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.

35 thoughts on “Bait and switch

  1. I don’t know why you have to devote so much time demolishing her. She’s not terribly credible, or hopefully influential. Certainly, all of the water bureaucrats I know have never heard of her.

  2. Interesting points wilful. Your last sentence is a bit of a worry – don’t you realise hw scandalous it is that your mates in the water bureaucracies have never heard of her? Further evidence of the widespread incompetence in the government agencies charged with environmental management! Who has been responsible for hiding Dr Marohasy’s existence from them – a Royal Commission on these questions is definitely called for!

  3. 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.

    I don’t follow ecological politics that much since I have had no problem in believing in anthropogenic climate change since Gribbin’s books on the subject started to come out in the late eighties.

    The only issue AFAIK is commensurating economic costs with ecological benefits of environmental policies. In Australia this should be politically easy as the NP are more or less on-board for major changes in water and land management.

    When Bill Heffernan starts talking Green you know that the battle is more than half won. Sheehan reports the smooth passage from social conservative to ecological conservationist:

    The process is going to make for some strange politics. Take, for example, Senator Bill Heffernan. He can see the disaster unfolding. And because he can see it unfolding, he is now to the left of St Peter Garrett when it comes to the environment. While Garrett is locked into the union-dominated Labor Party, Heffernan has moved to the left of Labor on big environmental issues.

    I would be interested in Pr Q’s opnion on Heffernan’s revival of the old develop the North chestnut with his “new agricultural frontier” proposal.

    “We need to get beyond denial,” Heffernan said. “All governments. The only way for governments to get the political courage to act is for the public to be made aware of the gravity of our national situation.

    Friday’s announcement by the PM and [Deputy PM] John Anderson and the premiers was real progress, a good start. They all know the Murray-Darling Basin has only 6.2 per cent of Australia’s run-off but 70 per cent of Australia’s water farming. They know that no matter how you do the sums, we need better technology, smarter water-farming, and the removal of some activity.” He singled out rice growers and cotton farmers as having to “lift their game”.

    “It’s a no-brainer that we need a new agricultural frontier in northern Australia, where the Timor Gulf and Burdekin catchments have 60per cent of the nation’s run-off – 10 times more than the Murray-Darling – but are virtually untapped.”

    Here he is on the ABC suggesting we move the agricultural Moses to the precipative Mountain:

    Bill Heffernan says drought-proofing is much more complex than recent tabloid headlines and shock-shock throwaways would have people believe; and he suggests a radical solution for the big water consuming rice-farming industry.

    BILL HEFFERNAN: I’m saying that if we’re going to argue about the dreaming of bringing all the water from the north, why don’t we establish a new agricultural frontier in the north, rather than bring the water down here.

    I like Bill. He’s a straight talking and even straighter shooting conservative ie preserver of good culture. He socks it to the Cultural Wets for their lunatic social policies. And he knocks the climate deniers for six over their prolifigate agricultural policies.

    He’s even given the Economic Dries a hammering over the under reported and under analysed Snowy River sell-off. Here he is giving both barrells on the ABC:

    SALLY SARA: Why do you think this is such a crucial issue? Other public assets have been sold off. Why do you think this one is so important?

    BILL HEFFERNAN: Well, I mean, first you’ve got to understand that in the Murray-Darling Basin commission, which has 4.2% of Australia’s run-off and 70%-odd of Australia’s water farming, 38% of the run-off in the Murray-Darling Basin area comes from 2% of the landscape. Now, what happens in that 2% of the landscape is pretty important.

    That 2% of the landscape is what we’re talking about – putting the control of the flow of that water to a private company whose core business is in the derivative market. It’s certainly nothing to do with water. It’s about having the capacity to turn electricity on and off and supply shortfalls. We’re going to turn all that over to God-knows-who, and I think it just leaves us in an uncertain future.

    Sounds like another Lucent/Enron in the making.

  4. Without wishing to pre-empt John, I’ll suggest to Jack that a good reference on “the old develop the North Chestnut” is Mark Carden’s chapter “Unsustainable Development in Queensland” in K. Walker & K. Crowley (eds., 1999), Australian Environmental Policy 2: Studies in Decline and Devolution, UNSW Press: Kensington.

    Carden’s argument, in a nutshell, is that quite apart from the issue of water there are a number of extreme environmental conditions in northern Australia which make European-style intensive agricultural development a bad bet (e.g. (e.g. extreme heat and insect pests in tropics which are hostile to European plants).

  5. It is rather odd that she claims vindication simply because ‘Sunday’ runs her.

  6. 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.

    I’ve used this kind of argument myself, so I can’t criticise you for doing it John, but there will always be extremists, nutters and cranks. Since they can’t ever be shut up, (and it’s not really anyone’s job to shut them up) it is up to the serious antagonists in the debate to show their seriousness by addressing the strengths of their most credible opponents – not the nutters at their many weak points.

    Of course it makes it much easier to make a dramatic case if you don’t bother.

  7. I recall being on the Sunday program in the mid 1990s representing the PC on the subject of packaging and waste. I said to the interviewer before the start of the shoot that I hoped I didn’t stuff up any of the answers. He said words to the effect “Don’t worry about that. You’re the ‘good guy’ in the story so we’ll shoot it again if you get something wrong”.

  8. Marahosy is a shameless shill.

    How anyone can possibly take her seriously is beyond comprehension.

    Marahosy’s failure to disclose the $40,000 donation made by Murray River Irrigation to the Institute of Public Affairs represents the worst form of ‘cash for comment’. Shortly after this ‘donation’ was made, the IPA produced a report that was highly favourable for the irrigation industry.

    In my opinion, this woman is grossly dishonest and must be held accountable for her misrepresentations.

  9. Having never seen the woman, she didn’t come across well on the Sunday program. But then neither did the Chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission.

    The whole report left far more questions unanswered than it answered. The main one being: are the measures farmers are being forced to adopt to combat salinity problems actually working, or are the alternative techniques used by the individual farmers that were highlighted on the show actually a better approach?

  10. I thought that both the the CSIRO and MDBC had to admit that they just got it wrong;

    ROSS COULTHART: Murray Darling Basin Commission boss Wendy Craik now admits many of the predictions of disaster were badly wrong. A decade ago in 1993, the MDBC predicted that dryland salinity was increasing at a rate of 10 to 15 percent per annum. It’s not happening is it?

    WENDY CRAIK: Well I think Ross that it’s fair to say that as a result of the consensus of science at the time organisations make, because of that consensus of science, provide the best information they can to decision-makers. That’s life.

    ROSS COULTHART: In 2000, Wendy Craik was heading the National Farmers’ Federation. At the height of the salinity hysteria she called for $65 billion to be spent on fixing Australia’s land and water crisis — with a whopping 37 billion to come from taxpayers.

    WENDY CRAIK: We were basing our recommendation on the best available information at the time.

    ROSS COULTHART: But that information was wrong wasn’t it?

    WENDY CRAIK: Subsequently I think we would say, we wouldn’t, I wouldn’t support that particular line.

    ROSS COULTHART: Imagine if those billions of dollars had been expended on what you now acknowledge are incorrect models that were talking up the threat of salinity?

    WENDY CRAIK: As a taxpayer I am just as happy as you that we didn’t actually do that.

    ROSS COULTHART: Even inside Australia’s peak science body many are now questioning what causes salinity. CSIRO principal research scientist Maarten Stapper says he too thinks salinity is actually caused by poor soil health. So touchy is the current debate in scientific circles that several scientists we spoke to felt unable to talk publicly. Maarten Stapper did but as a private citizen.

    DR MAARTEN STAPPER: But the cause of most of the salinity in the dryland is on land where there’s no rising watertable and it’s caused by the lack of organic carbon and life in the soil.

    ROSS COULTHART: If your solution to this problem is right then we’re wasting hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars on trying to fix salinity aren’t we?

    DR MAARTEN STAPPER: Yeah. That’s money working on symptoms and not the cause of the problem…..

  11. Dogz, measures of the kind being promoted on the program have a long history, most notably with Whittington interceptor banks. My understanding is that they have not worked well in the past, though there may be some differences this time around. I plan to post more on this soon.

  12. No, reality is complicated.

    The people who are happy to accuse the country’s science establishment of being wrong on salinity should ask themselves why it happened.

    Could it be that we were trying to make huge decisions about billions of dollars on the basis of a chronically underfunded research sector, lacking guarantees of continuity?

    I don’t know whether the “reforms” to CSIRO which have been fasnionable now since the early 80s have helped or hindered this particular issue. Many good people have been able to manage change constructively.

    However, I can tell you that significant environmental scientists in CSIRO have been unhappy over the last few years about a) the closure of important longitudinal studies, b) the rise of partnership funding which compromises independence and c) the rise of non-scientists or at least outsiders to an area, to positions of power.

  13. Rog, Craik is admitting the NFF (and ACF) got their figures wrong. I don’t see how this affects MDBC or CSIRO. In any case, as I said in the post, this was an ambit claim that no-one interested in policy took very seriously. I mentioned outlandish cost estimates at the time, and this was one.

    As regards dryland salinity, I’ll have a little more to say on this soon. But if I were you, Rog, I’d be cautious before hanging my hat on the soil quality peg. Mind you, IIRC, you’ve commented in support of climate change denialism, so I don’t suppose credibility is much of a concern for you.

    BTW, I think Coulthart’s implicit biases are evident in the phrase “Even scientists inside Australia’s peak research body …”

  14. Quite right, John you are not me and therefore neither of us have no idea if you have any first hand experience with the soil sciences.

    I see this as more a ideological game than one of facts. Can a modeller predict how many fish you can catch?

  15. “I see this as more a ideological game than one of facts.”

    The Republican War on Science summed up in one sentence

    “Can a modeller predict how many fish you can catch?”

    Presumably, the intended answer to this rhetorical question is “No”, which might come as a surprise to the thousands of fisheries scientists whose models are designed to do precisely this.

    Coming up

    “Can science really tell us the earth is billons of years old/revolves around the sun/is spherical rather than flat?”

  16. Dogz Says: May 28th, 2006 at 1:30 pm “Having never seen the woman, she didn’t come across well on the Sunday program. But then neither did the Chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission.”

    Be careful Dogz: your slur reads horribly sexist to me!

  17. Lets just stick with what we do know; water wont run uphill.

    Is the earth flat? – I believe it to be not but I wait for your considered opinion on the matter to confirm the situation.

  18. John, just say you’re sorry and she was right. We’ll all think a lot more highly of you if you do.

  19. WeekByWeek, funny you should mention that – I wondered about my wording as I wrote it so I did a mental gender-change exercise: “Having never seen the man, he didn’t come across well on the Sunday program.” and concluded that it sounded as natural as the feminine version. But now I see it in print I’m not so sure. Anyway, the intention wasn’t sexist (but I did find Marohasy’s manner irritating and unconvincing).

  20. Perhaps you might like to say on what point you think Marohasy was right and I was wrong – as I observed, the fact that salinity levels at Morgan have fallen (thanks to policy responses) was reported by MDBC well before she wrote about it. Her claim that the MDBC projections of rising salinity in the absence of further policy action are wrong remains just that: a claim.

  21. John, you said that if you were going to pay attention to Jennifer Marohasy you would have to throw away 30 years of research – the implication being that she was wrong. In fact you were wrong. Just be big enough to admit it instead of attempting a bait and switch of your own.

  22. Sea Dog, I’ll take your non-response to mean that you aren’t aware of any points on which I was wrong. In fact, I’m doubtful that you’ve even read what I wrote.

  23. “Lets just stick with what we do know; water wont run uphill.”

    Clearly you weren’t watching Catalyst last week, where it was demonstrated exactly how that feat can be achieved.

  24. It’s all Jackson Pollock’s fault!

    ROSS COULTHART: And here’s a few things you likely haven’t heard: Tree planting can actually make salinity worse. That, despite panicked claims to the contrary, this natural icon is not under threat of extinction. And the curious link between salinity and this famous art icon, ‘Blue Poles’.

  25. In plants capillary action is largely the direct result of evapotranspiration and in soil of evaporation – people say that trees “pump water” but that is not correct, the water is drawn up to the stomata where it evaporates. In damaged soils the protective waxes from plant litter remain unbroken and can lead to hydrophobic, or water repellant soils that shed water and can cause eosion. Increasing macro and micro activity and reducing compaction can increase the water holding capacity.

  26. As you say, rog, evapotranspiration is yet another relevant counterexample.

  27. Hello John

    It is really interesting to watch a program on a topic about which one is really well informed. I had the experience I’ve had before of having doubts about all the other current affairs programs on topics where I don’t know any of the details. It was agonising seeing all of the issues jumbled together and muddled up. The low points were the Goulay gang’s total dismissal of the rising groundwater model (which is just preposterous) and the farmer’s claim that ploughing and cutting fertilizer can somehow get rid of salt. Nevertheless I think that Jennifer M is basically correct about the corruption of science by politics in the period when salinity was at its height as a hot political issue. You (John) are right that she is spraying bullets around a little indiscriminantly, but the basic point is correct, especially in relation to the National Land and Water Resources Audit.

    David Tilley: How did it happan? I’ve spoken to people who know exactly how it happened. It was a mixture of several things: failure to anticipate the dire political consequences of defining salinity hazard in the broad way they did (although they were warned); succumbing to pressure to provide results despite a lack of data; and in at least one state, yes, a shameless determination to ride the political wave right to the money-laden beach.

    There is a sensible middle ground in all this that says that salinity was never as bad as claimed by a bundle of sources who should have known better, but that it is still a serious problem that could get worse if/when rainfall returns to average levels in the Basin.

    Dogz and John: Do these farmer’s technologies work? They have nothing to to with Whittington banks, which proposed a totally different causal mechanism and are discredited now. In the case of the irrigation farmers, they were just doing what any scientist would advise: be careful and systematic with your water use. In the case of the farmer growing native grasses, I think the point was just that he could – that the land was not saline as predicted. If you reduce fertilizer use in that sort of country, native grasses will come back. I don’t think there was any implication that they would reduce salinity, although they may do so to a modest extent, since they are perennials. In the case of the guy with the “special” plough, I am told that groundwaters fell throughout his district, so it clearly wasn’t due to his actions. He found some fresh groundwater, but groundwater salinity is highly variable, sometimes over small distances, so my expectation is that the groundwater at that site was fresh all along. You’d need before-after comparison to prove otherwise.

    Do the more traditionally advovated techniques work (planting perennials)? Well, not as well as we’d like. The problem is you need a very large area of them, and the economics is against it unless the perennials are pretty close to being financially attractive to farmers in their own right. This has big implications for the way that the policy program should be designed. For more on this see the transcript of my Ockham’s Razor talk:, or a more detailed paper of mine that is a little old now, but still largely correct: Pannell, D.J. (2001). Dryland Salinity: Economic, Scientific, Social and Policy Dimensions, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 45(4): 517-546.

  28. Sea Dog, I think Jennifer Marohasy now concedes she was incorrect on the central point (her rejection of the standard view that reduced rainfall and the resulting lower water tables have generated a temporary decline in salinity).

  29. Hi John and all.
    it puzzles me that the Barrage across Australia’s largest estuary at the mouth of the Murray is never mentioned in regard to Murray River Management.

    I work in fish habitat restorariion and have reliable references to fur seals once coming as far up the Darling systems as Broken Creek near Sheparton.

    Before the closure of the Barrage Dolphins were in a then very pleasant freshwater lake at Berri in the early 1970’s (local baker).

    Saltwater is heavier that fresh and forms a wedge underneath it that extends many miles up rivers, especially when their flow is reduced. freshwater can still be pumped from gravel beside streams, like in nortern NSW, or from the surface.

    Rivers are also essential for a huge range of fish species that spend their lives in both fresh and saltwater and this passage is blocked to the Murray by a series of wiers.

    These wiers also open from the bottom, stirring the salt and any settling agricultural waste back into the water column.

    The fisheries once supported by the Murray were amazingly extensive and only sparsely recorded. A cursory glance at issues of local papers from along the Murray will reveal signifiacnt catches of a variety of fish from the river, its creelks and tributaries and a wide variety of small lakes and Billabongs most of which were sold locally. Lake Tuchiwollop near swan Hill one produce five bxes of yellow belly persh a week – and now is toxic with agricultural waste with a salt encrusted public toilet marking where local and visitors camped and swam in clear water as late as the 1950’s.

    Downstream the Coorong and Adventure Bay have had their commercial fisheries greatly diminished since the 1970’s too.

    There is only one remaining fishing fleet in the Murray that I am aware of, the 100 odd boats closed for political/ecological? reasons.

    It would be interesting to economically model the impoact of restoring the fisheries of the Murray through the Barrage opening – for starters.

    Perhaps the Australian obsession with ‘overfishing’ has seen the loss of the ‘canary in the mineshaft for the Murray and the skewing of management and economic assessment to a too narrow field.

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