Irrigation rights used to be tied to ownership of land, but in the past 30 years these rights have been “unbundled”. Water from one farm can now be sent elsewhere, temporarily or permanently. It became a commodity that people could trade, even if they didn’t live in the Murray-Darling Basin.
Recently the price of water has skyrocketed, and there have been allegations of speculation and secret deals. When the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission stepped in to investigate, it found that the market had outgrown its system of regulation. At the same time, shifts in supply and demand had led to high water prices.
The supply side is dictated by climate change. Water flows into the Murray over the past twenty years are nearly 50 percent lower than the twentiethcentury average. Meanwhile, on the demand side, big irrigation industries – enabled by free-market reforms – are using more water.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was meant to bring irrigation to a sustainable level while compensating farmers by buying back irrigation entitlements. But in early September, federal Water Minister Keith Pitt announced the Morrison government would take water buybacks off the table.
At the same time, Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville is pushing offset projects that theoretically support fish and frogs while using less water. Rather than connecting river channels with floodplains, water would be pumped into isolated wetlands. In a warped kind of accounting, damage in one location could be traded off against benefits to wildlife somewhere else.
The core problem is how we value water. Today, every thousand litres in every valley has a price tag, and new frontiers have opened for speculators to grab the value of the water flowing by.
Our rivers need a new approach. Communities who rely on healthy rivers need to have a stronger say in how we manage them. So, in partnership with our state conservation colleagues, we’re developing a new long-term strategy to support local leaders to build the power we need to protect the Murray-Darling.
Over the next few months, we’ll bring people together to tell the story of water in their communities – a story about how our communities depend on rivers, and how we are responsible for the changing landscapes that sustain life.
This article first appeared in issue 34 of Environment Victoria News, you can read it here >>
Last week’s Murray-Darling Basin report laid many problems bare for all to see. But it also exposed an affordable solution to its ongoing problems.