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. 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’.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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).

  5. 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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