The Lower Darling: a government-made disaster

Federal Government last night released an independent interim assessment of the recent fish deaths. The report is damning, but you wouldn’t know that reading the press release from the relevant minister, David Littleproud.

Here’s my response, which I provided to the Australian Science Media Centre

The Report clearly describes the “antecedent conditions” which made the Lower Darling so vulnerable to large-scale fish deaths, all of which reflect policy failures of the current government: These include increased upstream extractive use of water, the decision to release water from Menindie Lakes in 2016 and the extreme climatic conditions which are the “new normal” as a result of climate change. The Minister’s statement ignores all of these factors, and focuses only on the immediate causes of the disaster.


The government has rejected water buybacks as a means of increasing flow, ignored environmental concerns in the management of the Menindie Lakes and rejected any action to mitigate climate change. This was a human-made disaster, for which the present government bears substantial responsibility.

50 thoughts on “The Lower Darling: a government-made disaster

  1. Clearly, Australia needs to REDUCE its agricultural production or parts thereof. If current levels of production, especially irrigated production, are non-sustainable in ecological terms, then the patently obvious requirement is to reduce production. Claimed efficiency gains just seem to evaporate, pun intended. Water extractions are entirely “non-fungible”, it says in the relevant literature. As a non-economist, I take this to mean that agricultural water needs cannot be replaced by any other resource or material. In addition, ecological water needs cannot be replaced by any other resource or material.

    The over-production and excessive exporting of Australia agricultural products must stop. The arrant nonsense that Australia can be “the food bowl of Asia”, is exactly that… arrant nonsense. In ecological and sustainability terms, we have barely enough water to support our current population of 25 million.

    Economics (capitalist economics) CANNOT be permitted to make the leading decisions about overall production amounts nor about overall extraction amounts. These decisions must be made by science and science only, with margins of allowance in favor of the environment, not in favor of production, to allow for scientific error and uncertainty. Market economics has a secondary role after the primary decisions are made scientifically.

    This is exactly the same as the case for reducing coal use. Too much production and burning of coal damages climate and environment. Too much extraction of water damages environment and even to some extent local or micro-climates. These sort of considerations illustrate that far from growth being the answer, de-growth for certain strategic sectors of the economy is the only sustainable answer, in particular controlled de-growth of the fossil fuel and agricultural sectors. Fossil fuel use must be phased out altogether. Water use must be reduced. Irrigated crops in particular must be reduced.

    Controlled de-growth will be challenging. Uncontrolled growth followed by uncontrolled collapse (the one naturally follows the other) will be catastrophic on our arid continent. We have few reserves and little margin for error now. The entire continent is already seriously degraded.

  2. Alatair, What do you have vin mind instead of a plan? What are the lvers? How would usage be managed?

  3. I just bought $62k’worth of UNMETERED water (hypothetically)! Anonymous Irrigator.

    UNMETERED EASYWATER Water
    Anon Irrig Said… not us. And read my next comment re how long this has been going on for…

    I agree many humans involved in producing my food – thanks – are great. But is there any double dutch irish sandwiches,? Who pays for all that capital – hint – Blackrock. Bond holders?

    And I just bought $62k’worth of UNMETERED water! What the expletive really is going on? Care to explain? Please.

    “EASYWATERWater AllocationsSchedule of ChargesPricing CalculatorContracts

    ENTER DETAILS
    How many connections (access points) to the network do you have?

    Please select the design size of your connections:Connection

    1:– Please select –UnmeteredMechanical

    2:– Please select –UnmeteredMechanical

    How many DEs do you hold?

    What is your forecast usage for the season (including any unmetered allocation)?

    Calculate Price

    COST SUMMARY
    Fixed Charges 3132
    Usage Charges 59346
    Total 62478

    https://www.mirrigation.com.au/Pricing-Calculator/Calculator

    https://www.mirrigation.com.au/Shareholders/Shareholders
    Shareholder Fact Sheets
     Company meetings
     Constitution
     Directors and the board
     Register of foreign ownership
     Shareholder resolutions
     Shares and shareholders

    “We are one of the largest private irrigation companies in Australia serving over 3,260 landholdings owned by over 2,300 shareholder customers”

    Q. Does one company hold 960 landholdings?
    Q. Drop in employment on irrigated landholdings?
    Q. I was going to ask about ——-rate above national average, but you may find the question abrasive or triggering. I’ll ask in a round about way … how many calls to L—line? Does M

    AND Murrumbidgee Irrigation or same directors, different guises, have FIVE people here: “The Murrumbidgee Customer Advisory Group: “exchange information with WaterNSW so that a positive, constructive and efficient service provider/customer relationship can be maintained.”
    https://www.waternsw.com.au/customer-service/feedback/groups/murrumbidgee-cag

    Skew wiff. Please explain.

  4. Ikon. I searched too and.. cry. Keyword: determinism**

    MDBA must BE GONE. And wiers. And itrigators ”

    “exchange(ing) information with WaterNSW so that a positive, constructive and efficient service provider/customer relationship can be maintained.”

    “Yarrawonga Weir wins 2018 Collings Trophy as River Murray’s best

    “The judges also praised the structure refurbishment and new security fencing at the Lake Victoria inlet regulator, and work being done to rehabilitate the lock chambers at Torrumbarry and Overland Corner.””

    https://www.mdba.gov.au/media/mr/yarrawonga-weir-wins-2018-collings-trophy-river-murrays-best

    Here is the mdba problem. I can’t bold or italisize etc so I’ll just para mark…

    “Senator JS Collings Trophy

    “”The Senator JS Collings Trophy is awarded annually to the most effectively maintained asset in the River Murray system. The award was established to acknowledge the contribution made by lock managers and their staff in taking good care of the weir and lock structures, and in making improvements to their surrounding areas–including beautification schemes and bank protection works.””

    https://www.mdba.gov.au/river-information/running-river-murray

    They were beautification-ing waaay back… Here  is Collings in his heyday. And we took 76 YEARS to have a royal commision! 

    “Newspapers: Browse  Murray Pioneer (Renmark, SA : 1942 – 1950) 
     Thu 20 May 1943 Page 1 

    “” MURRAY COMMISSION
    TOURS RIVER
    ! Locks Inspected by
    Minister and Members The River Murray Commission, headed by Senator the Hon. J. S. Collings (Minister for the Interior and Leader of the Government in the Senate), president, reached Renmark on Saturday afternoon in the course of a tour of inspection of the river conservation works. Commencing at the Hume Reservoir, the commissioners had come downstream calling- at the various locks and other works enroute. Included in the party coming on to South Australia were Mr. T. Hill, OBE, M, VIE, MIE. Aust (chairman, representing the Commonwealth). Mr. J. O. H. Eaton, ISO, M, Inst CE, MIE Aust (South Australia), and Mr.D. P. Israel, AICA, AAIS (secretary).

    They had been joined at the Lake Victoria Storage on Saturday rooming by Mr. H. T. M. Angwin (Engineer-inChief, SA) and Mr. H. T. Garde (resident engineer, Barmera) . They were also joined at Renmark by Mr. E. R.Lawrie (Engineer for Irrigation and drainage). The New South Wales and Victorianj members, Messrs. F. H. Brewster and | L. R. East respectively, left the party at Wentworth. The Minister expressed himself as very pleased at. having the opportunity of seeing what had been and was being done in the way of water conservation along the Murray. He also said that he was particularly impressed by the enterprise shown by the lock masters in the planting of trees and general improvement and care of their surroundings. He had witnessed the passage of a steamer through a lock for the first time when the p.s. Marion went through Lock 10, and was very’ interested in the operation.

    Assurance That S.A’s Position Safeguarded

    In view of the doubts expressed in some quarters of recent years, particularly during seasons of small flow, that the quantity available for South Australia had reached a dangerously he doubts expressed in some quarters of recent years, particularly during seasons of small flow, that the quantity available for South Australia had reached a dangerously low level, “The Pioneer” representative questioned the commissioners on this point.

    Assurance was given in reply by both .Messrs.. Hill and Eaton that there had always been “plenty of water “available for this State. Though the amount coming down to South Australia had often been less than the “minimum monthly discharge under Clause 49 of the River Murray Agreement,” it was pointed out by the commissioners that ample for present requirements had always been made available. Until such time as the State’s requirements reached the maximum stipulated under the Agreement, it was. obviously unwise to draw unnecessarily on the reserve supplies up stream during periods of poor intake.””

    https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/108413550#

    And again we knew in 2011…

    “”Basin Futures Water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin

    25. Planning as Performance: The Murray–Darling Basin Plan

    Ray Ison, Philip Wallis

    **The Emerging Performance

    The performance that is emerging following the release of the Guide to the proposed Basin Plan at 4 pm on Friday, 9 October 2010 has been scripted since the creation and passage of the Water Act 2007 (Cwlth) and the associated creation of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA).[1] What is unfolding is a tableau that is the product of the structural determinism** of its design.”””

    [kt2 Ed. (lost tabs) Words as weapons or wealth]
    ”Table 25.1 Some of the main metaphors employed by Gittins in his article entitled: ‘Don’t think you can keep on neglecting me, Darling’
    Key concept
    Metaphors
    Entailments
    Sustainability as
    Dangerous
    Threatens assumptions
    Irresistibly attractive?
    Having a wonderful ring to it?
    Dripping with virtue?
    Environment as
    Able to fail
    Something static
    Sustainable
    Something static?
    Natural
    Humans are not natural
    Abusable/saveable
    A product of human design
    Ecosystems as Healthy Sickness and health knowable
    Having tipping points Behave as complex adaptive systems
    Like flogging a horse Can be killed
    Politics as Heads in the sand Not open and adaptive Exaggerating claims Rhetorical practice
    Country towns as Declinable Viability knowable”

    http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p115431/html/ch25.xhtml?referer=109&page=34

    Anon Irrigator: this was written in 2010. Not to worry eh, T’Burk will be back in charge. He doesn’t do triple bottom line. He will – again – just oil the squeaky gates – with water!

    “One of his tasks is to soothe the anguished and outraged response of irrigators to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s ”guide to a plan” to restore the river system’s environmental flows by reducing water allocations by 27 to 37 per cent.”… “But politics as usual – create such a fuss the pollies back off – remains dominant. And the standard tactic is to hugely exaggerate the amount of pain that would be suffered. The authority’s guide says its plan could lead to long-term job losses of 800. Just one irrigation lobby has ”modelling” showing that 17,000 jobs will be lost in NSW alone.””
    https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/dont-think-you-can-keep-on-neglecting-me-darling-20101012-16ho4.html

  5. sunshine says: FEBRUARY 23, 2019 AT 9:12 AM – thanks for reminding us sunshine, of the many externalities anon irrigator didn’t mention.

    We love to be proven wrong anon irrigator.

    Sunshins said;
    “they are certainly not mum and pop farmers ,there is a US hedge fund manager involved. These companies are only interested in soil as a growing median ,like hydroponics, just something to hold water and keep the plant upright , the nutrients are from fertilisers. Crop dusters are constantly in the sky.”

    A story;
    “Albert wonders about the cause of his illness. He remembers his days in the fields, holding up a flag for the crop dusters, “and you were covered in chemical all day long, you were”.

    And the sheep troughs. “When the sun shines on ’em they get blue-green algae and you gotta clean ’em out every now and then. Sometimes, if you didn’t have a shovel, you’d just get your hands in and rake it out. No gloves on, sort of thing.

    “They’re doin’ a lot of research in it, but we won’t find out. Probably someone else will, later on.”

    He laughs.

    “But that’s about all I know about that motor neurone. Well, I’d never heard about it until Tim [Trembath] – the bloke you met in town the other day – he wrote a bit in the local news and I said, ‘Geeze, I hope I haven’t got that bloody disease’. But that’s what it was. Most farmers diagnose themselves. They say, ‘I’ll be right. She’ll be right, mate.’ That’s the saying, isn’t it? ‘She’ll be right.’ But it’s not right.”

    When it came to his diagnosis, Albert – like Tania Magoci in Griffith – appreciated the straight-shooting of his neurologist, Dom Rowe.

    “He told me it was a f—wit of a disease.” …
    …”Motor Neurone Disease is killing too many people in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. SBS travelled to Australia’s fruit bowl with a leading neurologist who is attempting to solve a tragic medical mystery. The answer, or part of it, lies in what humans are doing to the environment.”

    By Rick Feneley, Will Reid
    Source: The Feed

    https://pesticides.australianmap.net/2016-october-motor-neurone-disease-murrumbidgee-irrigation-area-nsw/

    Stay safe anon…

  6. The continuance of a cotton industry in Australia’s dry farming landscape, is an irresponsible abuse of political power. Apart from the smaller rice industry in lower regions of the Murray-Darling basin, the allocation of irrigation water to the cotton industry is non-optimal. In times of severe drought such extensive users of water must be denied access to valuable fresh water. This is both an economic necessity as an environmental need.

  7. It’s taken us, as settlers and immigrants, just 230 years to ecologically destroy the Australian continent and its surrounding seas and marine life. We clearly have no idea how to manage any of this, or ourselves, sustainably. The results of our arrival have been genocide and ecocide. If this isn’t a sign that we need make radical changes then I don’t what is. Otherwise, business as usual will become collapse as usual.

    Half the Barrier Reef is dead. The ecology of the Murray-Darling Basin is collapsing. Clearly, disasters which affect the natural world alone are not enough to motivate us. Disasters which affect poor or isolated people or people with different skin tones are not enough to motivate us. Clear warnings from the scientists don’t motivate us. What will motivate us? Only when the effects of these collapses impact severely and directly on us, en masse, and we are all in mortal fear of death or ruination will we act. Given the lags in the real economy system and even more importantly in the natural system, we are left only with the hope that, by this juncture, it will not be too late.

  8. Gregory, The issue is how much water you divert to these users – not the crop that farmers grow. Then, as Homer says, if you get the allocation right – or the water pricing right – people will make good decisions. The nonsense talked about the evils of rice and cotton misrepresent the problem.

  9. nottrampis – here are some value statements as opposed to deformed market prices…

    Thanks Gregory J. Mckenzie says:
    political power
    non-optimal
    severe drought
    valuable fresh water

    Re VALUE-able fresh water nottrampis: ( wasted time finding austnfigures – here is the god ‘ol usa)

    If the world’s water supply were only 100 liters (26 gallons), our usable water supply of fresh water would be only about 0.003 liter (one-half teaspoon).

    In actuality, that amounts to an average of 8.4 million liters (2.2 million gallons) for each person on earth.

    But where is that 8.4m litres?
    Water Use in the U.S.
    8% domestic use
    33% agriculture
    59% industry
    Over 600 gallons per day per person in the U.S. is being diverted for farm irrigation and livestock use from natural aquatic sources.
    600 gal x 300m x 4.54609 = 818,296,200,000 litres of fresh water per day. Or 298,678,113,000,000 litres per year. 300 trillion liters per year? 300 billions tonnes sounds like it ALSO takes a lot of power – coal – to push around.

    More than half the people in the U.S. get their water from groundwater. Lucky Flint.

    To produce a Beef Steak 8 ounces takes1,232 litres

    Water Pollution
    A gallon of paint or a quart of motor oil can seep into the earth and pollute 250,000 gallons of drinking water.
    A spilled gallon of gasoline can pollute 750,000 gallons of water.

  10. The woman at the Griffith tourist information place told me they have the highest cancer rates in Australia. My brother did that holding the flag job for the crop duster but only for two days, I imagine they have GPS for that now. A friend used to regularly put his arm up to the shoulder into a roundup tub to clear blockages. Those cotton farm dams are an awesome sight, there is plenty of laser grading and channel digging currently going on for new fields .On the plus side they employ some locals and probably even occasionally pay some tax. I expected to see more sheep around Hay ,we only saw 3 from the road ,we saw 4 emus. I was assured there are still plenty of sheep there somewhere. I dont think I’ve ever seen more kangaroo bones by the road than we did from Deniliquin to Hay, there wasnt a clear 20 meters .Farming Roos would be a good idea.

  11. Last post! A lot [salt] of grief.

    Hello salinity, as a negative feedback loop strengthens which I’d not thought of until reading…

    DARLING DISASTER
    ‘Lot of grief’ as acute water shortages threaten drought-hit NSW towns
    https://www.smh.com.au/environment/sustainability/lot-of-grief-as-acute-water-shortages-threaten-drought-hit-nsw-towns-20190222-p50zl5.html

    “Towns like Coonabarabran, on level 5 restrictions, have only avoided tighter curbs because of a rush to drill new bores.

    From having four before the drought, the town got $2 million funding for eight more, six of which are now operating, Roger Bailey, general manager of Warrumbungle Shire, said.”
    ***
    And this fell out trying to find salinity details… $26m of ours and $38m private CRC did for “us”…

    “The Catchment
    The program focuses on research for improved river health and sustainable use of groundwater while sustaining cotton profits”

    Says. It. All.

    http://archive.dpi.nsw.gov.au/content/science-and-research/partners-and-alliances/ccc-crc

  12. harryrclarke,

    Unless negative externalities (ecosystem damage etc.) are correctly priced, how can we know, economically speaking, whether we should or should not be growing cotton in Australia?

    How can we price these externalities completely, with regard to human and natural values and to the short and long term?

    If scientific studies and models suggest certain environmental flows, how can we implement them when vested interests repeatedly and successfully demand the science be ignored?

    Does the undue political influence of private vested interests in the political process and hence in the construction of markets suggest that free market theory itself is fraught with contradictions?

  13. Iconoclast. If the negative externalities are related to water extractions then reduce extractions increase water prices. This has nothing to do with the crop grown. If the negative externalities are related to cotton production per se (I have not seen such discussed above) then tax cotton production.

  14. Harry is correct. No different to carbon emissions. Put a price that reflects the negative externality and allow the market to work.
    Those industries that need a lot of water either go away or change

  15. It’s all very well to to ‘put a price on it’ and expect stakeholders to sort it all out. Those advocating environmental flows don’t have the same resources as irrigators and irrigators can lobby with hard cash. Politicians are sensitive to funding.

  16. harryrclarke,

    You did not answer my precise questions.

    Question 1 used the plural “externalities”. I meant it to indicate I was asking about all externalities, not just water extraction. However, given the context of the debate (water extractions), I should have been clearer.

    Question 2 essentially asks how well can we price externalities, really? Pricing of externalities is dependent on our state of knowledge at any point in time.When we learn something new, pricing of externalities (typically) increases. New knowledge on the environmental side is usually bad news these days. Any decaying system exhibits greater and greater measurable problems over time. Our climate, environment and ecology are decaying from the Holocene norm. It follows that new knowledge in these fields is always bad news. Thus some extra pricing would have to be built into negative externality pricing just as health premiums or life insurance go up for a decaying (ageing) person. When multiple sub-systems are decaying there is, in addition, a compounding effect on the decay of the whole system.

    You haven’t addressed my questions 3 and 4 at all.

    And sorry for raising another issue at this point. There is also the issue of positive externalities. If cotton (as it owned and grown in Australia currently ) presents less positive externalities for local and regional communities, per unit water used, than other activities then that would be another strike against cotton growing.

  17. harryrclarke,

    All externalities. That’s the short answer. It’s not intended to be a frivolous answer although it may come across that way. I do understand that “all externalities” in toto presents something unbounded and not measurable. I was trying to hint, with what little subtlety that I have, that conventional economics is inadequate to analysing the problems we face.

    The dominant paradigm of conventional economics insists that unbounded economic growth is fueled by positive externalities. There are some thinkers who indicate a counterpoint: “We … emphasize the role played in the growth process by negative externalities: the expansion of consumption erodes the quality and reduces the endowment of resources to which all individuals have free access, thereby forcing them to increase their dependence on private goods in order to satisfy their needs. This boosts production and feeds the growth process.” – S. Bartolini and L. Bonatti.

    That takes some thinking about and some unpacking. That it is correct, thermodynamically speaking, is easily demonstrable. Increasing order in the economic system (growth and growth in complexity) is purchased at the cost of increasing entropy (disorder and a collapse of complexity) in the natural environment. That it implies a necessary end to growth economics is also clear (as endless economic growth collapses the sustaining environment) and then leads to economic and civilizational collapse.

    Since identifying and calculating “all externalities” in toto is impossible both economically and scientifically (the problem is too complex with too many ramifications), then we must relinquish the illusion that there is a math solution to the entire problem either economically or scientifically. Economics has an extra issue of course in terms of the “The problem of value”. The physical sciences deal only with physical values. Economics deals with physical values (the real economy) and notional (money) values of both physical values and “intangibles” which are always greatly imperfect measures of “real value”, whatever “real value” is precisely.

    To cut a long story short, we must employ science, not economics, and even with the best of science we are thrown back on heuristics. The best example perhaps is E O Wilson’s statement that we should set 50% of the earth aside for nature reserves. From Australia’s point of view this would mean at least 50% of all environment types for nature reserves. The practical difficulties are immense of course. Fifty percent of the Murray-Darling basin would be very difficult to set aside now. Is a patchy 50% a functional 50%? That’s another question to ponder.

    I don’t know the answers to these conundrums but IMO the answers are not to be found in conventional economics. Conventional economics has been tried for about 150 years, in classical and neo-classical forms, and can now be seen to have comprehensively failed. It has become clear since about 1975 that it is leading us into deeper and deeper trouble both in social and environmental terms.

  18. If general externalities then split into two clases. Those stream flow related: Restrict extractions to irrigators (preferably using water pricing) and then let them do what they choose. Externalities specific to outputs: Restrict the outputs – again preferably by pricing/taxes. You cannot estimate the optimal size of the restrictions exactly but making a stab is generally better than doing nothing. Generally we know enough to be able toi believe that total bans on extractions or production are inferior to allowing something.

  19. harryrclarke,

    I agree with part of what you have said there. The category split into inputs and outputs is ontologically sound. Your last two sentences acknowledge the heuristic nature of the solution. Under the current system (regulated, mixed economy capitalism) the best way to operate is as you have outlined: centrally plan total inputs of environmentally critical inputs (water), utilise pigouvian taxes and allow the market to determine the rest.

    Of course, the difficulty is in the detail and in getting vested interests to listen to issues of science, environmental good and public good, all of which seems impossible to achieve under the current system of private ownership. Private ownership is an enclosure system which is particularly unsuited to managing a connected system like the M-D basin.

    Where we part company is in the assumptions inherent in “let them do what they choose”. This is turn is bound up with the issue of private ownership of productive resources and one’s faith or lack of faith in markets.

  20. If water allocations were cut to those required for drip irrigation, plenty of water would be available for environmental flows. Israel does quite nicely using drip irrigation and so can we.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s