The third draft Murray-Darling Basin plan has added to the previous draft by slashing the amount of groundwater available for agriculture.
This massive take of water from irrigation adds to concerns about Australia’s food production capability as farm land is also being lost to mining and urban sprawl.
The latest plan is based on the former Howard Government’s seriously flawed Water Act 2007.
In 2010, angry farmers publicly burned copies of the first draft plan produced by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), as reported in News Weekly (October 30, 2010).
The second Basin plan was roundly condemned last November. This third plan is barely different from the second.
It says that 2,750,000 megalitres must be diverted from agriculture for the environment (the same as in the second draft plan). But it goes further by lowering — by 1,200,000 megalitres — the amount of ground water that can be pumped for irrigation.
It also sets a salt limit for lower lakes — Lakes Alexandrina and Albert — at the end of the Murray, with the ability to divert more water as needed for these lakes should the salt level — or electrolyte concentration (EC) — exceed a certain level (1,000 ECs).
How can a farmer plan for a cropping season when the water allocation given at the beginning of the season may be altered half way through, in order to lower salt levels in the lower lakes, which were traditional saline estuaries until they were artificially turned into freshwater lakes?
The planned take of water from farmers will kill off large areas of agriculture and destroy many rural towns in the Murray-Darling Basin.
The reaction of major stakeholders has been predictable.
The New South Wales and Victorian state governments have said that they will not sign up to the draft plan because it takes too much water and will destroy farming areas.
South Australia has said it will not sign up to the plan because it doesn’t deliver enough water to the lower lakes.
The Greens oppose the plan because they want to take an even greater quantity of water (4,000,000 megalitres) from farmers for the environment — that is, about 40 per cent more than the MDBA proposal.
Farmers will undoubtedly treat the latest plan with the same contempt and opposition they expressed towards the previous plans.
Federal Water Minister Tony Burke has six weeks in which to try to convince the states to sign up to the proposal, then the MDBA has one more chance to tweak the plan before Minister Burke presents his plan to parliament.
If the Greens oppose Burke’s plan, the Gillard Government will need Coalition support to have it passed in parliament.
What if the states refuse to comply with a federally-imposed plan?
Well, it’s not clear that the Commonwealth can force them to comply.
First, the Commonwealth government is reliant on the states to devise new water-sharing plans in each river valley across the Basin to comply with new overall water allocations.
If the states refuse, how will the Commonwealth government make them change the current local water-sharing plans?
Second, the Australian Constitution clearly allocates jurisdiction over water to the states. The states have since ceded their power over water-planning to the Commonwealth, but they can reclaim this power if they wish.
However, the Commonwealth and the states have also entered into agreements regarding infrastructure and water across the Basin. This has involved billions of dollars in federal funding to the states.
Therefore, if the states were to refuse to comply with the new federally-imposed water plan, or if they repatriated from the Commonwealth their powers over water-planning, would they face the risk of financial retaliation from Canberra?
The latest Basin plan is heading into uncharted territory.
It also raises serious questions about Australia’s future food-producing capability, given that about 40 per cent of the nation’s food comes from the Basin, and most of this from irrigation agriculture.
Food production is directly related to the quality of soil, climatic conditions and to the availability of water.
The Australian Farm Institute (AFI) has just released a major study, Does Australia Need a National Policy to Preserve Agricultural Land?
Although Australia has the sixth largest land area (and the lowest population density) of almost any nation on earth, only about 3 per cent is actually suitable for cropping, and even less of this is considered to be prime agricultural land.
Further, in the 12 years between 1997 and 2009, Australia’s agricultural land area was reduced by 11 per cent, from 462 million hectares to 409 million hectares, and 10 per cent of Australian land has been removed from agricultural production for national parks and conservation reserves.
With urban, mining, coal-seam gas and environmental demands taking more and more land, and foreign investors also purchasing significant areas, the AFI report asks if Australia can realistically plan to become the future food bowl of Asia.
This possibility becomes even more remote if Canberra takes one-third of irrigation water from Australia’s most productive agricultural land.
Patrick J. Byrne is vice-president of the National Civic Council.