The Murray Darling Basin (MDB)-A September, 2013 Overview
From the time that the Howard Government, in an attempt to gather
“green” votes decided to throw $10bn at the Murray Darling Basin, the
management of the Basin has been a political football. This initiative
arose as the great Millennium Drought was biting hard and the natural
consequences of drought were being erroneously blamed on extractions
for irrigation. The term “over-allocation” entered the national lexicon.
In the years preceding the drought there was extensive reform of
water regulation throughout the basin. “The cap” limiting extractions
to the 1993/4 level was introduced and John Anderson’s National Water
Initiative was passed introducing property rights and market trading
of water entitlements and water allocations. These were all positive
moves and reinforced Australia’s international reputation as a leader
in effective water management. It is fundamental to a proper
understanding of water management to recognise the difference between
entitlements and allocations.
Entitlements grant the holder a share of consumptive water when there
is an allocation. An entitlement without an allocation is phantom
water. For each of the basin rivers there is a water sharing plan
which guides the granting of allocations. These plans give priority to
critical human and animal needs, followed by assessed environmental
needs and then and only then, are allocations for irrigation
extractions even considered.
These principles are applied in a regime of massive natural
variability. Our rainfall and run-off is arguably the most variable in
the world. Our major dams and the Snowy Scheme diversions have
beneficially “flattened out” some of this variability and have
provided additional water to the west, but compared with the severity
of our droughts and the magnitude of our floods, we really only
“fiddle at the edges”. Additional dams would further assist and would
only “hold back” a tiny percentage of our big flood events. Our
ecology is geared to this extraordinarily variable environment and
there is no better example than in recent years with the severity of the
Millennium Drought and the big flood events that followed.
To gain the necessary authority over the States in the Australian
federation the Commonwealth relied on international environmental
agreements. As a consequence we have a Commonwealth Water Act which
lacks proper balance between social, economic and environmental needs.
The Act should be repealed. The required agreement with the States to
implement the “Plan” has yet to be obtained, but one fears that
eventually the Commonwealth’s control of the mighty dollar will
Against this backdrop it can be seen that Government “buying back”
entitlements (“phantom water”) will do nothing for the environment in the
lean years, but will greatly impact Australia’s productive capacity when
water is plentiful and thus have negative socio-economic consequences.
The most negative human induced environmental issue in the Millennium
Drought was the management of the Lower Lakes in South Australia and
the controversial Barrages which close-off the Murray River estuary
from the sea.
With the piping of fresh water from upstream to the Lower Lakes area
both for human consumption and irrigation needs, there is now no reason
for the South Australian obsession with keeping the Lakes always fresh to
prevail. Failure to open the Barrages during the drought and allow salt water
to enter, when there was simply no fresh water available for any purpose,
quite unnecessarily allowed the emergence of acid-sulphate soils. Under
more normal conditions the huge evaporation of fresh water from the
Lower Lakes is a wicked waste.
The commitment of additional water to the Lower Lakes in the latter
part of the Plan negotiations and the target of keeping Lake
Alexandrina open to the ocean 90% of the time, is a classic example of
the political football approach at the expense of objective analysis, which
has pervaded the whole Murray Darling Basin issue.
Sadly, the management of the Snowy Scheme has been expressly excluded
from the MDB deliberations of recent years. It seems to me that there needs
to be more focus on the original water storage/irrigation objectives and that
improvements could be made without detracting from the all important
hydro/electricity production objectives.