Blogging about water

I haven’t really overcome my backlog, but I am going to appear at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Friday and Saturday this week, talking about blogging and water, so it seemed like a good idea to run a blog post about water.

My piece in the Fin a couple of weeks ago appeared simultaneously with the news that the government would accelerate its buyback of water, definitely a step in the right direction. It’s become fashionable to suggest that the government is all review and no action, but compared to the decade of paralysis we saw from the last lot, culminating in the farcical National Water Plan, the pace of change is amazing.

Still, the situation bequeathed by Howard (and, it must be said, Turnbull) is truly dire

The best water policy in the world is useless when there is no water. We are now finding this out, as we struggle with yet another year of near-record low inflows to the Murray-Darling river system.

The most immediate crisis is that affecting Lakes Albert and Alexandrina at the mouth of the Murray River. Flows in the lower section of the Murray River have been low, or non-existent,most of the time since 2002. However, water in the lakes has been maintained, until now through a system of barrages constructed in the 1930s.

As water levels have continued to fall, however, the lakes have become unsustainable in their present form. Lake levels are now below sea level. If current conditions continue, it is likely that drying will result in the formation and exposure of acid sulfate soils, causing severe and permanent environmental damage.

It is become increasingly likely that the only feasible response is to remove the barrages and allow the lakes to be flooded with seawater. This would require the abandonment of irrigation in the area, and imply a loss of supply for urban water users.

Some commentators have argued that removing the barrages would represent a return to natural conditions. This is, at best, half-true. The barrages converted an estuarine system which fluctuated between fresh water, brackish and saline conditions into a purely freshwater system,.

But the barrages were themselves a response to an increase in the frequency of low flow conditions arising from earlier interventions upstream. Removing the barrages without restoring natural flows is a recipe for environmental disaster.

The problem is that there are no realistic options left for increasing flows. There have been calls to acquire water upstream, for example by buying large irrigation farms in Queensland, the best known of which is Cubbie Station. But conditions are so dry in the Darling and Murray systems that, according to the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, 80 per cent of any water released upstream would be lost to evaporation or absorbed into the water table along the way.

Things didn’t have to be this way. When I started working on this issue in the that we were taking too much water out of the system. As biologist David Paton, the leadng expert on the Coorong, has pointed out, the well known rule of thumb that management of a healthy river requires the maintenance of 30 per cent of natural flows was being put forward as a basis for management in the early 1990s.

These proposals were ignored. A subsequent study suggested that restoring flows of 1500 GL (a little less than 15 per cent of natural flows) would be needed to give the Murray a moderate chance of recovery. The nation’s leaders, meeting at COAG, promised 500. GL.

Years of inaction followed, with no move towards buying back irrigation rights. Finally, the Rudd government has spent $50 million to buy back water rights. Unfortunately, in most cases, these are general security rights that will receive a zero allocation while the drought continues.

The restoration of some environmental flows would not have prevented low flows in the current drought. But it would avoid the situation where low flows are the norm, and an extended drought is sufficient to push the whole system over the edge.

At this point, calls for compulsory purchase of irrigation rights are growing louder. Unless there are significant inflows of water soon, it is hard to see how the voluntary market-based approach can be sustained.

The desperate choices now facing us with respect to the Murray Darling Basin are a small indication of what we will face if the world fails to act quickly to control emissions of carbon dioxide and slow the rate of global warming. Sooner or later the necessity for action will become undeniable, but by then the relatively easy options available today will have been foreclosed.

Instead of market-friendly options like emissions trading, we will be looking at command-and-control measures like the water restrictions now prevailing in most Australian cities. As far as the environment goes, the kind of triage operation now being applied to the icon sites of the Murray will be routine. Some vital ecosystems will be saved, at the cost of abandoning others.

Perhaps, when this happens, those who have urged inaction will be called to account. Or perhaps, as with the Murray, most of those responsible will have moved on, and their successors will be left to pick up the pieces.

18 thoughts on “Blogging about water

  1. The state of the Murray, particularly the lakes and the Coorong, is one of the reasons I’m sceptical about market solutions.

  2. Bush Telegraph today had an excellent item on the Lower Lakes ‘Catchment Detox – dairy, cockles and the Coorong’. There is a podcast on the ABC Radio National website. Confirmed our worst fears when we visited there last week.

  3. The comment by David Paton that you require 30% natural flows to maintain a healthy catchment opens a can of worms. At the moment the Snowy River has all of its inflows upstream of Jindabyne diverted through to the Murray. Are the supporters of the Coorrong prepared to have their arguments applied to the equally important restoration of natural flows for the Snowy?
    And don’t forget the Alpine Parks are and will be recovering from the recent wildfires for many years to come. The regenerating native forests will prevent normal water runoff for decades to come as they consume the water for their regrowth spurt.

  4. It could be pointed out that sea level rise will eventually overwhelm the barrages anyway. I think the small boat lock merely needs to be left open rather than a major demolition.

    These are troubling times if governments need to accelerate market decisions, the danger being getting it wrong. I guess semi-market approaches like the ETS are a compromise.

  5. David, the only “market” element to Murray-arling policy over the Howard years was the buying of votes in National Party seats in exchange for unsustainable water allocations.

    Let urban water authorities (and cosnervation groups) buy water on the same terms and at the samep rices as irrigators and other agricultural users and most of the problems would rapidly go away.

  6. I agree with you completely… and yet the problem remains of convincing legislators and voters of the magnitude of damages from climate change. Think of it this way: Will Australia’s water problems show up in any meaningful way in GDP?

    If something this dire is lost as GDP rounding error (which I presume it is), what is our argument to skeptical legislators?

  7. I think, JQ, “called to account” is a very important principle that should be solidly reinforced, especially where these huge environmental issues with massive cost to the natural world are involved. “Moving on” from an active process of intentional mismanagement supporting personal interests, vested interests or political ideologies, must not be allowed. The names of such miscreants must be instilled in the journal of history so that their infamy can be seen for what it is, a crime against nature.

  8. Perhaps, when this happens, those who have urged inaction will be called to account. Or perhaps, as with the Murray, most of those responsible will have moved on, and their successors will be left to pick up the pieces.

    We can only dream. I’m not the only one that wants Andrew Bolt in gaol am I?

    The terrible problem with climate change that makes it so much worse, is the lags that are in the system between what is locked in and what becomes apparent. While we can see that the Coorong is stuffed already, we wont be able to see the extent of our damage till well after the event.

  9. Ian, while it’s true that Murray-Darling basin policy over the years (not just the last 12, either) has resembled a bidding war at the local knocking-shop more than a conventional market, it’s been sold to us as a Market Solution (TM). However, even a genuine market in water is a nonsense when there isn’t any water in the system.

    It seems to me that many of the things that have been marketed as a market actually represent market failure.

  10. i wonder if green groups had gone to the voters with a water control referendum, so that pollies could not sell out the future for a few votes today, would domain ‘intellectuals’ have supported them?

    there is a use for citizen initiative, if you have citizens, and you have initiative. poor oz has neither.

  11. Since the Coorong is an internationally listed RAMSAR wetlands site where Australia has obligations to protect, the ‘call to account’ ought to be pursued. For example those migratory wader birds that spend the northern winter away from Japan/Korea will certainly be at risk back here in the Coorong. Those countries should be concerned to nail those Howard era pollies that identifiably allowed this to happen.

  12. I had lunch at the Corio pub in Goolwa last Saturday. The river jetty where my dad used to tie up his dinghy is now on dry land. Meanwhile, the rural shack we used to stay in has been replaced by medium density suburbia (and ALL of the trees have gone).

    The Murray mouth initially closed back in 1981. That’s only 40 years after the barrages were completed. Rann now has a contingency plan to build a new weir at Wellington. In 2050 I presume they’ll move it to Mannum or Morgan.

    There are actually 10 weirs and locks between Blanchetown and Wentworth. The Murray below Wentworth is only a series of artificial storage ponds.

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