Blog | 2nd Aug, 2019

River rorts explained: 5 problems with irrigation subsidies

The rivers of the Murray-Darling basin are in serious strife. Too much water is being taken out for agriculture and irrigation, and recently ABC FourCorners raised concerns about public money handed to irrigators to upgrade their equipment.

Here’s what’s going on, and why these irrigation subsidies have big problems.


The national Murray-Darling Basin Plan is supposed to be all about getting water back into the rivers. Announcing the plan, then Prime Minister John Howard said it was intended to address “once and for all, the water over-allocation in the Murray-Darling Basin”.

In other words, the whole point is to return water to the environment. But there’s a big problem with how the plan is rolling out.


Thirteen billion dollars of public money is on the table to implement the plan and recover water for our rivers. There are two main ways of getting that water.

The first is buying water off irrigators who are willing to sell. And the second is subsidising irrigators to upgrade their equipment to make them more efficient.

We know buying water from irrigators works. It’s a very effective way of returning water to rivers – you know what you’re getting and how much you’re paying for it.

But when it comes to upgrading irrigation equipment, it’s a different story.


So does subsidising irrigation equipment upgrades actually work?

Governments and irrigators prefer to put their faith in these infrastructure projects, but there are some serious problems.

  1. Subsidising irrigation upgrades is more expensive than buying back water. At least two and a half times as expensive!
  2. There’s doubt about how much water is actually saved. Some of the water that leaked out of the old irrigation systems ended up back in the river or seeped into the ground. But this hasn’t always been taken into account, so the water savings from the new equipment may be over-estimated, and the rivers end up getting less than they should.
  3. With a more efficient irrigation system, farmers tend to use more water, not less. They’re not doing anything wrong. After all, if you had a new irrigation system, wouldn’t you want to make the most of it by growing as much as possible?
    But statistics show that irrigators are using every drop of water they own, and buying more off other irrigators, which is increasing competition and driving up the price of water.
  4. Farmers are changing their crop mix. Irrigators along the Murrumbidgee River and around Mildura are planting permanent, water-intensive crops like nut trees, especially almonds.
    In dry years these trees may use up all the available water, which drives up water prices and increases pressure on other farmers.
  5. Corporate irrigators on the Murrumbidgee River are using government funding to build new private dams and expand their irrigation operations, with unknown consequences for the river. A water lawyer told the ABC “it’s so perverse, it’s almost worse than water theft” because taxpayer money is being used to sanction this kind of behaviour.


Experts have described the efficiency program as a “failure and a farce”, “private gain at public cost” and a “national scandal”.

Federal water Minister David Littleproud says his number one priority is to restore trust and transparency to the Basin Plan. These irrigation efficiency projects are the place to start.

What we need is a comprehensive, independent water audit to answer three questions:

  • Where has the money gone?
  • How much water has actually been returned to rivers?
  • And how has it benefited the environment?

A water audit could get to the bottom of this, restore confidence in the Basin Plan and reassure the public that governments can act in the public interest to care for our rivers.


A comprehensive water audit is just one of our recommendations to get the Murray Darling Basin plan back on track.

Together with the Lifeblood Alliance, we’ve created a seven point strategy to restore integrity in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, rescue our rivers and support the communities that depend on them.

The Lifeblood Alliance consists of environmental, Indigenous and community groups committed to keeping the rivers, wetlands and aquifers of the Murray-Darling Basin healthy for the benefit of current and future generations.


Sign the petition