Memories of Chowilla

Also a bit belatedly, my Fin column from Thursday. I got a call from a cotton grower who was upset by the column, but as we talked about it, was reacting more to the general tendency to demonise irrigators, something I’ve criticised in the past . It’s important not to blame people for decisions that made sense in the light of public policy at the time, and certainly, those of us who wear cotton clothing are in no position to talk as if growing cotton is a bad thing. That said, too much water was allocated in the past, leading to a situation where promised allocations can’t be met and the residual flow to the environmental is disastrously low. We need a policy that allows farmers positive opportunities for adaptation through the sale of water rights at a fair and acceptable price.

Update The Bonfire of the Vanities dvd

88 Minutes rip

This column was perfectly timed. On the very day it came out, Victoria caved in on allowing water sales to the Commonwealth, though South Australia still wants the remaining restrictions lifted.

One of my earliest political memories, growing up in Adelaide in the 1960s, was that of Don Dunstan advocating the construction of the last big dam on the Murray River system at Chowilla in South Australia, rather than at the eventually selected site of Dartmouth in Victoria. Dunstan pointed to the fact that, if Dartmouth were built, Adelaide’s water supply could be cute by decisions made (or at least implemented) more than a thousand kilometres upstream in Victoria. The voters agreed, and Dunstan won the 1968 election, going on to become one of Australia’s great reformers.

Dunstan remains one of my political heroes but I later came to realise that Chowilla would have been an economic and environmental disaster. And, in the early 1990s, when we seemed close to achieving a co-operative federal solution to water policy, his parochial attitude seemed inappropriate.

But now, forty years after Chowilla was abandoned, Dunstan’s concerns look more reasonable. After a decade or more of failure, Australia finally has a water policy that has at least a chance of resolving the problems of the Murray–Darling Basin, and the biggest obstacle is Victoria’s determination to hold on to as much as possible of its water.

Until recently, despite talk of state obstructionism, the big failures in water policy were at the federal level. Economists and environmentalists have long agreed that unless governments are willing to buy back some of the water rights that were created on a lavish scale, then given away over the 20th century, there is no real hope for a solution to the problems.

The Howard government, and particularly Malcolm Turnbull as Minister for Environment and Water Resources, talked a good game, but failed to deliver significant progress. The Living Murray Program and the National Water Initiative went nowhere. Howard’s final venture, the National Plan for Water Security announced in early 2007 with no apparent input from Turnbull, was a big step backwards. The $10 billion allocation (most of deferred far into the future) concealed a decision to do nothing about buying back water for fear of offending the National Party.

But water policy is one area where the Rudd government has moved beyond review and consultation and gone on to effective action. The government’s purchase of water from Toorale station and the Twynam Agricultural Group in NSW with entitlements totalling nearly 300 gigalitres has the potential to secure more water for the environment, and for flows downstream to South Australia, than all the initiatives of the Howard era put together, and at significantly lower cost.

But a lot more action is needed, and the main obstacle is in Melbourne. The Victorian government has limited sales of irrigation water out of any given district to 4 per cent of total entitlements each water trading year. This limit is often reached in the first few days of the trading year, as farmers eager to sell water rush to beat the cutoff.

Until recently, Victoria also imposed a 10 per cent limit on total transfers. This policy was dumped under political pressure from the federal government. But despite recent talk of a compromise deal, the state government has not budged on the 4 per cent limit.

Unsurprisingly, New South Wales has now announced its own limits. South Australia has responded with legal action in the High Court to challenge Victoria’s limits. NSW would do far better to join this cause than to become part of the problem.

While this bickering continues, the spectre of climate change hangs over the whole debate. The best water policy in the world will achieve nothing if there is no water. And, since 2000, inflows to the basin have fallen well below the historical average.

We can reasonably hope that, as in the past, this drought will end. But the best available climate projections suggest that, if the global climate is not stabilised, the low inflows of recent years will become the norm by 2050. Under such conditions, irrigated agriculture will be little more than a memory, and the environmental icons of the Basin will be lost forever.

Climate change is already happening and more is inevitable. If the Murray is to be saved, we must combine adaptation and mitigation. We need an international agreement to stabilise the global climate, but we must also reduce water allocations to sustainable level through voluntary purchase. If parochial interests are allowed to obstruct this outcome, the scenario imagined by Don Dunstan all those years ago will finally have come to pass.

John Quiggin is an ARC Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

10 thoughts on “Memories of Chowilla

  1. Surely an endless series of buybacks will mean the double negative of more expensive food and higher taxes. The growth industry here is not physical production but taxation. I assume that irrigation is reasonably efficient and has few gains left. I’d also question the assumption that Adelaide has an indefinite right to draw heavily on the Murray. If South Australia wants more downstream environmental flows perhaps they could extract less themselves.

    This buyback notion could be extended to coal mines and aluminium smelters; anything with an environmental taint. Somebody’s production somewhere has to make up the output shortfall and at the same time replenish the government coffers.

  2. Hermit said “Surely an endless series of buybacks will mean the double negative of more expensive food and higher taxes”

    If you are concerned about high food prices, try a Farmers Market or grow some of your own. The problem with food prices is about how the pie is divided with the supermarkets taking more than their fair share and threatening local producers with cheap imports to keep their share to a minimum.

    If you are paying taxes you are lucky as many local farmers pay little or none thanks to drought, water restrictions and the aforementioned poor prices.

    Your assertions about Adelaide’s and SA’s draw on the Murray are wrong. Even in a normal year SA’s total draw from the Murray is only about 800 GL compared with Vic’s 4000 GL and NSW’s 8000 GL.

    SA also has by far the most efficient irrigation practices bar a handful of dairy farmers. In the case of large areas of Vic and NSW, notably growing rice, cotton or beef pastures, your assumption of ‘reasonably efficient irrigation with few gains left’ is also wrong. Flood irrigation is not efficient.

    Adelaide is far ahead of other capital cities in the use of stormwater and rainwater tanks as well as recycling wastewater.

    The very minimum quoted as the extra needed for environmental flows is 1500 GL and where do you suppose SA is going to get that out of it’s 800 GL take?

    Australia is wrecking it’s own ecosystems to feed countries which are so overpopulated they can’t feed themselves. Cotton farming in Australia is poisoning the soils and rivers and makes very poor use of water. It should be grown organically under centre pivots or not at all.

  3. @Salient Green
    Well I do grow some food and I’m on rainwater tanks. Without disputing those water takeoff figures it can be pointed out that NSW and Vic also provide a lot of the tributary input for the Murray, Lachlan and Murrumbidgee irrigation areas and some of the Darling. SA provides virtually none and I’ve travelled most of the route from Chowilla to Goolwa. Neither city of Sydney nor Melbourne have been up to 60% dependent on MDB water like Adelaide has in the past though Melbourne will now siphon off one of the tributaries. I thought flood irrigation was on the way out in the middle sections of the basin.

  4. Hermit @3
    There are a lot of savings that can be made as the current irrigation systems in use are wasteful and inefficient. You have made a false assumption in regard to irrigation methods.

    It seems that you have ignored the points that Prof Q makes. NSW and Vic have far greater allocations than SA, Victoria and now perhaps NSW are limiting trade in water in their states and that there is a vast over allocation which is having dire environmental consequences.

    SA has been involved in storm water harvesting at the local level with mandated water tanks installed in all new homes plus incentive schemes for many older homes to install rainwater tanks as well. The SA government is also building a desalination plant.

    This will go some way to restore environmental flows to the Murray in SA. As the water allocation is so much less in SA than the other states there must be significant reductions in allocations in NSW and Victoria to have any significant impact at all. Without this there will be far more expensive food within a few years as no-one along the basin will be able to supply the Australian population’s needs.

  5. Hermit, the problem with the argument that this or that state contributes to the flow is that they actually don’t contribute to any of the flow. All the states do is take.
    Nature provides the rain which has produced an ecosystem as whole entity. The Coorong did not evolve because NSW, Vic or Qld contributed to the flow. Just the opposite in fact as in their ignorance and greed they have all been doing their darnedest to wreck it.
    Lastly, and I don’t like to admit it, but Adelaide produces more dollars/ML than any agriculture along the MDB,

  6. Published statistics don’t indicate trends to confirm if flood irrigation is on the way out. However supporting evidence comes from events like the closure of the Deniliquin rice mill due to lack of nearby production.

    I note Adelaide’s Pt Stanvac desal is to produce around 100 GL a year with the use gas fired electricity to be ‘offset’ by renewables. I’d guess at the moment Adelaide shows high water productivity due to high sticker price industries like car manufacturing and defence contracting. However with both water and carbon cuts on the table Adelaide must be vulnerable. Undaunted I see some in SA are calling for more UK immigrants so food supply and jobs can’t be a problem.

  7. Hermit, I think you are correct that flood irrigation is on the way out but is still a long way from being out. Trading caps such as Vic has applied and which SA is challenging in the Supreme court are a huge barrier for water licences moving from low value/ML crops to high value/ML cropping and areas. They are also a disincentive for inefficient producers to pick up their game.

    The SA state govt is captured by the growth lobby and choc full of cornucopians just like all other Australian state and federal govts past and present. Rann is a little less brown than the rest IMO.

  8. I just don’t like the main theme, of all these transactions in dispute.I cannot accept more evapo-transpiration is the problem, because what plant species or water bodies are these notions located too! ? Or is it the irrigation process at certain times of a 24 hour day the problem!? At Free Energy a Norwegian inventor has come up with some organic spray that stops fires in its tracks.Worth viewing,even if this process cannot be transposed to evaporation.I doubt wether enough research has been done really to specify evaporation as the problem,whereas dryer harder soils before any type of irrigation will be.Thus a form of watering strangulation is taking place. As boring as it can get dewpoint,seems never discussed, whilst many attempts to put the dewpoint process to work for water use,are tried and successfully overseas.And they are simple,potentially the cotton industry could use its own products to draw the moisture down.There seems a reluctance to see treated cotton sheets in a new light.Perhaps the cotton growers dont want new markets.Whilst I am definitely pro organic cotton growing,I think the problem again is actually methods involving any form of spray and fertilizer.Instead of suggesting the farmer shouldn’t be blamed for this or that, well obviously the good Professor hasn’t been insulted by them or the lazy journalists who create divisions where ever it is possible to flog something.The Prof has probably heard of the One Straw Revolution,its a pity that doesn’t apply creatively to masses of shredded newsprint,that could hold fertilizer and sprays for other problems. And it intrigues me that what seems a common sense approach to any problem anywhere is to compare problem outcomes.So we are now hearing about the problem of oestrogen from PET plastic bottles,but,even the remaining research people may not know if female hormones at some part of the growing cycle of cotton enhance water use efficiency.Finally,because you must have people who stick their necks out beyond the claims and counter claims of this and that,in that,there may well be an advantage for cotton growers in evaporative rates going up,if, the phenomena undergoes further observation,after all it is released water at a temperature,not a dead loss as far as recoverable moisture is concerned…and like a blowfly buzzing around for a repeat performance.Vortex tube or Hilsch tube technology already exists in Australia,as does imported Snow making equipment up in the mountains.What does it take to build a robot that can go along and drop a cooling cover over growing cotton plants,and leech out slowly any fertilizer or other safe use chemical!? And at night heat the micro climate around the individual plant!? Don’t ask me- I dont think! And I suspect now why economists,without much emphasis on the mist,and others outside the real show,plant physiology, are getting top billing.It remains an excuse to count big bucks to either claim as asset or losing the big bucks assets.Whereas silly little cotton plants only need to maximise their potential to achieve the planned outcome of their use! And plants can indeed be sprayed with cooling air,but at what cost and how to stop their need for excessive water guzzling, which may not be a problem of heat and sunshine,but the ranges of wavelengths and infrared spectrum and ultraviolet..which can be applied at night for durations.After all there are tropisms and how to use them effectively for water use reduction,and full cotton use.I would love to see someone produce a ground laying cover type material based on cotton and alfoil type stuff.You can get this material in socks and gloves,through direct marketing…I am sure with the right design approach this material could be used on farm at very low cost,perhaps made on farm, and tested to see if can help across the day night cycle and dewpoint matters.Or with the Vortex Tube from Exair. One last crazy notion for the road,with deep apologies to the Prof., if others cannot take tis seriously.From moments of matters of communication jamming came the idea of floating certain reflective material in the atmosphere so radar didn’t know what was going on..Evaporation rates happen at certain temperatures within the ground level sun activity domain..radar use normally has its upper and lower limitations of temperature gradients,depending on design power and the atmospheric matters of radar signal sending.So if reflective material was blowing around in a highly evaporative humid condition and was being traced by radar..would the evaporation process actually continue,or speed up or would water droplets speed down to ground level!?Silver iodide is used in cloud seeding!? This has been very difficult to express,and, is simply speculation…without much confidence in expressing these thoughts.New approaches to old problems have to start somewhere.

  9. Phillip, transpiration is a necessary process in plants. There are sprays of oils or polymers which reduce transpiration in special circumstances but they reduce growth. Losing water is a ncessary cost.

    The issue of water efficiency involve losses from evaporation and losses from water going past the root zone of the crop.

    Evaporation losses can occur from dams, open channels and the field. Losses in the field are very much higher from flood irrigation than low level sprinklers or drippers and much higher during the day and when it’s windy.

    Losses past the root zone occur from uneven water application and overwatering.

    Uneven application occurs in flood irriagtion where it takes time for the water to flow from the application point, (pipe, channel) where much more water soaks in while getting enough water at the end of the furrow. It also occurs when sprinklers overlap each other too much in a poorly designed system and when large high sprinklers are used in windy conditions.

    Overwatering occurs when there is a lack of knowledge of soils and the irrigation system application rate. Clay soils hold enormous amounts of water but hold much of it too tightly for plants to extract. Sandy soils hold little water but give it up easily. A grower must know exactly what type of soil he has and how much water it will hold and take and deliver and tailor the irrigation system and frequency of irrigating to the relationship between the crop, it’s water needs and root depth, and the soils in the field.

    It will never be an exact science but open channels and flood watering is positively prehistoric.

  10. @Hermit

    You should take a look at the Darling if you think NSW “contributes” something to it. I recently drove to Adelaide across the Barrier Highway. At Nyngan I crossed the Bogan, a healthy river full of water. It flows directly into the Darling about 200 km further north, just above Bourke. Then the Darling flows another 350 km or more south to Wilcannia where the “lake” above the weir is a milky grey colour and the water level is well below the feet of the rotting old wharf of the former port. Then I had dinner at the Wilcannia Golf Club and looked at the old photos on the walls of what the river used to look like before the cotton industry – like when Resch started his brewery there and paddle steamers visited and they held regattas on the river. You’d be lucky to get a kayak along the river nowadays.

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