Blog | 15th Sep, 2011

Time for a reality check in the Murray-Darling basin

There’s been a lot of talk about the numbers in the Basin Plan, the actual volume of water that it will recommend returning to the river systems of the Murray-Darling.

Latest news suggests that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) is opting for 2,800 GL (billion litres) across the whole Basin, and is looking at a range of 2,400 to 3,200 GL which is a big reduction from the minimum of 4,000 GL scientists say the river systems need to have any chance of a lasting improvement in their condition! Yet enough to arc up the irrigator groups, who are predictably outraged. But are they choosing to ignore how they benefit from a decent plan?

Irrigator groups say that reductions in the amount of water available to them will be the death knell of communities across the Basin. Maybe it’s time for a reality check on what’s really happening out there …

  • No less an authority than Prof Mike Young, research chair in water and economics at Adelaide Uni, has calculated that the federal government is spending $588,624 per irrigator in the Murray-Darling Basin. That’s an investment of taxpayers’ money in their businesses of over half a million dollars each.
  • Existing water recovery programs funded by government in Victoria are expected to yield over 750 GL of water for the environment. That leaves a shortfall of only around 300 GL to meet the MDBA’s targets in our state. Not that much when total diversions for irrigation in northern Victoria are over 3,400 GL.
  • No irrigators are being forced to give up their water. In fact, voluntary buyback programs are very popular with irrigators, with every tender round in the southern Basin being oversubscribed. Participating in the buyback provides farmers with business flexibility and an injection of cash to do what they want with.
  • ABS data shows that overseas interests own more water in the Murray-Darling Basin than the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder does – perhaps the real shift in water ownership is in a different direction than everyone thinks.

It’s also worth remembering

  • The job of the Basin Plan is to return water use to a ‘sustainable level of take
  • The MDBA itself calculated that the volume of water required to return river systems of the Basin to health with a reasonable degree of certainty was up to 7,600 GL. Anything less than that means there is some degree of risk to the environment, and involves tradeoffs and compromises.
  • The value of ecosystem services provided by healthy river systems – things like clean water, salt export and carbon cycling – remains totally unaccounted for.

So before we all throw up our hands and say 2,800 GL is too much/too little/the end of the world as we know it, let’s get back to the basic questions – how much water do our river systems need? How are we going to restore them to health? Are we going to take the opportunity to make a real change in the way we use water and secure our rivers’ long term future, or are we going to entrench business as usual and condemn our rivers to continued decline?