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Issue #1477      20 October 2010

Behind the Murray-Darling uproar

Ten days ago, the official guide to the forthcoming Murray-Darling Basin Plan was released by the independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority. The Guide depicts a grim future for the natural environment in the river system’s eighteen catchments and the Murray mouth, unless current surface and ground water allocations are reduced. Its recommended reductions range from 15 to 23 percent for the Lachlan catchment, up to 40 to 45 percent for Loddon and Ovens.

Murray River South Australia.

The predominant reaction from farmers and members of communities in the most affected areas has been great anger and anxiety for their future. Predictably, the most vocal opponents have included representatives of the big-irrigator sections of agriculture, particularly the agricultural corporations that cultivate rice and cotton, which are targeted for the biggest cuts.

River communities would certainly be effected by the reductions (although not as badly as estamated by the irrigators, whose figures make no allowance for compensating employment programs, as the Authority’s do). Nevertheless, the Murray Darling Plan is crucial for the survival of these rivers, which are currently dying from inadequate flows, resulting from droughts and overgenerous water allocations. If the rivers die, most of the wildlife that still survives in and around them will disappear. Mush of the landscape, and much of the agriculture that currently flourishes around the rivers, will be ruined.

True or false

In order to understand the implications of the Plan, and the necessity for its implementation, it is essential to dispel a number of misconceptions about it.

Firstly, the Plan is not just concerned with conserving the environment. The Plan emanates from the 2007 federal Water Act, which requires the degradation of the Murray-Darling environment to be reversed, but with the minimum impact on the social and economic life of the communities in the affected areas.

Secondly, the plan offers only a “bottom line” solution to the environmental crisis. There are a large number of unpredictable phenomena that would influence the outcome of any move to improve the river environment by reducing water allocations. The maximum recommended reduction, offering the best chance of saving the environment, is 7,600 gigalitres per year. However, the Basin Authority considered this would have far too great a social and economic impact. They decided that in order to minimise this impact in accordance with the Water Act’s requirements, they would recommend a reduction of only 4,000 gigalitres, close to the recommended minimum reduction level of 3,000 gigalitres.

In short, there is virtually no room for altering the plan so that it requires less stringent reductions in agricultural water allocations, without perpetuating the current environmental crisis.

Harsh reality, real solutions

Despite denials of innocence by the major irrigators, the major reasons for the crisis were undoubtedly over-allocation of water for irrigation projects, in particular the “water guzzling” cultivation of rice and cotton (the main target of the Plan), combined with long periods of drought.

And it is no good just blaming the weather, as some commentators have done. In hard times we can reduce water consumption, but there is nothing we can do about the rain. Rainfall “seeding” seems no closer to practical application than when it was first tested some sixty years ago. Nor does the solution lie in the construction of more dams, given that the existing dams and other water diversion systems have been a significant factor in the environmental deterioration of the river system.

The Murray-Darling Plan is based on the assumption that climate change is a reality. It also accepts as accurate scientific predictions of a decline in average rainfall of ten percent over the next 20 years within the Murray Darling catchments.

There are certainly long-term prospects for the adoption of agricultural and industrial activities by means of which Australia could play its part in modifying the impact of climate change on rainfall. They include a dramatic reduction in the nation’s per capita emission of greenhouse gases, as well as the preservation of “carbon sinks” such as existing forests, and large-scale reforestation, particularly in degraded areas.

In the immediate term the Murray-Darling system must achieve an overall reduction in the agricultural water allocations, by restricting our agricultural activities to those most appropriate to our climate, soil types and material conditions, and by phasing out the broadacre irrigation cultivation (which results in maximum loss of water through evaporation), particularly of rice and cotton, whose growth requires huge quantities of water.

This cuts across the vested interests of major agricultural irrigation corporations, who have been the most vocal opponents of the Plan. Their complaints have centred on the impact of implication of the Plan for rural communities, and on rising food prices – but not on their corporate profit levels.

They have succeeded in compounding the anxiety felt by small farmers, many of whom have joined their ranks. But not all. One farmer, whose property near the Victoria-NSW border includes river banks covered with thousands of dead or dying river red gum trees, described the treatment of the rivers up to date as “murder”, and commented:

“A good healthy red gum symbolises a healthy environment. … Environmental damage is not caused in times of drought, but in times when rivers should be flowing freely over the main streams to restore life to ephemeral creeks, lakes and swamps.”

He also criticised the conflicting plans and loyalties of the various state governments, and the long dependence on dam construction as a means to control the rivers, declaring: “There is one rule for Victoria on the south side of the Murray, a rule for NSW on this side, and another rule for the Murrumbidgee. It’s just silly. It’s all one river. It’s all one system. The biggest plus out of the Plan, I hope, is that it takes away the state parochialism, because that is the biggest problem with all water issues in Australia.”

Another experienced farmer wrote:

“Objections to this plan are unfounded. … It is a furphy to say we will be short of food. We have plenty of land and plenty of water to grow enormous quantities of food, even after the environment gets its share. The Plan, if it is not derailed, will bring about a win-win situation for all Australians.”

And there’s the rub, because derailing the plan would only require a minor lessening of the Plan’s proposed water allocation cutbacks.

Hang in there

To date, rescuing the Murray-Darling Basin has enjoyed support from a wide spectrum of political organisations. The 2007 Water Act was formulated under the Howard government. The Plan itself has the nominal support of the ALP government, the Greens and two federal Independent MPs. It has widespread support from Indigenous communities and many small farmers.

However, given the monumental influence that major corporations have historically exerted over Labor and conservative coalition governments, it’s entirely possible that the irrigation corporations could persuade the government to weaken the proposals.

The draft Plan will be available next year, and the final version will become law if the Minister approves it in 2011. The Plan only provides broad outlines of the allocation targets (the “sustainable diversion limits”). Responsibility for implementation of the Plan will still lie with the various states, which between 2012 and 2019 must produce their own water resource plans, and which still have conflicting views concerning water resources.

Irrigation organisations have hinted they may take legal action to have the Water Act modified. The National Party is bitterly opposing the Plan, and the Liberals are following suit. The federal Minister for Water, Tony Burke, has already indicated that he will “review” the social and economic impact on affected communities. The government has already bungled the opportunity to take over Cubbie Station, the biggest water hoarder in the river system. Cubbbie’s owners are now moving to sell out to overseas bidders, who would not have the slightest concern about acting in Australia’s national interests, and who will doubtless fight tooth and nail to enlarge the property’s water storage capacities.

Until generous recent rainfalls, the Murray mouth had not opened since 2002. In many areas the majority of the river red gum trees have died or are currently dying. Fish stocks range from low to non-existent, and pollution and blue-green algae growths are frequent. Failure to implement the Plan will ruin the environment of the Murrray-Darling rivers, which are home to a world heritage site and 30,000 wetlands, providing habitat for 95 threatened Inundation-species of flora and fauna. It would also ruin much of Australia’s agricultural production, changing the nation’s status from food exporter to importer.

The Plan will doubtlessly require modification, for example to allow for existing differences in water use efficiency between different properties. However, it is crucial for the Government to maintain the overall water allocation cuts, convert the Plan’s recommendations into law, review and if necessary strengthen the provisions to protect the river environment. 

Next article – Editorial – War and refugees – facing reality

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