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Wong on water

May 1st, 2008

I’ve been too busy to do a proper assessment of the water policy announcement made on Tuesday by Penny Wong. The good news is that the government is finally getting moving on buying back water from irrigators, on a “willing seller” basis. That’s a significant change from the previous government, who clearly viewed buybacks as a last resort. However, as the ACF has pointed out, the previous plan did identify $3 billion for this purpose. It remains to be seen whether the government will take the shift further by applying more stringent cost benefit analysis to the engineering works favoured under the previous plan.

So, as with most things under the new government, a good start, but we’ll have to wait for more.

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  1. Jill Rush
    May 1st, 2008 at 23:50 | #1

    The lack of urgent action means that the very serious problems affecting Lake Alexandrina, Lake Albert and the Coorong are likely to take years to repair – if they ever can be. The River Murray is dying from the mouth up.

    Incremental results are never going to solve problems caused by agribusiness caused by companies who have no stake in the environmental health of the country but are only looking to make a profit this financial year or the next. These are the properties where compulsory acquisition should start.

  2. May 2nd, 2008 at 20:37 | #2

    Anyone watch Catalyst last night?

    Fire and Water
    Coorong: the end of the line
    Acid Mud

    I try to be optimistic and not a “doomer”, but bloody hell that was depressing. We have seriously screwed up this continent in a couple of centuries. Its hard not to come to the conclusion that Australia would be a hell of lot better off without us.

  3. Peter Wood
    May 2nd, 2008 at 21:54 | #3

    The issue of potential acid sulphate soils forming actual acid sulphate soils from the lower lakes draining is huge. Acid sulphate soil disturbance has already had serious economic and environmental impacts in Australia through fish kills, corroding concrete and steel structures and so on. I have seen figures suggesting that acid sulphate soils cost Queensland $100 million per year. Lets just say that digging up heaps of mangroves to make canal style housing developments in the gold coast wasn’t a very good idea.

    All of this is miniscule compared to what is happening in the lower Murray river. The Queensland Acid Sulphate Soils technical manual describes potential acid sulphate soils with volumes up to 10000 tonnes, which are in the highest treatment category, even if they are only slightly potentially acidic. Lake Albert is roughly 20km by 30km, so I suspect that the problem here isat a minimum is about 3 orders of magnitude worse than anything in the technical manual. I hope the engineering solutions work.

    All of this makes me feel rather pessimistic about what politicians are (not) doing. If we can’t get things right in the Murray river, what chance do we have of dealing adequately with other problems such as climate change?

  4. Peter Wood
    May 2nd, 2008 at 23:03 | #4

    I just watched the Catalyst episode, I hadn’t before my previous post. There was a news report on PM today on this too. As mentioned in the Catalyst story ‘Acid Mud’, not only is this affecting the lakes at the lower Murray, it is also affecting wetlands throughout the Murray. Engineering solutions may stop lake Albert drying up (which would be catastrophic) but I don’t see that happening with the rest of the wetlands.

    Forgive my ignorance, but how much water from the Murray-Darling basin is being used for irrigation? Because the Acid Sulphate Soils effect is irreversible, if I was a politican with the power, I would suspend all irrigation and water uses which drain water from the Murray except for urban water supplies and sanitation until this crisis is over.

    I think this would be a very interesting problem to apply cost benefit analysis to. Irreversible impacts leading to discount rate questions and so on; very large downside exposure etc.

    I feel particluarly sorry for the Ngarrandjerri people, whose land is being affected by this crisis.

  5. Jill Rush
    May 3rd, 2008 at 16:35 | #5

    It is predicted that this effect coulc impact on Adelaide’s drinking water by Feb 2009. Meantime Victorian irrigators continue with large allocations in open drains subject to waste and evaporation.

    If there cannot be urgent action when the need is so great when can there be? Victoria has been rewarded for poor past practices with a lot of money being directed at irrigators whereas in other states irrigaotrs have paid for responsible methods. Meantime the River Red Gums are dying – we haven’t even considered what this means in terms of salinity and productive land.

    It is like fiddling whilst Rome burns.

  6. Salient Green
    May 4th, 2008 at 10:54 | #6

    It’s not only the Victoria which has open irrigation channels Jill. In fact I would have to say that NSW is even worse for open and dirt bottomed channels. And for those who aren’t yet over Cubby bashing, it has dams 8 metres deep in south Qld where the annual evaporation is up to 2 metres which suggests they could waste up to 125GL every year. Cubby aren’t the only culprits with huge dam losses and NSW loses 30% of its water to evaporation and seepage on route to the irrigator.

    It’s nothing less than a bloody disgrace the way the other 3 states (I’m a SA irrigator) have conducted themselves in the corrupt over-allocation of water and the shameful continuation of wasteful practices. Here is a link bound to raise the ire of any efficient irrigator to new heights.
    http://www.melaleucamedia.com.au/01_cms/details.asp?ID=257

  7. Rod
    May 4th, 2008 at 19:51 | #7

    Can’t wait till they buy back the water from farmers so I can start eating mud cakes….

    I’m lost as to whether many people have any idea what it is that farmers produce? Or whether there is awareness of the drain that urban water needs place on the basin system.

    We should also consider at length the basins role in production of domestic and world food supplies.

    Hand the river back to the environment -and- the food producers, I say.

    And state governments should start sourcing their own water (desal or whatever you like) for urban use and take responsibility for their failed planning.

  8. Peter Wood
    May 4th, 2008 at 20:30 | #8

    The ACCC has issued a ‘Water market rules issues paper’ and is seeking submissions by May 9, 2008.

    http://www.accc.gov.au/content/index.phtml/itemId/815052

  9. Jill Rush
    May 4th, 2008 at 23:07 | #9

    Rod,
    You raise the question of where our food will come from. However if the land is so degraded that it is toxic or so saline that nothing will grow it is of no use to grow food. The latter will take a little longer but will be more permanent.

    Urgent action is needed to stop the evaporation and the overallocations which provide windfall profits to those who have been lucky enough to have been favoured by politicians in the past because those past policies create environmental disaster which will lead to even less food to feed people here and overseas.

  10. observa
    May 5th, 2008 at 00:42 | #10

    “Forgive my ignorance, but how much water from the Murray-Darling basin is being used for irrigation?”
    Often touted Peter, only about 9-10% is consumed by urban/industrial use. Given urban and industrial users can outbid any other alternative use of the MD’s average flows, that should leave irrigators and the environmental flows via the taxpayer to bid for the rest. In the absence of any overarching policeman and allocator of real average inflows into the basin, SA Riverland fruit and vine blockers only had 4% of their past allocations last summer. Perhaps somewhat fortuitously, many of their fruit trees and vines will no longer need even that paltry allocation next summer. Maybe the govt could offer them next year’s allocation for nothing, since everybody loves a bargain it seems.

    “And state governments should start sourcing their own water (desal or whatever you like)..”
    The tradeoff here Rod is that coal fired desal costs around a litre of atmospheric CO2 for every litre of the 50ML of desal water p.a. that Adelaide proposes to produce, currently on the drawing board right now.

  11. observa
    May 5th, 2008 at 01:01 | #11

    Bit of a dry show here in the Saudi Arabia of uranium Rod and of course the Rann Govt has taken up on our behalf, a promise to reduce our CO2 emissions by 60% by 2050. Any helpful suggestions?

  12. Ian Gould
    May 5th, 2008 at 10:17 | #12

    Observa, a few weeks ago you were complaining because the Federal government wasn’t buying back irrigation permits.

    Now they announce $3 billion to buy back irrigation permits and you’r still complaining.

    Short of proclaiming John Howard Presidente for life and then committing mass suicide is there anything any Labor government can do that you won’t attack them for?

  13. May 6th, 2008 at 15:57 | #13

    One point that’s come up on LP when this is discussed is that not all water allocations are actually used.

    Unused allocations are obviously the ones most likely to get sold – either to other farmers who use them, thus resulting in more water being taken out of the river system, or to the government, who ends up buying water that was already going down the system anyway, at least in the short term.

    So, in terms of actually getting water back into the river quickly, buybacks may not help as much as we’d all like.

    Any thoughts?

  14. Salient Green
    May 6th, 2008 at 18:37 | #14

    Robert, I have been asked by ABARE if I would sell my unused allocation, about 60% of total due to ongoing efficiency improvements. I told them no way until the storages and efficiencies in the in the whole MD system were vastly improved.

    The best way to gain environmental flows is for the federal government to roll out major pipeline works to the farm gate quick smart and take the savings. They could also mandate standards of efficiency, as we have in SA, and exchange onfarm assistance for the water saved on the process.

    Farm dams prevent emormous amounts of water entering the basin and due to their shallowness are also responsible for enormous evaporation losses. Putting a suitable price on that water is essential to encourage better practices.

  15. May 7th, 2008 at 07:44 | #15

    Salient Green: what you do with your allocation is your business, but if putting in pipes costs a lot more than simply buying back the water, why should we (the urbanites of Australia) pay for the more expensive solution?

    BTW, I agree with you on farm dams.

  16. Salient Green
    May 7th, 2008 at 09:25 | #16

    Robert, in regards to my unused allocation, in the current drought, with water restrictions based on a percentage of ones total allocation, selling half an allocation will result in even less available water. Thus it is relevent to your post.

    There are many reasons why pipelining irrigation systems is a good idea in most situations.
    Up to 80% of water in dirt-bottomed, open channels is lost on route to the farm.
    Water is sent down such channels intermittently which means irrigators must take it when it’s there and apply enough to get through to the next water. Highly efficient irrigation systems cannot be used because they rely on water being delivered when the plants need it and in precisely metered amounts.
    Irrigations areas are communities, with homes, businesses, kids, schools, hospitals and lots of people all involved in producing food and wealth for Australia. Pipelining is a good investment for the future.
    If the best irrigation practices were employed throughout the MD basin, there would be no need to buy back water for the environment via the water markets and that would be a good thing because the price will rise considerably if the Government enters in a big way.
    Efficient irrigation usually results in a rise in productivity.
    For all these reasons, I believe pipelines are the least expensive solution.

    FWIW, the best irrigation practice in the world would still see me wanting the end of cotton farming in it’s present form of high chemical dependence.

  17. May 8th, 2008 at 08:02 | #17

    A tunnel from Gippsland save the Murray?

    Kenneth Davidson says yes. It could be built in 12 months and would cost $300 million, whihc is considerably less than what is to be spent buying back water allocations. See Tunnel could save the dying Murray by Kenneth Davidson in the Melbourne Age of 31 Mar 08.

    In general, tampering with the environment on such a scale does much more harm than good, but in the circumstances this could be justified. I would be interested to know if anyone knows of any flaws with this proposal.

  18. May 8th, 2008 at 08:04 | #18

    I meant “A tunnel from Gippsland to save the Murray?”

  19. Ian Gould
    May 8th, 2008 at 11:21 | #19

    “Salient Green: what you do with your allocation is your business, but if putting in pipes costs a lot more than simply buying back the water, why should we (the urbanites of Australia) pay for the more expensive solution?”

    The problem is when farmers sell allocations they don’t actually use to people who then use them.

    There was massive over-allocation in the past and unless it’s done properly buy-backs and allocation trading could result in a lot of money being spent for little or no reduction in rural water use.

    The key phrase there is “unless it’s done properly”. I’m not arguing against trading or buy-backs, I’m simply arguing that there needs to be a lot of thought put into the design of the system.

  20. May 9th, 2008 at 09:36 | #20

    I wouldn’t take Kenneth Davidson’s costings too seriously.

    He’s been floating the idea of supplying water to Melbourne by running a pipe under Bass Strait.

    While it’s possible such a thing can be made to work, I doubt it’s ever been tried anywhere in the world, which means lots of unexpected costs through the design and construction stage.

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