Bismarck is supposed to have said that for the sake of digestion and peace of mind, one should never watch the process by which either sausages or legislation is made. Certainly that’s true of the Draft Basin Plan released by the Murray Darling Basin Authority a few days ago.
What was supposed to be an evidence-based analysis aimed at determining sustainable outcomes was derailed by poor communications and legalistic processes. The botched release of the Guide to the plan last year produced an outpouring of fear and outrage among irrigators who were repeatedly told that their water allocations would be “cut”. The Government rapidly abandoned the process and engaged in the political bargaining that has produced a new plan, of which the most prominent feature is a proposed environmental water allocation of 2750 gigalitres (or perhaps less) well below the 3000 to 4000 GL suggested in the Guide as the minimum necessary for a sustainable outcome.
The process by which this outcome was reached wasn’t pretty and, unsurprisingly, no one is happy about it (I had my dummy-spit a fair while ago). But, considered as a political compromise, the outcome isn’t all that bad. If the 2750 GL total holds, the environmental allocation will be around 25 per cent of the median flow – that’s comparable to what the Snowy got in the deal brokered by Craig Ingram in 2009. It’s a lot better than seemed possible even seven years ago, when politicians could barely agree on measures to return 500 GL, and a suggestion of 1500 was ruled out of court before it was even studied.
Thanks to the Water for the Future program, something like 1700 GL of average flow has already been (re)purchased from irrigators who have been happy to sell. If the government pursues this path, they could declare victory in a few years time and abandon the costly boondoggles involved in subsidising supposedly water-saving engineering projects.