Murray-Darling Plan Doomed to Fail

That’s the conclusion of a recent depressing report from the Wentworth Group. There is, of course, an “unless”, but having spent decades of my professional life on this issue, I can’t say I’m hopeful. Certainly, there’ll be no progress under the current government, as this issue is now part of the culture wars. Whether Labor will do any better, I don’t know. Here’s the comment I provided to the Australian Science Media Centre.

The depressing outcomes reported by the Wentworth Group are the inevitable result of the policy decision to abandon buybacks, that is, the voluntary purchase of water entitlements from irrigators who are willing to sell those entitlements. Buybacks are by far the most cost-effective method of securing additional water for the environment as well as providing a direct benefit to farmers, who can use the proceeds to reinvest in dryland agriculture or to assist a transition out of agriculture. The abandonment of buybacks, combine with a failure to address the needs of irrigation-focused communities in the Basin represents the worst of all policy worlds.

30 thoughts on “Murray-Darling Plan Doomed to Fail

  1. Buybacks as the only way to give people a second chance at doing the right thing. Many irrigators take up too much water rights to the detriment of the environment. Just look at the large MIA rivers and anabranches. It is little wionder that Adelaide misses out on water quality.

  2. As I understand the water is over-allocated – the present allocations could not be honoured if every farmer decide to use his/her entitlement. The difference between available water and entitled is ghost water, it does not exist. So why buy it back? Use the money to make water use more efficient.

    What is needed is water to flow to the Murray mouth. That is an essential component of water quality.

  3. Excuse my ignorance in this question. Are they really buybacks? Did the farmers;

    (a) pay initially for the entitlements (for a set period or in perpetuity)? and
    (b) pay a fair combined market / environmental price?

    Or, were these buybacks just another disguised or not so disguised subsidy to the rural sector or rather those leaving it?

    If the buybacks were just another disguised subsidy, were they justifiable in any case on environmental and/or social or compassionate grounds?

    Why was the buyback model abandoned? Could the government not afford it? I mean bearing in mind they could afford to waste billions in unnecessary wars half way round the world.

    I am sort of puzzled as to why Australia can do nothing right for about the last 20 years, except maybe Labor’s post-GFC pump-priming of the economy which actually worked… while it lasted. Look elsewhere and it’s a string of failures: Murray – Darling, GHGs, Power , Water, NBN and close to home here Brisbane’s train system. Oh and all the toll roads and… and education and… I am sure people could add several more failures.

    Ye gods, what a mess neoliberalism has made. It has nothing to show but a horrendous string of failures.

  4. As noted on this blog in the past, the original entitlements were free gifts that indeed should never have been made. But they are a sunk cost; it does not affect the efficiency case for the government paying to take back the gift. Unfair it may perhaps be, but it is far the cheapest way to ensure Adelaide does not have to drink salt water.

    Not for the first time, Ikonoclast, you’re blaming neoliberalism for something that really is not it’s fault; it’s old fashioned rural socialism that is the problem here.

  5. With water entitlements, both rural and urban, when we’re in drought, it’s Oh My God, Nothing is More Important, and it’s rush, rush, rush to implement a half-baked structural solution which not surprisingly runs up against a torrent (pun intended) of resistance. When we’re not in drought, it’s Meh, We’ll Worry About it Later.

  6. You’re both right, Derrida and Ikonoclast. Derrida, yes the gifting of marketable rights to irrigators who had non-marketable licences should by itself have been a public scandal; not anticipating that the government might later have to buy some back was a failure of public policy on a large scale. But Ikonoclast is also right in that the entire National Water Initiative model with its imposition of market forces as a centrepiece was deeply flawed. Markets should have been simply one tool in the toolkit available to a prudent coordinator, instead of being viewed as a universal solution. The neoliberal reformers conflated economic efficiency (as measured by price) with resource effectiveness (an NRM issue).

    It’s going to be very hard to unscramble the egg, but my view is that the centralisation inherent in the Plan was ill considered. The solutions to sustainable management are going to be locality and even property specific. There needs to be strategic planning sub-catchment by sub-catchment (as well as overall) and funding of feasible paths to implement the plans. It is not obvious that Canberra is better situated to do this than the individual states under central collaboration (as distinct from central direction).

    On a related topic, governments are paying dearly for the dismantling of district farm advisors and other public servants ā€“ and the under-funding of NRM bodies ā€“ who could have been agents to facilitate transitions as policy changed. These budget cuts have been visited upon the public services under the name of neoliberal reforms. Now governments don’t even have the capacity to implement plans, let alone decide what plans ought to be implemented.

  7. @Geoff Edwards

    Yes, the neoliberal plan has been to starve the government administration’s brain of judgement and talent (remove independent public service heads, cut technical staff) and chop off the government’s arms (various arms of administration). Then, after they do that, they say “See, look how useless the government is!” It’s designed and intentional self-fulfilling prophecy. The neoliberal-corporate goal is the removal of democratic government (other than as a fig-leaf vestige and rubber stamp) and its replacement by corporate capitalist control of legislature, economy and society.

  8. John, buyback of entitlements was potentially the best way of dealing gradually with too much irrigation in the over allocated Murray-Darling Basin but the intentions of buyback were seriously compromised in the implementation of the Plan by not accounting properly for the spatial nature of irrigation networks, and not having a clear plan or process by which (randomly) purchased water would be used for environmental purposes. Unfortunately, the political environmental movement was (and still is) prepared to go along with massive and ill-conceived investment in on-farm and off-farm irrigation infrastructure, apparently in the mistaken belief that such completely unwarranted expenditure would placate the much more experienced pro-irrigation lobby, and worse still, save water for the ‘environment’, which is far too often thought of merely in terms of flows. The result is the bipartisan backsliding that we have observed in recent months. Best Al.

  9. On the radio today irrigators in NSW were whinging that they weren’t able to EXPAND water usage. Profit,profit,profit.

  10. Just like the Great Barrier Reef. Two of Australia’s icons (enviromental, social, economic, traditional) let slip away by the current government’s inaction. Similar too as the GBR got a water quality plan by 2003 (courtesy of Robert Hill – a “good” Liberal for the environment) which showed some promise but has now failed, and the MD Basin also a half-decent plan now failing.

  11. We’ve got what is probably a second-best governance framework for the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) but run by fourth-best Commonwealth and State water ministers. However the situation is much better than it would have been without reform. With Commonwealth spending of over $10 billion dollars, we have achieved better environmental outcomes than we would have had under the old system. Not a great cost-benefit ratio, but there are benefits. The Commonwealth Environment Water Holder is now a major player in the system and has a lot of power. The Murray Darling Basin Authority is doing good work.
    A lot more needs to be done to make the riverine eco-systems more healthy, and more work needs to be done to support the MDB communities in dealing with the many changes/challenges they are facing.
    But the basic governance structures are reasonable, and I don’t think Barnaby Joyce will be able to unpick them. With a Commonwealth Labor Water Minister we could see a major turnaround in the Basin. A good water minister in NSW would also help.

  12. When I purchased my Mypolonga, SA orchard 28 years ago we had an hourly allocation based on the size and type of plantings. Irrigation was by open concrete channels on a weekly cycle. The channels leaked like sieves. Previously to the weekly cycle, irrigation was on a fortnightly cycle and plantings were severely over-watered to avoid moisture stress.
    Just before our system was pipelined a few years later, hourly allocations were converted to volume, necessary for accurate metering of consumption. These ML allocations were well in excess of what anyone, even the worst irrigators were using at the time. The excess was deemed as encouragement and reward for increasing efficiencies and the excess water was marketable.
    Until the buybacks, most of this excess allocation remained in the river except in time of restrictions when they became a valuable factor in ‘carryover’ to avoid having to buy in extra water.
    While buybacks purchased a lot of water that went into the river anyway in good times, they also funded the retirement of entire properties, improved irrigation practices and replanting to more water efficient and valuable plantings.
    Plenty of waste but also plenty of good.
    When buybacks hit the wall they must be followed up with infrastructure improvements. Pipelining of the incredibly wasteful open channels in Vic and NSW should always have been a priority but even more so now and as well as taking a lot less water from the rivers, will trigger a few more retirements due to the extra irrigation costs.

  13. @Salient Green
    I doubt you’ll read this, but I moved to the Murray at Barooga to retire and it ASTOUNDS me how many channels are open to the elements. I remember yr 9 Science and learning about the water cycle and the greenhouse effect in the 60s. Apparently it was all fake science.

  14. @Kel Young
    Hi Kel, we have friends at Echuca just down river a bit from you and it astounds me too.

    It astounds me that NSW and Vic irrigators who use stone age flood irrigation delivered by ditches (some of which are nearly as wide as the Murrumbidgee), have the gall to call for less environmental water, ensuring continued environmental degradation of the MDB, rather than move into the 21st century with all the benefits of centre pivot and lateral move systems.

  15. @Ikonoclast
    Definitely suited to vineyards, orchards and some vegetable growing, especially in greenhouses. Poor use of water is less likely when growing these crops anyway.
    It is broadacre cropping where most inefficient irrigation practices and low $/ML occur such as pastures, rice and cotton. Pipelined delivery infrastructure and large traveling irrigators will help.

  16. Israel is doing fine despite having only a fraction of the amount of water (per person) as Australia, and at a cost that is insignificant for a rich country. Drip irrigation + using recycled water in agriculture.

  17. Just a heads-up, but israeli official figures are prone to using multiple, conflicting definitions of “israel” that render any aggregates and averages kind of meaningless and useless. You should be extremely careful using them to support any kind of point as they may not be able to bear the weight.

    Specifically: israeli economic performance looks vastly better than it actually is because large swathes of the population and economy living under israeli authority is excluded.

    [remember: systemic problems in a set of figures will not be revealed by examining that set of figures. You need to look externally for verification — numbers do not prove their own reliability — and “externally” for “official government statistics” is “anecdotal evidence”.]

  18. @Collin Street
    I don’t think that’s right. Israeli statistics include residents of the State of Israel (which by Israel’s definition include parts of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights) and also the Jewish settlers in the West Bank. That’s an unusual definition, but it’s nonetheless a well defined category. There are separate figures for the Palestinian population in the West Bank and for the Palestinians in the Gaza strip. In any case, Israel is clearly a world leader in efficient use of water and in cost effective desalination, and Australia can learn some things from Israel in this area (and teach Israel some other things in other areas…)

  19. Whatever the facts about Israeli data, international comparisons of irrigation practices are irrelevant to the water policy choices confronting Australia.

  20. @Alistair Watson

    As I always say “water ain’t water”, because it is too heavy to move from one place to other, except downhill, or over very short distances. Every unhappy water catchment is unhappy in its own way.

  21. Developments in irrigation have been driven by a scarcity and/or cost of water and Israel, Australia and the US have been in the forefront of those developments. Each region has its own particulars – in Australia much of the water simply dissipates into the desert – a function of topography and climate.

    But thats not the end of it, there are many other variables that contribute to availability of good water. The evidence appears to indicate that despite relatively minor interventions in Australia the water is drying up. Despite production far exceeding domestic consumption irrigators will continue to be an unhappy lot.

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