Morrison government plan to scrap water buybacks will hurt taxpayers and the environment



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Quentin Grafton, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

The Morrison government today declared it will axe buybacks of water entitlements from irrigators, placating farmers who say the system has damaged their livelihood and communities.

Instead, Water Minister Keith Pitt says the government will scale up efforts to save water by upgrading infrastructure for farming irrigators in the Murray Darling Basin.

The move will anger environmentalists, who say water buybacks are vital to restoring flows to Australia’s most important river system. It also contradicts findings from the government’s own experts this week who said farm upgrades increase water prices more than buyback water recovery.

The government has chosen a route not backed by evidence, and which will deliver a bad deal to taxpayers and the environment.

A farmer stands in the dry river bed of the Darling River
The government will no longer buy water from farmers for the environment.
Dean Lewins/AAP

A brief history of water buybacks

Farmers along the Murray Darling are entitled to a certain amount of river water which they can use or sell. In 2008, the federal Labor government began buying some of these entitlements in an open-tender process known as “buybacks”. The purchased water was returned to the parched river system to boost the environment.

In 2012, the Murray Darling Basin Plan was struck. It stipulated that 2,750 billion litres of water would be bought back from irrigators and delivered to the environment every year. The buyback system was not universally supported – critics claim buybacks increase water prices, and hurt farmers by reducing the water available for irrigation.

The Coalition government came to office in 2013 and adopted a “strategic” approach to water buybacks. These purchases were made behind closed doors with chosen irrigators.




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Recovering water for the environment in the Murray-Darling: farm upgrades increase water prices more than buybacks


In a review of these buybacks released last month, the Australian National Audit Office found many of these taxpayer-funded deals were not good value for money.

The federal government ordered the review after controversy involving the 2017 purchase of water from two Queensland properties owned by Eastern Australia Agriculture.

The government paid A$80 million for the entitlements – an amount critics said was well over market value. The deal was also contentious because government frontbencher Angus Taylor was, before the purchase, a non-financial director of the company. The company also had links to the Cayman Islands tax haven.

Keith Pitt speaks in Parliament as Prime Minister Scott Morrison watches on
Water Minister Keith Pitt, pictured during Question Time, is the minister responsible for the new approach.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Infrastructure subsidies: a flawed approach

The Coalition government is taking a different approach to recover water for the environment: subsidising water infrastructure on farms and elsewhere. This infrastructure includes lining ponds and possibly levees to trap and store water.

The subsidies have cost many billions of dollars yet recover water at a very much higher cost than reverse tenders. This approach also reduces the water that returns to streams and groundwater.




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The justification for water infrastructure subsidies is that they are supposedly less damaging to irrigation communities. But the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) concluded in a report published this week that on-farm water infrastructure subsidies, while beneficial for their participants, “push water prices higher, placing pressure on the wider irrigation sector”. This is the very sector the subsidies purport to help.

So why would the government expand the use of water infrastructure when it costs more and isn’t good value for money? The answer may lie in this finding from the ABARES report:

Irrigators who hold large volumes of entitlement relative to their water use (and are frequently net sellers of water allocations) may benefit from higher water prices, as this increases the value of their entitlements.

Farmers with limited entitlement holdings however may be adversely affected, as higher water prices increase their costs and lowers their profitability.

In other words, the “big end of town” benefits – at taxpayers’ expense – while the small-scale irrigators lose out.

Missing water

Adding insult to injury, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists released a detailed report this week showing the basin plan is failing to deliver the water expected, even after accounting for dry weather. Some two trillion litres of water is not in the rivers and streams of the basin and appears to have been consumed – a volume that could be more than four times the water in Sydney Harbour.

The Wentworth Group says stream flows may be less than expected because environmental water recovery has been undermined by “water-saving” infrastructure, which reduces the amount of water that would otherwise return to rivers and groundwater.

This infrastructure, on which taxpayers have spent over A$4 billion, has not had the desired effect. Research has found those who receive infrastructure subsidies increased water extractions by more than those who did not receive subsidies. That’s because farmers who were using water more efficiently often planted thirstier crops.

Dusk at Menindee Lakes in the Murray Darling Basin
The government took a strategic approach to water buybacks in the Murray Darling Basin.
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We deserve better

It’s clear taxpayer dollars are much better spent buying back water entitlements, through open tenders, rather than subsidising water infrastructure. We can, and must, do much better with water policy.

Today, the federal government has doubled down on wasteful spending at taxpayer expense – in a time of a COVID-induced recession.

So what is on offer from the Morrison government? Continuing to ignore its own experts’ advice and delivering yet more ineffective subsidies for water infrastructure. Our rivers, our communities, and all Australians deserve much better.




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The Conversation


Quentin Grafton, Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Scientists capture rare footage of mother skink fighting a deadly brown snake to protect her babies



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Gregory Watson, University of the Sunshine Coast and Jolanta Watson, University of the Sunshine Coast

Unlike many mammals and birds, most reptiles show little sign of being caring parents. But our new research shows one lizard species may be more doting parents than we thought – the adults risking their own safety to protect their babies.

We used cameras in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales to study the Cunningham’s skink. We were surprised to record evidence of the lizards actively defending their newborn offspring against formidable predators. Our findings are outlined in a paper released today.

Most startlingly, we recorded a mother skink aggressively attacking a large, deadly brown snake while her babies watched on. We also witnessed 12 incidents of skinks chasing magpies away from their young.

We originally set out to record how species such as skinks will cope with climate change. But this evolved into a study of the fascinating and surprising social bonds between lizard offspring and their parents.

Adult and young skinks sun-baking together
Sun-loving skinks live together in social groups.
Authors provided

What is the Cunningham’s skink?

The Cunningham’s skink (Egernia cunninghami) is a large, sun-loving, spiny lizard native to southeast Australia. It’s named after Alan Cunningham, an explorer who collected the first specimen in the Blue Mountains.

The skinks are active during the day. They feed on invertebrates such as insects, snails and slugs, as well as vegetation.

The Cunningham’s skink lives in social groups – a behaviour very rare among lizards and reptiles. In these groups, mothers give birth to live young (rather than eggs) then live alongside their kids, sometimes for several years.

The species has strength in numbers – living in a group makes it easier to spot threats, which helps the group survive.

Adult and young skinks sun-baking together
Thew offspring of Cunningham’s skinks can stay with the parents for several years.

The mother of all discoveries

Using video and thermal imaging, we observed the skinks on 32 days over three years.

Among reptiles, evidence of parental protection in their natural environment has been rare and typically anecdotal. We witnessed four birthing sessions, and then monitored skink encounters in the presence of their offspring.




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Videoing nature can be tricky. Often, the action takes place away from where you’ve directed your camera. So when we saw a snake, it was a scramble to get a free video camera and start recording.

We witnessed two separate encounters with an eastern brown snake. The first involved the snake sneaking up on six-day-old skinks basking in the sun (see footage below). We recorded the mother running towards the predator and biting it for several seconds. The snake writhes around before the mother releases her grip and returns unharmed to her young.

The following year, we encountered two adult skinks attacking another eastern brown snake in bushes. Juvenile skinks were nearby. The skinks bit tight to the snake’s body, and the snake dragged them for more than 15 metres before the skinks released their grip.

Snakes were not the only predator vanquished by the protective skink parents – Cunningham’s skinks regularly chased magpies away from their young. We observed 12 encounters between skinks and magpies. In each case, an adult skink aggressively chased and/or attacked the magpie after the bird came close to the group.

Thermal camera image showing the mother skink attacking the snake while her babies watch on
Thermal camera image showing the mother skink attacking the snake while her babies watch on.

What does this all mean?

Some animals rarely interact with others of the same species, even their offspring. In fact, available data suggests infanticide – where mature animals kill young offspring of the same species – can occur among some skink species.

We saw no such behaviour among the Cunningham’s skink, or aggression towards each other.

While the aggression of the adult skinks towards predators took place in the presence of young, the adults may have been exhibiting self-defence or territorial behaviour. Regardless, the attacks on predators in the presence of newborns does reflect parental care, either directly or indirectly. Our future field excursions will hopefully shed more light on this.

Understanding the factors that bring parents and offspring together, and keep them together, is important in our broader understanding of social evolution – that is, how social interactions of species arise, change and are maintained.

It will also help us understand how animals cooperating with and caring for each other can benefit both the individual, and the whole.




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A few months ago, science gave this rare lizard a name – and it may already be headed for extinction


The Conversation


Gregory Watson, Senior Lecturer, Science, University of the Sunshine Coast and Jolanta Watson, Lecturer in Science, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.