prolonged drought conditions, and the effects of climate change are factors that need be considered too.

How irrigation communities are supported during a period of transition – when entitlements are sold, alternatives are considered and a range of economic ventures are pursued – is as vital to the success of the Plan as returning water to the environment is.

As Federal Water Minister Tony Burke stated in a press release last month, “[t]he best time for communities to make a transition away from over-allocation is when there is substantial water in the system.”

Willing sellers, water markets and government tenders

We’ve just done some research which has found that there are more than enough willing sellers of water. It’s found that every time the Federal Government’s bought water, it’s had more offers than it could accept. You can read our ‘Oversubscribed’ report here.

Check out other myths that we’ve busted



1 Prime Minister Julia Gillard (August 2010) transcript at–julia-gillard,-press-conference,-unley/; and Commonwealth Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Restoring the Balance in the Murray-Darling at
2 Commonwealth Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Restoring the Balance in the Murray-Darling at