Murray Darling Basin Plan draft released: expert reactions

Wrung by sweet enforcement: In a land of competing desires, Psyche Bend Lagoon on the Murray’s floodplains has suffered from a lack of environmental flows. Flickr/ccdoh1.

The Commonwealth-appointed Murray-Darling Basin Authority has today released a draft Basin Plan for 20 weeks of consulation.

In a literary aside to the debate around this contentious matter, it is worth remembering Henry Lawson’s experiences in the Basin area in the late 1800s story. In “The Darling River”, he writes:

It takes less than a year to go up-stream by boat to Walgett or Bourke in a dry season; but after the first three months the passengers generally go ashore and walk.

Expert responses will be published below as they arrive.


Dr Jonathan Sobels, a social scientist in catchment management at the School of the Environment, Flinders University. Dr Sobel’s comment is supplied by the Australian Science Media Centre

When the MDBA commissioned me to examine the social impacts on the Lower Murray and Lakes communities of low flows and drought in 2011, I was confronted with irrigation farmers who had completely lost access to fresh(ish) water from 2007 to 2009. They hadn’t been compensated for giving up part of their water licence, they literally could not pump any water from the river or groundwater. Before the crisis they had access to fresh(ish) water because they were at the bottom of a river system over 1500 kilometres long, draining soils which contain substantial remnant salt deposits, and water which had already been used and re-used many times over.

As this extreme social experiment continued, as the water levels receded, people had to adapt by making decisions which had permanent consequences. These decisions were not solely driven by access to water; there were individual contexts that each family, each small business, each town must account for and work within, including demographic forces, bank and financial responsibilities, market prices and mining jobs. The cascade effects, for example, included changed land use, changed business focus, alternative off-farm or ‘off-business’ jobs, vacant houses, closed schools, emergence of action groups and increased mental health problems. And yet, within these effects, adaptive decisions that people made enabled many of them to survive and prosper.

What hurt people more than loss of water was the way in which state politicians caused “political low flows”; the greatest fear of people of the Lower Lakes is that another drought will occur, and they will be back in the same position again. The time line is too long for full implementation; again it is a political timeline based on Victoria’s contracts with its irrigators. One can hope for but not expect better governance from the MDBA. However, based on the Lower Murray irrigators experience, I do not foresee widespread dislocation of communities from water, just modifications to business models. At its most simplistic, if the Murray Mouth is kept open 90 per cent of the time by flows coming over Lock 1, salt will be removed from the system and allocations can be built from the bottom up. After all, the river has earned the right to be healthy: What can we do to ensure it stays that way for our mutual benefit?

Dr Philip Wallis, Research Fellow, Monash Sustainability Institute, Monash University

Clearly this is a plan that has left most stakeholders wanting more. Reading “Delivering a Healthy Working Basin”, the introductory explanation of the proposed Basin Plan (a fairly dense legislative instrument), reveals the thinking behind the MDBA’s plan. It also mirrors the viewpoint of MDBA Chair Craig Knowles’ video “More than just a volume of water”, released a couple of months ago.

Given the claim of “more than just a volume of water”, both tend to focus almost entirely on numbers. The language of water being “accounted for”, “almost half” being recovered and having only “1468 GL/y [gigalitres per year] left” gives the impression that volumes of water are the only concern. The earlier Guide to the proposed Basin Plan made the mistake of focusing solely on volumes of water, or sustainable diversion limits (SDLs), according to a strict interpretation of the Water Act 2007. If the conversation about the future of the Murray-Darling Basin continues to be framed in terms of numbers, it will inevitably end in political compromise and leave most stakeholders unsatisfied.

There also appears to be a very linear mental model of change underpinning the draft Basin Plan. The MDBA Chair talks about building “a pathway to 2019” and that the plan is the “start of the conversation”. However, much of the $10 billion in the Water for the Future program has already been spent on water buybacks or committed to irrigation infrastructure projects. This could make an adaptive management approach and ‘localism’ difficult without additional funding, or a restructure of spending priorities.

Thinking about the Basin around models of the river as a “living, dynamic system”, that river management needs to be flexible and that an ongoing science effort is needed are encouraging. This is a more positive and productive framing of the Basin situation that needs to be matched by the actions of the MDBA and the Basin States.

Men burn copies of the 2010 guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in the carpark of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in Griffith, NSW, last year. About 40 per cent of Australia’s agricultural output comes from the Basin and many farmers and farming communities fear cuts to irrigation. AAP/Gabrielle Dunlevy

Dr Christine Nicholls, Director of Studies, Australian Studies, Flinders University

With respect to the Murray Darling river system, South Australians are keenly aware of our more-or-less permanent status as the organism’s bottom-feeders, and the vulnerability that such a geographic and existential position entails. As the driest state in the driest continent, South Australia is the most dependent on the Murray Darling system for its water supply and for irrigation purposes. By the same token, it is quite apparent that inappropriate and largely unproductive agricultural enterprises based on inefficient irrigation practices are no longer sustainable, and apart from those irrigators who are themselves directly involved, there is a high level of tacit public consensus on this.

In his 2001 book, “The Murray: a river and its people”, Paul Sinclair provided a synoptic account of the river’s social and environmental history, making the point that now there are in fact two rivers:

The first river contains native species of flora and fauna that have adapted over thousands of years to cycles of drought and plenty; the second is the modern regulated river created early in the twentieth century, whose primary purpose is to conserve, then convey, water controlled for use in irrigation and urban centres. These two rivers simultaneously share the same bed.

Survival in the longer term is dependent on those ‘two rivers’ re-uniting into a single, functioning organism. While it is possible that the draft Murray-Darling Basin plan represents a (small) step in that direction, the long-term survival of any of that “first river” looks increasingly unlikely. In a very real sense, this river system is our nation’s artery: Australia’s largest and most complex river system, the source of water and therefore, of life.

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill is currently considering the option of a High Court challenge to this plan, and judging by South Australians’ initial reactions to the draft, Weatherill will have the support of the great majority of South Australians in this - regardless of their political persuasion. Perhaps the Federal Government regards South Australia as the ‘expendable state’, for a constellation of reasons - including the fact that South Australia is likely to remain the last Labor state standing; ironically, if Weatherill takes the strong stand on this he will almost certainly be re-elected. Ultimately, the draft Murray-Darling Basin plan, albeit a step in the right direction, reinforces and asserts the eastern states’ hegemony - again.

Part of the Murray system, the artificial Lake Hume on the Murray in NSW is used to generate hydro-electric power. Flickr/suburbanbloke

Professor Mike Young, Executive Director, The Environment Institute, University of Adelaide This is a prepared statement, as Professor Young is in China.

As a general rule, rivers die from the bottom up. Every adverse mistake made in the preparation of the draft plan for the Murray-Darling Basin to be released today will cost South Australia dearly – much more than any other State. This State, more than all the others, cannot live with a Basin plan that is full of compromise.

Copies of the draft plan have been available to Premiers, Ministers, senior officials and key stakeholders for several weeks and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has been working hard to convince all these people to support their new Plan for the Basin. If they have not been able to convince the South Australian Premier – Jay Wetherill – and its responsible Water Minister – Paul Caica – that they have got the Plan right, then all South Australian’s should be worried. These men have got to the positions they are in because they are good at telling a good briefing from a flawed one.

It is expected that the draft Plan will propose a reduction in the sum of all Sustainable Diversion limits set for the Basin by 2800 gigalitres (GL). This is 1200 GL less than the amount the Authority first proposed. Earlier this year, the CSIRO informed South Australia’s Goyder Institute that in order to achieve the environmental outcomes South Australia has agreed to a reduction of around 4000 GL would be needed.

CSIRO recently led a review of the MDB Authority’s new modelling system. If CSIRO now thinks that the Authority’s new estimate is right and their original estimate was wrong then CSIRO needs to explain why this is so and immediately provide the South Australian Government with a new assessment. When this is done, check that the Authority and CSIRO are talking about the same environmental outcomes and the prospect of delivering them with the same degree of confidence. The MDB Authority’s prime strategy for returning health to the Basin is to set a Sustainable Diversion Limit set for each surface and groundwater resource in the Basin. The Act requires each of these SDLs to be defined as an “average.” If these SDL’s do not include a formula that automatically reduces an SDL as a region gets drier then, I am afraid, it is back to the drawing board. In this century, it is in excusable to prepare a plan for the future without a mechanism to account for adverse climate change.

The simplest way of planning for climate change would be to attach a formula to each SDL. This formula should reduce each SDL automatically as it gets drier. A moving average of inflows into the River over the last, say, ten years would do the trick.

Be wary if the Plan talks only about revising the average amount of water that can diverted from the Basin upwards. When SDLs are reviewed in 2016, it is just as likely that the Review will conclude that it is time to decrease SDL’s as it is to increase them.

Check also that the Authority has modelled and is confident that the Plan will work during long dry periods. The Plan should show that the River will never again end up in the mess that the recent Millennium drought produced. Look for statements that show that this has been properly accounted for and that the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder is required to hold a balanced portfolio of access entitlements.

Another issue is that way that connections between ground and surface water systems are to be managed. Recently, the National Water Commission recommended that all States should assume that any unused groundwater ultimately flows into a river. If the Authority’s plan states that the rate of transfer of groundwater to the River only need to be accounted for when this flow is known to be significant then it is time to worry. If you don’t know where unused groundwater is flowing to, assume that ultimately it will end up in the river.

If the proposed 2800 GL reduction only applies to surface water resources and there is an increase in the amount of groundwater that may be extracted from the Basin, then you may have found a serious error The National Water Commission’s advice is that any increase in groundwater use should be accompanied by a decrease in surface water use unless it can be shown conclusively that there is no connection between the two resources in question. Hydrological integrity is basic to any good plan.

The Authority’s Chair, Craig Knowles, has been championing “localism.” The idea behind localism is that local knowledge can be used to find smarter ways to manage the Basin’s scarce water resources. This is true but, if each smart local solution can be implemented only after the Basin Plan has been amended, approval by the Federal Minister for Water Resources and then both houses of Parliament, expect localism to fail.

For localism to work, permission to implement a smart local solution need to be quick and retain local enthusiasm. If each local solution has to be checked by an army of bureaucrats, Ministers and Politicians then don’t expect many local solutions to emerge. The Plan should make it possible for the Authority to approve local win-win solutions without having to check with anyone else. The Guide to the Plan drew attention to the need to account for increases in the amount of water used by new commercial plantations, new farm dams, the capture of overland flows and other forms of flow interception.

Australia is about to introduce a carbon tax and accompany this with schemes that reward farmers who increase soil carbon and establish biodiversity corridors. Check the draft Plan to make sure that those farmers who are given carbon credits for participating in these programs have to buy entitlements to the water needed to produce these credits. If the Plan is silent about the impact of the carbon tax on water supplies, then start to worry.

Look also for an arrangement to ensure that any reduction in the volume of irrigation water that drains back to the river is accounted for as water-use efficiency is increased. In the USA, irrigators are allowed to sue people who increase water use by decreasing return flows. Australia still has to start doing this.

Check too that the amount of water needed to convey water to irrigators, to Adelaide and to the Murray mouth includes enough water to send some salt to the sea every year.

Finally, check to make sure that SDL‘s are not compromised by short-term social and economic considerations. Any assessment of the merits of the Plan should recognise that the $8.9 billion being invested in the purchase of water entitlement and paying for increased water efficiency is equivalent to over half a million dollars per irrigator. This is too much money to transfer to Basin communities for a compromised solution. This plan should be a plan that people expect to work for centuries.

A shearer’s hut the morning after a storm on the plains near Bourke, NSW, which lies on the Darling River. Flickr/Don Shearman

Dr Geoffrey Robinson, Senior Lecturer in History & Politics, Deakin University

The origins of large scale irrigation farming in Australia date back to the late nineteenth century. By this time the idea of making Australia a society of ‘yeoman’ farmers was deeply entrenched in popular consciousness. Governments sought to discourage the concentration of population in the major cities, which were seen as unproductive and unhealthy, and to break up large pastoral estates, seen as unproductive and a threat to Australian values of egalitarian white democracy. These political aspirations matched with the dreams of engineers within the state public sectors. The result was that the goal of water resource policy was often defined as to maximize water extraction regardless of economic or environmental costs. The major expressions of doubts about irrigation farming came from the pastoral industry and their allies on the political right who considered it a form of ‘state socialism’. Irrigation farming largely produced products that struggled to compete on international markets and were heavily dependent on protected markets within the British Empire. The Labor Party usually received notably higher levels of support in irrigation regions than in other farming areas, and conservative politicians from these regions tended to be drawn from the populist and interventionist wing of the Country Party rather than the traditional right. In NSW and South Australia Labor held irrigation electorates as late as the 1970s and 1980s. The 13 year term of the South Australian Nationals in Chaffey until 2010 was a late expression of the political distinctiveness of irrigation regions.

Irrigation farming encouraged the development of substantial urban centers. However the economic viability of irrigation farming was undercut by the disappearance of protected Imperial markets as Britain turned away from the Empire/Commonwealth and towards Europe. As Labor became an urban party it shed its traditional sympathy for irrigation farming. Labor aligned itself no with the old guard of engineers but with the emergent econocrats who highlighted the divergence between the expense of irrigation farmers and its limited economic returns. The Coalition followed this trend. The shift away from public subsidization of irrigation farming was an economic liberal reform, comparable to tariff reductions. However farmers and country towns have a stronger hold on public opinion than the largely non-Anglo manufacturing workforce. Farming regions survived the shift towards the allocation of economic liberal practices in the irrigation sector, indeed large-scale monocultural farming, such as cotton, thrived as traditional family farms declined. However the question of environmental sustainability poses more difficult challenges for governments. Economists and environmentalists found common ground in their critique of traditional irrigation farming and pragmatic governments preferred to support infrastructure for growing urban populations rather than a declining rural population. But ecosystems and future generations unlike urban taxpayers do not have a vote.

The expert reactions below are supplied by the Australian Science Media Centre

Professor Kevin Parton, Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University

The plan includes a reduction in water use of 2750 Gigalitres per year (compared to 2009 baseline diversions). So there is an extra 2750 GL/y in environmental flows. Does this give the right balance? The candidates for the biggest loser are (1) the irrigators, (2) the Basin communities and (3) the environment.

The extra environmental flow is estimated to lead to a reduction in irrigated agricultural production of about 11 per cent. But the irrigators won’t be the big losers because they will be compensated by the water buyback scheme.

Also it’s important to remember that the past over-allocation of water has meant that water has been devoted at the margin to inefficient uses. The cut-back to a normal allocation will cut out these inefficient uses, at small cost in output.

An extra 2750 GL in environmental flows is estimated to lead to a reduction of about 1 per cent in gross regional product across the Basin. The big losers could be businesses and smaller communities that are highly dependent on irrigated agriculture, but unable to capture the benefits of water buyback. The most severely affected of this type of irrigation-dependent businesses are likely to be in locations where the climate will not allow adequate substitution of dryland agriculture to substantially replace irrigated output.

However, even here the structural adjustment programs within the scheme provide substantial benefits for affected communities. It is likely that for the most part, Basin communities will not be the biggest loser.

So the answer to the biggest loser question is: Probably not enough is being provided for the environment. It would seem to be the biggest loser. The science is uncertain, but it does suggest that a minimum of 4000 GL would be required to get us to the threshold required to achieve minimum environmental benefits. Certainly, the extra 2750 GL in environmental flows will need to be managed judiciously in key locations to garner the best return to the environment (and the least cost to the community).

It is this management aspect that is the critical part of the plan. It promises two important things. First, it suggests, at one level, that management will be devolved to communities. Second, it suggests that the Basin will in future be managed as a whole and not constrained, as in the past, by State boundaries. To achieve both of these will be an enormous step forward and, if achieved, will form the basis of a sustainable health river system.

Professor John Quiggin, Professor of Economics, University of Queensland, and currently Hinkley Professor at John Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA

The process set in train by the Water Act of 2007 has failed in the most important respects. Instead of an evidence-based policy, we have a political compromise which will yield inadequate flows in the river system, whilst wasting billions on low-value infrastructure projects. Nevertheless, while the target of 2750 GL is disappointing, it is important to remember that, less than a decade ago, the members of COAG could not even agree on a saving of 500 GL.

Dr Jamie Pittock, specialist in governance of water conservation of freshwater ecosystems, Crawford School of Economics and Government, Australian National University

Action is needed now to restore the extensive areas of degraded freshwater ecosystems, whereas the Government’s intention to implement this plan in 2019-2024 is likely to be too late. The amount of water to be reallocated is insufficient (2800 GL) to sustain significant areas of freshwater ecosystems – the Government’s own Guide suggested in 2010 that as much as 7600 GL need to be reallocated. The draft Plan makes inadequate allowances for the loss of water expected with climate change.“

This draft Plan is worse for the environment than the [2010] Guide in a number of respects. Rivers need water to be healthy and this Plan would allocate less water than was proposed in the Guide (2800GL compared to 3000-4000 GL). Even this reduced amount is proposed to be reviewed in five years’ time. The Authority proposes to rely more on "environmental works and measures” – small scale engineering works to spread smaller volumes of environmental water further. This is more risky for the environment in a number of respects: a) it relies more on good day to day management to work; b) there is less room for error with less water when state government water managers have demonstrated a lot of errors; c) it fragments the riverine environment with levees, channels and weirs and so blocks fish passage and dries out some wetland areas, and d) risks exacerbating changes to soil and water quality, for instance, by increasing salinity levels isolated floodplain wetlands.“

Not much. Returning more water to the freshwater environment will always help to a greater or lesser extent, but the draft Plan is a case of too little (2800 GL) and too late (2019-2024).

Comments welcome below.