Want water for the Murray-Darling Basin? Don't ask a zombie

Want water for the Murray-Darling Basin? Don’t ask a zombie

Australia’s largest drainage basin is back on the national agenda – to the extent it was ever off it. A review under the Water for the Environment Special Fund (WESA) announced last Tuesday that government targets to annually recover 450 gigalitres of environmental water via efficiency measures would not be reached.

That’s a sizeable volume of water – it’s the freshwater equivalent of pumping nine tenths of Sydney Harbour into the Murray-Darling Basin.

But the WESA review’s findings went further. Not only will the targets not come close to being achieved by their 2024 deadline (in fact, less than 1% of the target has been met), the target isn’t technically possible. 

That’s to say, even with unlimited time and a blank cheque, only 330 GL could be recovered through the now-discontinued Water Efficiency Program and current Off-farm Efficiency Program, which were intended to improve water delivery within the basin. A maximum of 60 GL could be recovered in the next two years.

Project funding has hard limits. Even so, the almost $2 billion allocated to WESA was found to be insufficient: the review found at least 2–7 times the amount would be required for the program’s success. As it stands, the allocated funding is largely unspent, which has prompted some experts to question whether the government had the will to see the program succeed.

The reviews found WESA lacked the money, time or technical capability to achieve its objectives.

In summary, the review found WESA lacked the money, time, or technical capability to achieve its objectives. 

To understand why these efficiency programs have failed to achieve their targets, we need to understand why they exist in the first place. 

A ‘zombie’ chosen despite alternatives

Dr David Adamson is a senior lecturer from the University of Adelaide’s school of economics and public policy; he previously worked on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’s development.

Adamson describes the efficiency-based programs central to the 450 GL environmental recovery target as a ‘zombie’ idea: “It staggers around no matter how many times you try and kill it with logic.” 

It seems an odd statement. Surely efficiency is a good thing? After all, in the world’s driest inhabited continent, smart water use is a must.

But the logic that Adamson refers to is just as straightforward: “The gains aren’t there.” 

That’s supported by the review finding the government’s efficiency programs were only capable of recovering 330 GL. Even in that blue-sky scenario, efficiency is difficult to determine.

“You don’t know how much [water] you’re taking out in the first place.” Adamson explains. “You don’t know where your efficiency losses were, you don’t even know how much water you’re going to save… and so it then becomes actually quite interesting: what are you truly saving? Are you saving any water at all?”

It’s a view echoed by Professor Richard Kingsford, director of UNSW’s Centre for Ecosystem Science and a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.

“It was always going to be difficult to get this water through so-called efficiency measures,” Kingsford says. “Because there’s a lot of difficulties in accounting: how much of this water is coming back to the environment and wasn’t initially going to the environment? That’s true of on-farm efficiency, as well as river efficiency (or off-farm) efficiency measures.”

If the government can’t recover this environmental water through efficiency programs, what else can it do?

“You don’t know where your efficiency losses were, you don’t even know how much water you’re going to save… and so it then becomes actually quite interesting: what are you truly saving? Are you saving any water at all?”

Dr David Adamson, University of Adelaide

One cost-effective option would be water buybacks. This is an initiative that Australia’s water minister Tanya Plibersek says is “back on the table” following the change of government in May this year. It’s something her South Australian counterpart Susan Close believes would achieve the 450 GL target.

But buybacks aren’t a new idea. They were, in fact, scrapped. 

Introduced under the Rudd government in 2008, buybacks were the result of an open tender process which saw federal authorities purchase water entitlements from irrigators. This continued until 2015, when the the Abbott government retired it in favour of subsidies and closed-tender processes that economic experts noted lacked transparency on public spending. This prompted a number of scientists and economists – Kingsford among them –  to call for the system to be halted.

Aerial view of two rivers intersecting
The intersection of the Darling and the Murray river at Wentworth, 15 August 2019. Credit: Mark Evans / Stringer / Getty Images

In 2020, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences found buybacks were the “simplest and least expensive” means of recovering water. Conversely, programs like those central to the unmeetable efficiency target were found to push water prices up. 

Adamson says buybacks are the best way to both obtain the 450 GL for the basin, and give farmers greater power to decide how they want to move forward. 

“We’ve known that ever since 2010 that the buyback was the most efficient way possible [to recover water], cost far less, and was the best way going forward,” he says. “Buybacks were incredibly popular, incredibly well-supported by the farmers. 

“They knew what was happening [in the market], they had the conscious choice to decide whether they got out of agriculture, they could use that money [from buybacks] to transform their farming systems. 

“It gave them great flexibility. It ended up with a far better reallocation of resources for farmers, and allowed those farmers who wanted to get out, to get out. The efficiency program effectively locked farmers back in.”

Healthy rivers need water. Life needs healthy rivers.

Around 1 in 10 Australians live in the Murray Darling Basin. It is the continent’s largest river system, covering around 14% of its landmass, supporting 30% of Australia’s food production and accounting for $22 billion of agricultural economic activity. 

For a long time, the basin’s management has been a story of contest: between states, communities and stakeholders. What one group says is a good approach is, sometimes, seen as a threat to the interests of others. 

Take out the human footprint and the basin is a home to hundreds of native species. Healthy river flows also have flow-on effects to aquatic species in waters outside of the river system, and migratory birds that visit wetland nesting grounds. 

Add humans in, and the river’s water provides the essential resource for agriculture. There are 7,300-odd irrigators who need water for crops and grazing pastures. These include cotton – which accounts for almost a quarter of crop irrigation across the basin – cereals, pastures and cereals for livestock grazing and hay production, rice, fruit and nut trees and vegetables.

Coorong national park sign
The Coorong National Park, at the Murray mouth. Credit: REDA&CO / Getty Images

Tourism is also an important industry associated with the river, accounting for $11 billion in spending within the basin – which benefits regional communities by generating economic activity beyond their adjacent agricultural industries. 

Water extraction for use by these irrigators and communities is federally legislated, administered and implemented by various state and national authorities. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was formulated to keep the system sustainable, and the additional 450 GL target was included to help get South Australia – the state where the basin exits into the Southern Ocean – on board. 

That’s on top of the plan’s baseline target to recover 2,075 GL per year from total basin irrigation by 2024 (that figure was brought down from 2,750 GL/y in 2018).

But one point that’s sometimes missed in reporting these top-level figures is perhaps the most obvious: a healthy river system requires flowing water. 

Assessments made in the latest State of the Environment report rate the condition of water-dependent ecosystems and heritage as poor, and water management as only partially effective.

“We can’t just look through the prism of the basin [as a whole]. You have to look at what’s happening on the Macquarie, the Gwydir, the border rivers, the Murrumbidgee, the Lachlan. Each one of those rivers has its own microcosm of issues in relation to river health.” 

Professor Richard Kingsford, UNSW

For a state like SA, 450 GL of additional environmental water might assist keeping the Murray mouth – an internationally-recognised wetland – open and healthy. A mouth closure risks increased salinification in the river, which can impact upstream river health for humans, plants and animals alike.

But for a basin that covers more than one million square kilometres and experiences variable climatic conditions, river health is relative. Good flows in one of its 22 river catchments are not necessarily indicative of health in another. And whether 450 GL of water is obtained via efficiency measures or another means, any additional water for the environment, smartly distributed, can make all the difference.

“We can’t just look through the prism of the basin [as a whole],” says Kingsford. “You have to look at what’s happening on the Macquarie, the Gwydir, the border rivers, the Murrumbidgee, the Lachlan. Each one of those rivers has its own microcosm of issues in relation to river health. 

“You need to look at the indicators across those and then aggregate them up to a basin-scale indicator… There’s a whole story about what’s happened to the environment in each of those rivers.”

One such troubling story came in the summer of 2018-19, when millions of river fish surfaced in the lower Darling-Baaka River near Menindee, NSW: a mass die-off. 

While governments pointed the finger at algal blooms originating from record dryness in the region, scientists were quick to point out that systemic water-management problems were also responsible. 

Professor Nick Bond, who’s director of the Centre for Freshwater Ecosystems at La Trobe University, observes that poor health for the basin at a local or holistic level can have devastating impacts. 

Rusty pole in dry river bed
A telemetry meter to measure river flow and depth of the Darling-Baaka River at Louth, NSW Credit: Mark Evans / Stringer / Getty Images

He throws the danger of climate change and the heightened risk of extreme weather events into the mix. And while droughts that lead to animal deaths are one example of the devastation caused by lack of water, increased rainfall from climactic flooding events is not necessarily a good thing for a basin either.

“The fish kills were a particular event which really highlighted the precarious state of the environment in some areas due to drought and effectively a lack of water,” Bond says.

“As we feel the impacts of climate change, we are going to see these more significant rainfall events periodically, and they carry with them a whole lot of benefits and risks around impacts on property and in some cases on life. They also can be quite problematic in terms of water quality: you get very high rates of erosion, sediment and nutrient runoff than you might normally get under lower rainfall conditions. 

“It does highlight the need for considering the health of our catchments, as well as the amount of water in the rivers.” 

“A fish doesn’t know that they’re going into Queensland or Victoria”

There are many interests built into the future of the Murray-Darling Basin. 

Environmental considerations occupy the same space as economic ones, the interests of individual states compete against one another, First Nations rights are framed in, and political priorities can change the course of water retention. 

Australia’s water minister says she’s “open minded” about how to approach basin management, and the new government is poised to review the settings installed by its predecessor.

For all the talk of which targets are (or are not) being met, and the best way to secure environmental water, there is an acknowledgement of the challenge that managing all interests in the Murray-Darling Basin presents. Most inland water assessments in the State of the Environment report received the third lowest of four possible grades.

“The fundamental plan – the design – is pretty good,” says Adamson. “The implementation of the plan is undesirable in some ways.

“Despite all that, we’ve got an enormous amount of water back for the environment that it didn’t have before, that has led to massive improvements: environmental flows, cultural flows, it’s better for society and irrigators are better off as well because the water quality has improved.”

Climate change will “hammer hard”: it will only get more difficult to achieve good outcomes for both the environment and the millions who rely on the basin.

But Adamson also points out that for a dry country like Australia, climate change will “hammer hard”, with predicted impacts to the basin already being seen. 

That means it will only get more difficult to achieve good outcomes for both the environment and the millions who rely on the basin. It may require a rethink of the current economic-environmental dichotomy.

“I think one of the key take-home messages is that we have had this very divided discussion about the health of the environment versus the fate of agriculture in the basin,” Bond says.

White water rushes down a river with a person walking along it
A fresh flow reaches the Darling-Baaka at Louth in February 2020. Credit: Jenny Evans / Getty Images

“But the conversation is evolving. We are recognising that there are other industries like tourism that benefit from a healthy environment. There’s a much stronger recognition of human wellbeing being linked to healthy environments. 

“Another emerging aspect of the debate that needs to be front of mind is the role of First Nations peoples, they haven’t had much of a say in relation to water management.”

Kingsford shares that view. He wants to see governmental approaches to water management start to more meaningfully consider environmental perspectives. State governments, he says, tend to approach water issues as ones impacting agricultural production, as opposed to ecological health.

“It’s one of the big institutional challenges… you can no longer think about natural resource agencies separate from environmental impacts,” Kingsford says. “It just does not work every well if you separate out some of these big issues.

“I’d like to see states going to the MDB table with both water and environment ministers, and taking off their state hats and thinking about the basin as a whole.”

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