Bait and switch
On another important environmental issue, Jennifer Marohasy is claiming victory in her campaign against the Murray Darling-Basin Commission, CSIRO and other bodies undertaking research into the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin on the basis of a Sunday program, to be broadcast on May 28. In the trailer various people from bodies including MDBC, CSIRO and so on say that the Murray River is not dying, Adelaide is not doomed and so on. As a corrective to some of the more alarmist media reports we have seen this is all well and good.
But Marohasy wants to push this a lot further. In particular, she’s suggesting that I was wrong, in 2004, to criticise her for claiming that the MDBC was “promoting the myth of an ecological disaster”
The problem for Marohasy is that, far from propagating doomsday scenarios the MDBC has been pointing out its successes in the campaign against salinity for years, and was doing so in the very documents that formed the basis of our debate. Here’s the opening paragraphs of the MBDC Salinity Update 2003
One of the clear successes of the Murray-Darling Basin Salinity and Drainage Strategy 1988-2001 has been the coordinated efforts of community groups and Governments to control and reduce salinity levels in the lower parts of the River Murray, and this success has been widely recognised in recent years
(MDBC 1999, MDBMC 1999, 2001).
The improvement in long-term average salinity levels in the River Murray at Morgan since 1980 is shown below. This improvement in salinity levels has been in response to significant investment by Governments in dilution flows, building and operating salt interception schemes, and due to the effectiveness of State salinity action plans and Land and Water Management Plans.
The 1999 report, published long before Marohasy started her campaign begins “The Strategy has achieved a net reduction in River Murray Salinity … Despite the undeniable gains, salinity remains a pressing issue”
Marohasy wants to use the very successes cited here to attack the credibility of the body that produced them.
The improvements we’ve seen in salinity are the result of a wide range of policy initiatives that began in the late 1980s with the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement. They include the Salinity and Drainage strategy mentioned above, the Cap on aggregate extractions imposed since the mid-1990s, and the development of catchment management plans throughout the Basin. If it had not been for these initiatives, we would indeed be facing a crisis. As it is, salinity is still a serious problem, and other problems, such as the need for increased flows for biodiversity have barely been addressed.
I’ve written about this Murray-Darling, particularly in this 2001 paper, and, as I pointed out last time around “anyone who reads it will search in vain for the kind of doomsday mentality that Marohasy suggests is driving the policy debate.”
To quote myself again
The problems are severe, but they are not insuperable. Since the late 1980s, a combination of measures, including extensive engineering works, a cap on extractions and improved on-farm management has achieved at least a temporary halt in the decades-long trend towards rising salinity levels in the river system. Relatively modest increases in environmental flows of water could yield large benefits in vulnerable ecosystems. The allocation of well-defined tradeable water rights with a clear allocation of risk could yield significant improvements in both economic and environmental outcomes.
Of course, there have been plenty of people making alarmist statements and ambit claims. One thing this episode illustrates is the way that overstatement of environmental problems can backfire, providing an opportunity for opponents to say the problems are non-existent. People like Bjorn Lomborg are still dining out on the silly statements made by the Club of Rome and similar bodies back in the 1970s.
As an example, the trailer mentions the ACF/NFF proposal to spend $65 billion on a response to salinity problems and land degradation. This was way over the top, and the figure was never taken seriously in the policy debate, but it provides a convenient target now. As I mentioned in my 2001 paper, at the same time the MDB Ministerial Council was estimating annual costs from salinity of $46 million (a bit on the low side, I think, but the right order of magnitude). Spending $65 billion, or anything like it, to solve a problem on this scale would be silly. I made this point in more detail, here.
But it’s equally silly to suggest, as Marohasy does, that the whole problem has been made up by “environmental activists masquerading as scientists” and that the optimal response is to do nothing.