In Defence of Environmental Water
This week we heard some really absurd claims about environmental water in the Murray Darling
This week, a convoy of thousands of angry and desperate farmers trucked into Canberra. They’re angry and they’re desperate because they haven’t had much water to irrigate crops. Some are in their second year without water, a situation that is likely to continue next year as well.
The reason these farmers have no water is not the drought, although that is not helping. They have no water because of the mismanagement of the Murray-Darling system:
5 Ways the Murray-Darling System has been Mismanaged:
1 // Menindee Lakes was filled at the end of 2016, but was drained by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in 2016 and 2017. This water could have been allocated to irrigators last year.
2 // Irrigation water was wasted in the Murray in 2017 and 2018. That water could have been allocated to irrigators last year.
3 // The Barwon-Darling/Barka, now rarely flows into the Murray River, because of increased extractions in the Northern Basin. That means less water is available to Murray irrigators.
4 // The Government has subsidised large private dams in the Murrumbidgee, which have significantly reduced the flows from the Murrumbidgee into the Murray River.
5 // Governments have allowed a huge growth in nut plantations on the Murray River near the South Australian border. These nut plantations have doubled the amount of water that needs to be delivered to the SA border.
These factors and the drought mean there is not enough water to grow fodder for livestock. Australia’s beef, dairy and sheep herds have halved, as stock are slaughtered or sold overseas.
Fourth and fifth generation farm businesses are folding and that is taking a huge toll on our regional communities.
Since the water reforms started, it has been useful for politicians to pit irrigators against the environment. But this is political distraction, which diverts from providing actual solutions.
We look at some of the claims politicians have made about environmental water this week.
CLAIM 1: The Commonwealth has a huge amount of environmental water — why can’t they give some to irrigators?
“Just so your listeners understand, the biggest irrigator in Australia is you. The taxpayer. You hold about 2.848 million [sic] litres of water. In the Southern Connected system, it’s about 2.116 million [sic] litres. So you, the taxpayer, the Australian Government holds water that can alleviate some of these problems and I think there has to be a capacity to say well, we’re going to use more of that water for the critical economic needs of the irrigation towns, such as Shepparton, such as Berri, such as Mildura and deal in some way with the concerns these people raise.”
Barnaby Joyce — RN Breakfast 4 /12/19
While it’s true that taxpayers do own the rights to a lot of water, like other water holders, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) gets an annual allocation of actual water against its water licences.
And just like NSW Murray irrigators, the Commonwealth has received zero water allocation for the last two years — both this year and last year.
CEWH had rights to 420 gigalitres in the Southern Connected system at the start of this year. Approximately 330 gigalitres of this environmental water was used this Spring, so there is only a small parcel (90 gigalitres) that could even potentially be made available for irrigation.
CLAIM 2: The Murray River is in flood — why are we using environmental water to flood during a drought?
“It’s perverse that in the middle of a drought, we have a flooding river and so you’d have to say well, why is that so, well it’s the Commonwealth, the taxpayer’s money going down the river and I think the people of Australia as a whole would say that doesn’t stack up, we should be using some of that water for some of the towns along the river.”
Barnaby Joyce, RN Breakfast 4 /12/19
It’s true — the Murray River is being run at full capacity, water is flooding the Barmah-Millewa Forest for the second consecutive year, and Murray irrigators are watching it flow past and cannot take any water to grow crops.
BUT, what is being left out of the story is 75% of this water is flowing passed for the downstream irrigation, particularly to new nut plantations, and only about 25% of the water in the river could be attributed to CEWH’s water.
Most of the water in the Murray River is flowing past for downstream irrigation of new nut plantations.
CLAIM 3: Why are we sending so much water to South Australia and out to sea during a flood?
There are not huge amounts of water flowing out to sea. Most of it is going to downstream irrigators, as explained by the Water Minister David Littleproud:
“Well, let me make this clear, my understanding the last time I saw the numbers, it was about 7 per cent that went out through the system out into the ocean to keep the mouth of the Murray open.
“What a lot of that water is that’s going past some of those farmers, is entitlements they’ve sold to other farmers downstream. And in this country, when you own an asset you have the right to use that asset, and if someone has sold you that asset then you can call on it. And that’s what’s happening, is a lot of these farmers have sold entitlements to other farmers downstream. Some of those are in industries, they’re like permanent plantings, but I take my hat off to the Victorian State Government who have looked at development there and put limitations and moratoriums on them. And the other states could take Lisa Neville’s lead. But the reality is, there’s a market system in place. It is something that has been the foundation stone of our nation, and most of that water going past those farmers is owned by other farmers downstream.
Minister David Littleproud — doorstop 4/12/19
CLAIM 4: Be careful what you wish for — ‘Can the Plan’ and more water will go back to the environment.
This week, the NSW Nationals threatened to ‘rip up’ the Basin Plan (again). Water Minister David Littleproud warned the ‘Can the Plan’ supporters that more water would need to be acquired for the environment.
What Minister Littleproud did not mention is for that to happen, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan would have to be amended and survive potential disallowance motions in both Houses of Parliament.
Former Water Minister, Barnaby Joyce provided an alternate take on this theme on RN Breakfast recently:
“That’s why you have to get an Act through Parliament, an amendment to deal with that issue….let’s say NSW does throw out the Plan, that doesn’t stop the Commonwealth from being able to go and buy water. You’d have to get an amendment on that section down here.”
Barnaby Joyce — RN Breakfast 4/12/19
When Barnaby Joyce was Water Minister he did amend the Water Act to limit the amount of water the Commonwealth could purchase, which is exactly what he says needs to be done now. Maybe he forgot? His second reading speech is here.
CLAIM 5: The CEWH should sell water to irrigators when there is a drought.
Three of the Southern Basin National Party members are drafting a Private Members Bill for CEWH to sell its water during a drought.
Barnaby Joyce also suggested this when he was the Special Drought Envoy in 2018. We explained why that was a bad idea here: 7 reasons why using ‘environmental water’ for farming is a really bad idea.
In short, the ‘irrigation versus environment’ narrative suits politicians and rent seekers, but no one else.
Blaming the environment for the mismanagement of our rivers is not going to help our farmers. If we have any hope in trying to fix the Murray-Darling Basin mess, we need honest conversations about what has gone wrong, so we can put policies or systems in place not to repeat those mistakes and improve.
And policymakers need to do it soon or Australia’s farmers — angry or otherwise — will be gone and replaced by big agribusiness who won’t need to show up to a protest, because as we have already seen, they enjoy direct access to politicians just like Australia’s mining industry.