The Murray Darling Basin: the end of an era
I first started working on the problems of the Murray-Darling river system 30 years ago, just as the great expansion of irrigated agriculture was reaching its limits. I’ve done a lot of different things since then, but kept on coming back to this issue. For a brief moment after the election of the Rudd government and the implementation of the Water for the Future plan, it seemed like Australia finally had the policy right. The government would buy back enough of the water rights it had given away in the past, and use them to restore something close enough to natural flow patterns to protect the most vulnerable natural environments. The money spent on the purchases would ease the pain of the adjustments that have been going on for decades anyway, as a result of “closer settlement” policies that encouraged the creation of farms too small to support a family properly.
All of that fell in a heap with the disastrous mismanagement of the Draft Basin Plan, which led to its rejection first by irrigators instead of the government. At this point, the process reverted to the time-honored patterns of political horse-trading and I announced a year or so ago that I was moving on. Now the Basin Plan is finally law. The best that can be said is that it is not the disaster it might have been. Billions of dollars have been allocated to infrastructure boondoggles, and the allocation of water to the environment is less than what is needed. But the 2750 GL environmental allocation is much more than seemed remotely plausible a decade or so ago, and there seems to be some effort to stop the most wasteful infrastructure project.
Meanwhile, on the academic front, I’ve had one last gift from my decades of work on this topic, with a publication in Nature Climate Change, something I’ve long aspired to. Admittedly, I’m listed last among nearly 20 authors of an article that’s only a few pages long. I wrote a fair bit in the drafting process, but only a couple of sentences ended up in the final paper. Still, that’s the way things are done in the natural sciences, so I’m not going to complain. For those who can’t get access, the shorter version is that, while Australia hasn’t done a great job with the management of our water resources, we are still doing better than anyone else.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ll be starting a new Australian Research Council Laureate project next year, on bounded rationality and financial crises. I’ll also continue working on climate change, and may touch on the issue as it relates to the Basin. But, apart from that, I think it’s time to declare an end to my work on the Murray. I think the work I put into this problem, along with many other natural and social scientists, led to a better outcome than we might have seen otherwise. And, sometime before too long, I really will take the family on the houseboat trip I’ve been planning since the beginning.