Flat White

Forget the “watergate” conspiracies: here is the truth about the Murray

28 April 2019

7:47 AM

28 April 2019

7:47 AM

The Murray Darling River is facing a plethora of publicity: fish deaths due to mismanagement of flows by the responsible body, farmer agitation as a result of loss of irrigation water, claims that the water buybacks behind the farmer concerns have been at excessive prices and possibly corruptly made, and a report by the “Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists” with the usual claims of environmental distress.

The Basin has been a political football for the past two decades. The original initiative to insert heightened government control commenced with the ACF.   Infiltrating themselves into farmer groups, always on the lookout for a hand out and ultrasensitive to criticism about their land stewardship, they formed a partnership with the NFF. A joint report in 2000 (the National Investment in Rural Landscapes) sought to extract $6.5 billion to combat environmental distress, which they said was costing $2 billion a year.

The Wentworth Group further developed the theme. This anti-farming group, some of whom had scientific credentials, named themselves after the five star Sydney hotel where they used to meet. Founded 18 years ago and then, as now, comprising the more extreme of the government funded nihilist greens, they first spun a yarn about the farmers in the Murray Darling taking too much water, thereby parching the trees, the fish and the animals, and degrading the land.

Salinity was the clarion call and, naturally, the environmental activists recruited the ABC and other left media to publicise the misinformation they touted. They used evocative phrases such as:

‘Salt destroying our rivers and land like a cancer.’

‘Many of our native plants and animals are heading for extinction.’

‘We are taking more resources out of our continent than its natural systems can replenish.’

None of this has been true:

Because of natural salt outcrops some salinity has always been present and salt extraction halved this between 1982 and 2003.

Australia has had no extinctions for 80 years.

And the land remains capable of producing increasing crop levels.

The Murray Darling is a working river and had, by the 1980s, been massively changed by dams in ways that benefit people (and plants and animals) by converting an irregular flow of between 7,000 and 118,000 gigalitres a year into a placid river. A little under half of the average 24,000 gigalitre flow is used for irrigation. The irrigation allows farmers in the area to produce over 40 per cent of the nation’s agricultural output.

Nonetheless, like all Big Lies, the Wentworth Group’s assertions of damage due to farmer greed struck home. Soon, confected warnings about over-allocation of water were amplified by being fused into the global warming scare. The call now became that the rain would not fall and we needed cut back on irrigation use. Ross Garnaut (a member of the Wentworth Group) in his report on global warming to the Rudd Government said that there would be no scope for irrigation in the future he fancified.

But when we examine rainfall in the basin, here is the trendless picture:

Originally the Wentworth Group sought to take 7,000 of the 11,000 gigalitres of irrigation water; the Howard Government went some modest way towards this and Rudd/Gillard, with little concern for valuing productivity where it clashed with some environmental notions, expanded the take to 2,750 gigalitres. As water is the region’s life-blood, this means a 20 per cent de-rating of the area’s productive capacity and pressures remain for more.

The Greens would like to see no dams on the system and the ALP remains represented by Tony Burke whose past association as a Wilderness Society member places him firmly within their camp. The most recent Wentworth Group report calls for 4,000 gigalitres to be taken from irrigators. This, if agreed to would, of course, only be another step in the continuous agitation against all irrigation. Noting that expenditure to date (mainly water purchases) has been $8.5 billion, it claims the basin is in poor shape.

There is an absence of a cold assessment of the state to the system compared to what it might be and little consideration of what is likely to be traded off to arrive at some alternative system converting the river into a fantasised version of its pre 1900 idyllic past.   But we get massive hype from academia, like the University of New South Wales’s Professor Richard Kingsford, who opines:

Forests of river red gums, black box eucalypts and coolibah trees dead, denied the water flows they relied on by irrigation. Waterbird numbers have plummeted, half the native fish species are now threatened, blue-green algal blooms are increasing, and the Lower Lakes was once taken over by sulfuric acid and salinity. Communities have also been short changed; Aboriginal communities despairing of a dying Darling and graziers lamenting the transfer of their wealth upstream, as irrigation diverts the water that once provided the floods to grow grass for cattle. Tourism too, has been hit hard.

There is no evidence to support such claims and in a media release from last month, the irrigators representatives perplexedly ask, “Is it so unreasonable to want to challenge a Plan which measures its success by the amount of water it removes from agriculture instead of environmental results and the impact of thousands of Australians living in regional communities?” Few are listening to those involved in producing actual wealth outside the area itself. Instead the focus is on fish deaths, which to the degree they are unusual are a result of mismanaging flows, and on implausible notions that the bureaucracy engineered water buybacks in order to enrich Coalition politicians.

Alan Moran is a Director of the Australian Environment Foundation.

Illustration: National Library of Australia.

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