Water is heavy

I just did an interview with ABC Radio Lismore about the latest proposal to divert water from the Clarence River to the Murray Darling Basin. Apart from the environmental effects (disastrous according to the studies I’ve seen) proponents of ideas like this seem to be unaware of a crucial fact. Water is heavy. A megalitre of water (worth maybe $200 as bulk supply to irrigators) weighs 1000 tonnes. Pumping that much mass over even a low mountain range is prohibitively expensive. You can overcome that with tunnels if the gradients are steep enough, but the Great Dividing Range is pretty broad in Northern NSW.

And, don’t get me started on the really crazy projects like Colin’s Canal.

90 thoughts on “Water is heavy

  1. @Jack Strocchi
    Hi Jack, i know what you mean here, it is clumsy but the kilogram is the unit to use unfortunately. 1 gram is just too small. Back when they were defining these things they should have said a litre of water weighed 1 gram, but now we’re stuck with it. All the other SI derivatives are based on the kilogram.

    For instance,
    1 Newton = 1 kilogram * metre / (second * second)
    1 Joule = 1 kilogram *metre * metre / (second * second)
    1 Watt = 1 kilogram *metre * metre / (second * second * second)
    1 Pascal = 1 kilogram * metre * metre * metre / (second * second)

    Just think “kg” and forget about what the “k” stands for. It’s the only thing that lets me sleep at night.

  2. @Alice

    Perhaps you would like a nice little modern nuclear reactor to push the water uphill Fran?

    Yes because it is better than using coal, which is what we do now.

    Or perhaps you would rather an efficient pricing model to ensure that the poor can’t afford hydration

    Strawfigure. We are discussing irrigation and industrial usage, not drinking.

    You claim to be “leftist” ha, yet you also push nuclear

    They aren’t mutually exclusive. Leftists once “pushed” coal. Coal mining was filled with targets of leftist sympathy. Now some leftists are pushing something better than coal.

    you also push market pricing models

    Yes. One of the reasons we have a money-based system is that the transaction costs are less than is the case than with barter. It makes sense for money to be a medium of value exchange and a mechanism for rationing scarce goods. Equity needs to inform who has the purchasing power of course. Some benefits are of course best delivered in kind. What we must do of course is to prevent free riders, which brings me to …

    you also rail against people “pilfering” water on the way down.

    Quite right. The water belongs not to individuals but the commons. The water pilferers are stealing from the public and in a more direct sense, from others who are complying with the rules.

    Hope you have a big enough security and police force when market solutions come in for water.

    I rather suspect that unviable farms will simply leave the trade, and therewith the incentive to steal water will decline.

    What other market solutions do you offer in the name of “leftist views” and “rightist efficiency” Fran?

    I’m in favour of efficiency in meeting human need, which is also equitable but hardly rightist. Good policy entails good accounting and if using pricing is low in transaction cost and is compatible with equity, then I say let’s do it. We will hopefully do this with CO2 so why not with water?

    Rational public policy is econoimically and environmentally maintainable, matches public goods closely with legitimate human claims in a timely way, does so with the minimum labour power required and without imposing unreasonable negative externalities on third parties. I don’t find that the least bit rightist and I imagine most rightists would be appalled if such were the way government worked.

  3. @Ronald Brak

    I was wondering if water could be shipped in to Adelaide from Tasmania.

    We can effectively do that already and it’s not very expensive (unlike desalination). i.e. pipe water from the Forth River in Tasmania to Melbourne’s water supply system and then use some of Melbourne’s current supply to feed water to the Murray which won’t require a lot of pumping or tunnelling.

    Obviously this would include turning off pumping from the Goulbourn River to Melbourne, an idea foisted on us by the brain-dead morons who run the Victorian Government. Also, water can be sent from the Thompson dam through the Great Divide to the Goulbourn River as Ken Davidson at “The Age” keeps pointing out.

  4. @Tony G
    Please explain why water flows by gravity from the Upper Warrego all the way to Adelaide about 1800kms (as the river flows) with only 240m fall ( 0.25km drop). I do not believe your 1 km for 750km hypothesis

    Tony G, you raise a good point. Also, the Nile is really really long and it doesn’t drop much. I’ll have to reconsider my position on the physics of this.

    I still don’t agree with your scheme on environmental grounds. I like natural flows. It makes the country more interesting if some of it is wild. The unending cultivated fields of Europe depress me. Where is the adventure in such a world?

  5. 409m of lift would be required just to get over the great divide to the Flinders River. From there it still has to get to the Thompson and then the Warrego.

    Getting to the Thompson from the Flinders is not too difficult but it is a loooooong way from the Thompson to the Warrego without any existing watercourse running in that direction.

  6. @Fran Barlow
    Fran – very interesting but I dont buy your proposed solutions or your claimed “leftist” politics.

    What sort of rubbish is this “I rather suspect that unviable farms will simply leave the trade, and therewith the incentive to steal water will decline”.

    Thats nice. Have you asked them where they will go? On to unemployment benefits and on to public transport (because according to your prior road prising models Fran – these displaced farmers/irrangators wont be able to afford to drive on our “user pays’ roads.

    Your type are dreaming Fran Barlow (and you call yourself leftist – about as “leftist” as our own dearly less than beloved Anna Bligh is my suggestion to you – and this is what you are dreaming about – that after you have have put down all your user pays systems and implemented all your “efficiencies” based on rubbish costings and “marginal farmers should be given incentives to get off the land and join city centrelink queue” policies – and you assume they will nicely be mobile and move to the nearest demand centre or they will queue in line at Centrelink and wont bother anyone.

    Ludicrous and transparent… but to promote yourself as”leftist” here is the gravest of all insults to anyone who is even centrist, let alone of real left sympathies.

    Go home Fran Barlow. Leftist in your dreams and our nightmares.

  7. @Alice

    Fran – very interesting but I don’t buy your proposed solutions or your claimed “leftist” politics.

    Then it’s just as well I’m not reliant on selling them to you. As you claim to be neither right nor left, I’m putting you in the confused category. Certainly, you are in no position to evaluate my left crfedentials.

    You quote me:

    Thats nice. Have you asked them where they will go?

    That’s none of my business. Perhaps they will work on viable farms. Most of them have skills and there are shoratges of skilled labour. I like the idea of people getting training and becoming land stewards, with a right to live on their ex-land.

    then comment:

    I rather suspect that unviable farms will simply leave the trade, and therewith the incentive to steal water will decline

    “marginal farmers should be given incentives to get off the land and join city centrelink queue”

    Now you are verballing me in a medium where people can see that you are verballing me. This underscores what happens when people get emotionally invested. You need to stop lying to make points.

    Take a deep breath and exhale several times. After you have done that perhaps you will be fit to post. You can start with an apology for lying openly about what I said.

  8. By the way Alice, this is now the second time in quick succession that you have misrepresented someone without any cause beyond your animus towards their ideas.

    Ethical people don’t do that. You should reflect on that.

  9. @Fran Barlow
    says, as a solution to people who no longer canm afford water rights for their waterless land..” I like the idea of people getting training and becoming land stewards, with a right to live on their ex-land.”

    Nice but what market system do you propose will pay people to stay on as stewards on their drought stricken unproductive land they no longer own because they cant afford the water?

    Wouldnt the government be better off decreeing it a national park and letting the Koalas be the “land stewards” Fran?
    Thats how it will go.

  10. @Fran Barlow
    and actually speaking of being verballed Fran this comment belongs squarely to you

    “I rather suspect that unviable farms will simply leave the trade, and therewith the incentive to steal water will decline”

    What I suggested was leave to where? You dont know where. You dont even know they will leave. You dont even know whether they will just seek centrelink benefits in the town they have lived in all their life. You make assumptions that people can move, that they can relocate, that they can retrain, that they can remain as “land stewards” on land they dont own and you have no idea who will pay them ?(government or market) – none of them valid. They wont get paid.

    Across the US right now there exist people who cannot leave thir homes despite having no job or one job loss in a two income family. To do so would crustallise their loss and they are grimly trying to hang on to their family home and avoid foreclosure despite loss of income.

    Structural unemployment is said by the IMF to have risen by almost a dogged 1 % due to this inability and unwillingness to relocate. Can you blame them for being inflexible? Id say they are being perfectly rational.
    Your ideas of people being able to give up, walk away and happily retrain somewhere and slot in where demand is, are just as nutty as any neoliberals Ive heard. You dont have a clue of all the uneconomic (and many economic) reaons why people try to stay exactly where they are, despite losing their income. Maybe their wife is a schoolteacher and still has a job. Maybe their entire family has lived in the town for generations. Maybe their dog isnt accepted to a retirement home. Maybe they have a new grandhild. Maybe they only just escaped life in an expensive city and this was all they could afford. The world is full of maybes Fran, not just costings and fully portable people.

  11. Re Sam @ 29

    “I still don’t agree with your scheme on environmental grounds. ”

    I am not proposing opening vast new tracks of land to irrigation. We already have the agricultural Murray Darling basin. We need to increase or maintain the yields in that food bowl, give Adelaide more water and stop the river dying with a constant environmental flow.

    Chris ‘O @ 28

    The Bradfield Scheme was about irrigating Western Queensland, not getting water into the Warrego (Murray Darling). if anything Bradfields water heads to Coopers Corner and the Cooper River. Your 409m lift is required to get water over the ranges into to the Flinders river which would then flow into the Gulf of Carpentaria or be dammed and pumped into the Coopers River.

    Once you have the Tully and Herbert rivers feed by gravity into the Burdekin there is no necessity to pump to the Flinders. If you want to get water into the Upper Warrego from the Burdekin; a tunnel or open cut can draw it by gravity from the Belyando river the short distance to the Upper Warrego.

    Bradfield recommended “further investigations should be undertaken to accurately estimate the cost and feasibility”……” This included aerial surveys, accurate measurements of heights, river flow measurements, more detailed investigation of dam sites as well as geological and engineering investigations.”

    Maybe the costs did warrant “pumping’ water into the Flinders, perhaps Bradfield thought Western Queensland would be a food bowl one day.

    Pumping would not be necessary to get the water into the Warrego and it is a different proposition to what Bradfield was looking to do. It is theoretically possible to gravity feed the Tully, Herbert, Burdekin and Belyando Rivers into the Warrego and as such the long term benefits and low ongoing running costs would far out weigh the capital costs of building it.

  12. @Tony G

    f you want to get water into the Upper Warrego from the Burdekin; a tunnel or open cut can draw it by gravity from the Belyando river the short distance to the Upper Warrego.

    So you think you can make the Belyando flow backwards from its junction with the Burdekin. Riiiiiiiight.

  13. Whilst I realise the idea is to catch water from flood rains in a dam in the upper Clarence, normal flows aren’t that huge. If impressions of the Clarence being a “Big River” may be justified down near Grafton, above Tabulam the entire flow most of the time could run through a 1m dia pipe with plenty of room to spare. I’ve walked across it at Paddy’s Flat numerous times, nearer to where dams for this purpose have been suggested and it’s often barely above ankle depth at a well used 4WD vehicle crossing there (no need for a bridge). During drought it doesn’t flow at all. It’s role as saviour of the Murray Darling, especially during dry times, seems dubious even without getting into the economics. Perhaps we should be talking about tilting the country as the Chaser team suggested, to get more water flowing west? As they could attest, these ‘schemes’ don’t need to have any basis in reality to be able to tap into the dreams of turning desert into productive farmland. Perhaps (tilting at or with) thousands of windmills…?

  14. I also liked Tony G’s idea of making the Belyando flow backwards for its 600 km length uphill all the way! You would have to dam off all the tributaries such as Native Companion and Mistake Creeks so water didn’t go up the wrong branch, maybe temporarily only to allow wet season flows to still flow in the opposite direction to help fill the Burdekin Falls Dam (BFD). Of course you could build a pipe/tunnel all the way from Koombaloomba (or maybe more sensibly the BFD, a large reservoir with considerable spare water at present) to the upper Warrego but to take advantage of the gradient this would have to be underground most of the way i.e. about 1000 km. This would make the tunnel opened under the Alps yesterday (I think maybe 50 km?), which cost many billions of euros and 15 years to build, look like a minor project. For a more ‘sensible’ option, although still with many problems, why not look at a dam on the southern Dawson River in the Fitzroy catchment (i.e. the Nathan dam proposal) near Taroom which is, at least, a relatively short distance from the Warrego (100s of km not 1000s). I’m sure the proponents of the dam, a private company, would love to sell water to the MD at a reasonable cost! – especially since the water was to be used for coal mines – that low value industry which shouldn’t be difficult to compete on price with.

  15. Something interesting on the realities of the Murray Darling allocation system by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. His recently published book is CSIRO Perfidy.:

    Who crippled the Murray-Darling basin

    Some excerpts:

    The fruit industry, according to a 2004 CSIRO report used 2.6 percent of water extracted in the basin. The vegetable industry is even smaller at about half that … 1.3 percent. The four biggest users were, in order, dairy (34 percent), cotton (24 percent) and rice (16 percent) and beef (7 percent).


    Between 1995 and 2000, there was a huge expansion in water extraction in the basin starting at a baseline of 9,300 billion litres and rising to 12,000 billion litres. The current figure is a little higher at 13,700 billion. Some 1,700 of that 2,700 billion litre increase was for the dairy industry, and about 700 billion extra for cotton with rice and grapes picking up a couple of hundred billion each. By 2000/1 the dairy industry was using about 9 times more water than fruit and vegetables combined.


    The dairy industry got a 1,700 billion litre increase, bringing its total water use to 4,200 billion litres, while the fruit industry got a 67 billion litre increase to bring its total to just 310 billion litres.


    The Guide to the Basin report lists the maximum inflow to the basin’s rivers as 117,907 billion litres in 1956 and the minimum of just 6,740 billion litres in 2006. The last 15 years have seen the lowest flows in over 100 years of record keeping at Wentworth near Mildura with an average during the past decade well below that of the long term average.

    Interesting stuff.

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