Farmers are outraged that governments are buying scarce irrigation water for environmental flows, writes Patrick J. Byrne.
Farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin are outraged that governments are buying irrigation water from drought-stressed farmers for environmental flows instead of investing in water savings measures.
As a matter of principle, during a drought there should be no buying of water for environmental purposes, and environmental flows should be restricted.
If the current practice continues, it will spell disaster for the Basin which produces 40 per cent of Australia’s food.
The Basin is experiencing its worst drought on record. It is essentially a desert region. But for the dams, locks and weirs in the system, the rivers would be dry in a drought.
The construction of the Basin’s huge irrigation system has meant that regions that, a century ago, ran one sheep per 5-10 acres, today farm intensive fruit and vegetables, grapes, dairy, olives and other agricultural industries.
Intent on taking water
Yet, as The Weekly Times (November 14, 2007) has revealed, governments are intent on taking water from agriculture for environmental flows, to extinguish some irrigation licences and for cities.
• The Water for Rivers Corporation – a jointly-owned concern of the Commonwealth, Victorian and NSW governments – has bought 20,000 megalitres and is looking to purchase more.
• The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has recently bid for another 20,000 megalitres of irrigation water.
• Another 61,000 megalitres, organised by an Elders agent, is on the market with interest expressed from a range of government agencies.
This water is being purchased at $1,200 a megalitre for NSW general-security water, to $2,200 a megalitre for Victorian high-security water.
In contrast, if governments were doing as they promised and investing in the Basin’s water infrastructure on water savings measures, they would be spending $5,000-to-$8,000 to save a megalitre of water.
The above water purchases are part of a series of projects by governments to buy irrigation water.
• Under The Living Murray scheme, 500,000 megalitres are to be found for environmental flows. Part of this water is to come from a 20/80 deal in Victoria where 120,000 megalitres is to be found, not from water savings projects, but by giving irrigators security of supply over their sales pool in exchange for the government taking 20 per cent of the pool.
• The Water for Rivers scheme has $375 million to find 282,000 megalitres of water for the Snowy and Murray rivers.
• Then there is the plan of federal Water Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, that “among the six major options for our big cities” suffering water shortages is “buying water from irrigators”, and that this was already “proceeding in Adelaide and Perth” (The Australian, October 2, 2006). Now there is a planned pipeline from the Goulburn Valley, central Victoria, to Melbourne.
• Worst of all is the National Plan for Water Security, announced by the Prime Minister, backed by the federal Opposition and all states bar Victoria. Under the plan, the Commonwealth Government could take up to 3,500,000 megalitres, or 29 per cent, of the Basin’s irrigation water, for environmental flows and to extinguish licences. This could cost farmers and associated industries $28 billion, wiping 2.9 per cent from Australia’s gross domestic product.
An analysis of the disaster that the National Plan for Water Security will inflict on Australia’s major food bowl, entitled, Federal Murray-Darling Basin water plan could wipe $28 billion off GDP, has been produced by the National Civic Council. It is available at www.newsweekly.com.au. Over 70,000 copies of this brochure are currently being distributed across the Basin.
The brochure calls for a moratorium on permanent water-trade out of irrigation regions (except in extreme circumstances where farmers, needing to survive, can sell for environmental flows); and for a weir to be built urgently at Wellington, with water piped to users downstream, in order to prevent huge evaporation losses in the lower lakes.
These Commonwealth and state water-buying plans are partly driven by free-market ideology that argues for water trade so that tax-driven managed investment schemes (MIS), cities, governments and corporate water-traders can buy and trade water.
These plans are also driven by the extreme environmentalist lobby, which is demanding larger and larger environmental flows. This is despite a 2004 federal inquiry by the parliamentary agriculture committee, in which representatives of all sides of politics agreed that, as the science on the health of the Murray River was so poor, comprehensive scientific studies across the Basin should be funded before any water plan was considered.
The Commonwealth and state governments have put the cart before the horse. They have announced water savings targets first, before they have 1) comprehensively and scientifically examined the Basin’s environment, 2) then audited the Basin’s water supply, and 3) then come up with a plan after widely consulting with farmers.
This is no way to run Australian agriculture.
– Patrick J. Byrne is national vice-president of the National Civic Council.