by Patrick J. Byrne
Even if this year’s spring brings major rains, the severe two-year drought in the Murray-Darling Basin has demonstrated that the $13 billion federal Basin Plan is unworkable, putting major rural industries (and government seats) at risk in Australia’s major food bowl.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent appointment of Keith Pitt as Federal Minister for Resources and Water followed angry farmer protests over inaction by his predecessor, David Littleproud. Farmers in their second year of zero water allocations have watched 24/seven the Murray River in full flow with environmental water bypass them.
While politicians have washed their hands, saying they “can’t make it rain”, in reality the Basin is a man-made drought caused by the disastrous federal Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which was written into the Federal Water Act 2007.
At the core of the $13 billion plan was a buyback of 30 to 40 per cent of all irrigation water (3,200 gigalitres, or 6.4 Sydney Harbours) from farmers to make South Australia’s Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert at the mouth of the Murray artificially into freshwater lakes. This runs counter to overwhelming scientific evidence that the “lower lakes” have been estuarine (a mix of fresh water from the Murray and sea water from the ocean) for thousands of years.
Prior to the Basin Plan, full dams (like Hume, Dartmouth, Eildon and many more), held enough water for a drought up to seven years. Now, by requiring that 6.4 Sydney Harbours annually flow into the lower lakes, Basin dams can only supply key farm irrigation areas for two to three years in a dry period.
This is evidenced by the fact that the Basin dams were full in 2016, but for the past two years general security water allocations (for opportunistic crops like rice) were zero in lower NSW. Victorian farmers with high security water (for permanent plantings like vines, stone fruit, apples and dairy pastures) received around 60 per cent of their entitlements this past season.
While the past two years has seen the lowest rainfall in the Basin since the Federation Drought (1895-1903), storages that once would still be holding large supplies of water are down to 27 per cent (13 per cent in the upper Basin) because of the Basin Plan’s overriding requirement to deliver fresh water to the lower lakes.
In short, the Basin Plan has created a “water emergency” that makes it almost impossible for farmers to manage the risk from drought in this fertile, though arid, part of Australia. A large number of irrigation farms are up for sale or been turned into “hobby farms”.
There is a way to provide short-term relief for this “water emergency”. In delivering over six Sydney Harbours to the lower lakes, another 1,000 gigalitres (two Sydney Harbours) are lost in transmission, due to evaporation, seepage and watering of forests. These “losses” are not treated as environmental flows, even though they go to the environment, but are debited against the water held in dams for farmers.
Why doesn’t Water Minister, Keith Pitt, declare these “losses” to be environmental flows, thereby making two Sydney Harbours available to farmers? The Commonwealth Environment Water Holder has already set a precedent in selling a small amount of environmental water (20 gigalitres) to farmers.
This raises a wider question: if the Basin Plan was supposed to be a win for both the farmers and the environment, why are Basin communities doing it so hard, with more and more farms putting up “for sale” signs?
Anger in Basin communities was demonstrated at the NSW elections as once-safe Coalition seats changed to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party. If it is not prepared to undertake a major overhaul of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the federal Water Act 2007, is the Government prepared to sacrifice Coalition seats in the Basin at the next federal election?
Patrick J. Byrne is national president of the National Civic Council.