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Groundwater

May 17th, 2007

The bleak outlook for the Murray-Darling Basin has just got substantially worse with reports that inflows may have been overestimated by as much as 40 per cent, as a result of double counting of groundwater. Of course, as Malcolm Turnbull says in the article, the general problem is well-known to those working in the area. The Risk and Sustainable Management Group*, which I lead at UQ, has been working on it for some time, and so have lots of others. But, as we know all too well from our modelling efforts, there’s a huge gap between a qualitative understanding of the issues, and an adequate quantitative representation of flows of water and salt, not to mention the nutrients that contribute to things like blue-green algae blooms. Everyone is doing the best they can, but it will take a long time to get coherent data sets together, and time is something we don’t have.

In the meantime, policy is at a standstill because the National Party refuses to countenance voluntarily repurchase of water rights, let alone a scaling back of allocations that are, in retrospect, obviously unsustainable. Unless Turnbull can really start banging some heads together on this one, his first ministerial stint is going to end up a disastrous failure.

* I’m reposting this at the RSMG blog, which has lots of useful discussion of water and other environmental issues.

Update 18/5 It turns out this estimate is from Bill Heffernan (I had somehow inferred that the National Water Commission had produced it) and it’s an upper bound, based on the total contribution of groundwater. Turnbull has a letter in today’s Fin suggesting that the real value is 3 per cent, though I don’t think this includes capture of surface flows through farm dams, laser levelling and so on. Even 3 per cent of flows is a big deal – much more than the amount that has so far been repurchased or regained through efficiency savings.

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  1. observa
    May 17th, 2007 at 14:31 | #1

    So are we downstream Adelaideans caught between the Nats on one side and Bracksians on the other John? ie does voluntary repurchase right now, require Bracks to cede control to the Feds and then the Nats to roll over for them to get on with it?

  2. jquiggin
    May 17th, 2007 at 14:37 | #2

    As I said in the Fin a few weeks back, I think Bracks will have to roll over in the end, given the emergency we are in, but obviously there’s no point giving power to the Feds if they have neither the knowledge nor the will to use it.

  3. observa
    May 17th, 2007 at 15:19 | #3

    Well, maybe it needs a Federal Labor govt to make the country cousins roll over and get off the land so we urbanites can enjoy as much water out of the MD as we can comfortably afford.

  4. swio
    May 17th, 2007 at 21:04 | #4

    Having read through a whole bunch of johnquiggin.com and RMSG blog posts on the topic I understand that it would be a substantially better policy for the Murray as a whole for the government to simply voluntarily re-purchase existing water rights. Am I right in concluding that this also means that voluntary re-purchase could acheive the same or better outcomes for much less than the government’s 10 billion?

    If so there is an opportuntiy for Rudd to come up with a counter policy on the Murray Darling that could be both cheaper and more effective.

    Rudd offer an alternative policy that costs, say 6 billion, that acheived the same or better than the government’s policy. I am just pulling the 6 billion number out of the air. I would love to know what a better policy would really cost. If he got in principle support from the affected state premiers before the election it would re-inforce his polical strategy of acting like he’s in government already and contrasting a 6 billion dollar policy with a 10 bilion one would help him look like a fiscal conservative.

    The governments current Murray water policy looks like it suffers from being thrown together and having to meet the political needs of the Nationals. Its a weak point that Labor should be trying to attack.

  5. May 18th, 2007 at 00:59 | #5

    Trackback – I had my own similar remarks on this here.

  6. observa
    May 18th, 2007 at 14:30 | #6

    I see the PM reckons he’s onto the reason why Rudd wants to fix the States’ leaky pipes http://www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,21753443-1702,00.html

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