Blog | 30th Apr, 2012

Victorian government misses the point

Reading the Victorian government’s submission on the draft Murray Darling Basin Plan, you would think that restoring river health was of no benefit to anyone and that northern Victoria was something like a war zone.

The submission talks about agricultural communities being “forced to contract unnecessarily”, of “centralised command and control imposed by Canberra”, and ”mandatory proposals”. It also talks repeatedly of “removing water from communities.” This suggests two things: that water is being forcibly taken, and that returning water to the river systems those same communities rely on will not benefit them.

In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Communities are not having water “removed”. The federal government has been buying water for the environment from people who are willing to sell their entitlements for a premium price. The government is also investing billions of dollars in upgrading infrastructure to make irrigation more efficient and sustainable, and provide vastly improved services to irrigators. Who wouldn’t prefer state of the art, solar powered channel control, precision ordering, and reduced delivery times, all at taxpayers’ expense?

The CSIRO has calculated that the economic benefits of returning 2750 billion litres to the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin could be worth up to $8 billion dollars. This far outweighs the suggested loss in agricultural production of around $550 million. Even the Victorian government admits that, in the long run, the gross value of agricultural production will fall by little more than half a percentage point as a result of the Basin Plan.

The effects of returning water will be felt in some communities heavily dependent on irrigation, but not only in negative ways. Some of these communities are already being adversely affected by declining populations, loss of trade and withdrawal of services, and they need help from the government if they are to adapt and survive. But returning water to rivers will provide them with benefits through improved water quality, lower salinity, less erosion, more flood mitigation, increased carbon sequestration and better recreation and tourism opportunities, not to mention the less quantifiable benefits to wildlife, biodiversity and wellbeing.

The Victorian government’s submission raises some legitimate concerns about who is responsible for implementing the Basin Plan and how different governments and agencies will work together to make it a success. They also share some of Environment Victoria’s concerns, about the difficulties of understanding the MDBA’s decision-making processes, and the lack of clarity in exposing where tradeoffs have been made.

But we differ fundamentally on the question of balancing diverse interests in the Basin. Environment Victoria has consistently called for more water to be returned to rivers than proposed in the draft Plan while the Victorian government wants less. We believe the environmental benefits are too little while the government says damage to the economy is too great. What the government misses is the connection between economy and environment – that regional economies depend fundamentally on their environments.

If we continue to abuse our river systems we will end up destroying those regional communities the government is trying so hard to protect.