The problems of the Murray Darling Basin have been developing for more than a century. I’ve been working on this issue for 30 years, during which, despite a series of policy initiatives too long to list, the situation in the Basin has got worse in most (not all) respects. So, it’s not surprising that the attempt to provide a comprehensive plan for the future involves a drawn-out process. The big question (which the Risk and Sustainable Management Group at UQ will be addressing in a workshop later this month) is: Have we finally got it right?
My general view is optimistic. If the politics can be negotiated, and if the government is willing to spend around $5 billion on buying back overallocated water rights, we can probably reach a solution that is economically, environmentally and socially sustainable.
The Draft Plan proposes a reduction in water use for irrigation of between 3000 and 4000 Gigalitres (GL). That range reflects two fairly tight constraints. Anything less than 3000 GL won’t achieve environmental sustainability. Anything more would imply unacceptably large impacts on irrigated agriculture.
Here’s the rough arithmetic on the irrigation side, which is broadly consistent with the modelling done by my Group, some of which was used along with research by ABARE in preparing the draft plan. A 30 per cent cut in water use will result in a 15 per cent reduction in the gross value of agricultural output, and a smaller reduction in net returns to farmers.
The big change required to achieve this kind of reduction in water use is a shift from irrigated rice production to dryland agriculture. Since yields on irrigated lands are much higher that will imply a reduction in our total grains output. Still the impact is much smaller than, for example, the effect of the current overvaluation (relative to long-run value) of the Australian dollar.
Importantly, although the changes in the Draft Plan have been referred to as “cuts in allocations” this is incorrect. Although the National Water Initiative proposed cuts where water resources had been over-allocated in the past, the Draft Plan calls for the entire reduction in water use to be treated as a change in government policy, meaning that the Commonwealth will bear the cost. It’s already been made clear that this reduction will be achieved entirely by voluntary buybacks and conservation measures.
While there are some opportunities for conservation, the most cost-effective mechanism in most case is buying back entitlements. Now that the drought has broken, I’d guess the likely price for entitlements will be around $1500/ML suggesting a cost of buyback (or similarly cost-effective conservation) of between $4.5 billion and $6 billion. It’s not clear whether buybacks that have already taken place will be counted towards this. There’s enough money allocated to the National Water Plan/Water for the Future to cover this cost, though most of it is currently earmarked for on-farm works.