The Darling River is simply not supposed to dry out, even in drought



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Puddles in the bed of the Darling River are a sign of an ecosystem in crisis.
Jeremy Buckingham/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Fran Sheldon, Griffith University

The deaths of a million of fish in the lower Darling River system over the past few weeks should come as no surprise. Quite apart from specific warnings given to the NSW government by their own specialists in 2013, scientists have been warning of devastation since the 1990s.

Put simply, ecological evidence shows the Barwon-Darling River is not meant to dry out to disconnected pools – even during drought conditions. Water diversions have disrupted the natural balance of wetlands that support massive ecosystems.

Unless we allow flows to resume, we’re in danger of seeing one of the worst environmental catastrophes in Australia.




Read more:
Explainer: what causes algal blooms, and how we can stop them


Dryland river

The Barwon-Darling River is a “dryland river”, which means it is naturally prone to periods of extensive low flow punctuated by periods of flooding.

However, the presence of certain iconic river animals within its channels tell us that a dry river bed is not normal for this system. The murray cod, dead versions of which have recently bought graziers to tears and politicians to retch, are the sentinels of permanent deep waterholes and river channels – you just don’t find them in rivers that dry out regularly.

Less conspicuous is the large river mussel, Alathyria jacksoni, an inhabitant of this system for thousands of years. Its shells are abundant in aboriginal middens along the banks. These invertebrates are unable to tolerate low flows and low oxygen, and while dead fish will float (for a while), shoals of river mussels are probably dead on the river bed.

This extensive drying event will cause regional extinction of a whole raft of riverine species and impact others, such as the rakali. We are witnessing an ecosystem in collapse.

Catastrophic drying

We can see the effects of permanent drying around the world. The most famous example is the drying of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. Once the world’s fourth largest inland lake, it was reduced to less than 10% of its original volume after years of water extraction for irrigation.

The visual results of this exploitation still shock: images of large fishing boats stranded in a sea of sand, abandoned fishing villages, and a vastly changed microclimate for the regions surrounding the now-dry seabed. Its draining has been described as “the world’s worst environmental disaster”.




Read more:
Humans drained the Aral Sea once before – but there are no free refills this time round


So, what does the Aral Sea and its major tributaries and the Darling River system with its tributary rivers have in common? Quite a lot, actually. They both have limited access to the outside world: the Aral Sea basin has no outflow to the sea, and while the Darling River system connects to the River Murray at times of high flow, most of its water is held within a vast network of wetlands and floodplain channels. Both are semi-arid. More worryingly, both have more the 50% of their average inflows extracted for irrigation.

There is one striking difference between them. The Aral Sea was a permanent inland lake and its disappearance was visually obvious. The wetlands and floodplains of the Barwon-Darling are mostly ephemeral, and the extent of their drying is therefore hard to visualise.




Read more:
It’s time to restore public trust in the governing of the Murray Darling Basin


An orphaned ship in former Aral Sea, near Aral, Kazakhstan.
Wikipedia

All the main tributaries of the Darling River have floodplain wetland complexes in their lower reaches (such as the Gwydir Wetlands, Macquarie Marshes and Narran Lakes). When the rivers flow they absorb the water from upstream, filling before releasing water downstream to the next wetland complex; the wetlands acting like a series of tipping buckets. Regular river flows are essential for these sponge-like wetlands.

So, how has this hydrological harmony of regular flows and fill-and-spill wetlands changed? And how does this relate to the massive fish kills we are seeing in the lower Darling system?




Read more:
How is oxygen ‘sucked out’ of our waterways?


While high flows will still make it through the Barwon-Darling, filling the floodplains and wetlands, and connecting to the River Murray, the low and medium flow events have disappeared. Instead, these are captured in the upper sections of the basin in artificial water storages and used in irrigation.

This has essentially dried the wetlands and floodplains at the ends of the tributaries. Any water not diverted for irrigation is now absorbed by the continually parched upstream wetlands, leaving the lower reaches vulnerable when drought hits.

By continually keeping the Barwon-Darling in a state of low (or no) flow, with its natural wetlands dry, we have reduced its ability to cope with extended drought.




Read more:
Why a wetland might not be wet


While droughts are a natural part of this system and its river animals have adapted, they can’t adjust to continual high water caused in some areas by water diversions – and they certainly can’t survive long-term drying.

The Basin Plan has come some way in restoring some flows to the Barwon-Darling, but unless we find a way to restore more of the low and medium flows to this system we are likely witnessing Australia’s worst environmental disaster.




Read more:
It will take decades, but the Murray Darling Basin Plan is delivering environmental improvements


The Conversation


Fran Sheldon, Professor, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University, Griffith University

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

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It will take decades, but the Murray Darling Basin Plan is delivering environmental improvements


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The Murrumbidgee River is one of several sites in the Murray-Darling Basin where improvements are being detected.
CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Angus Webb, University of Melbourne; Darren Ryder, University of New England; Fiona Dyer, University of Canberra; Michael Stewardson, University of Melbourne; Mike Grace, Monash University; Nick Bond, La Trobe University; Paul Frazier, University of New England; Qifeng Ye; Rick Stoffels, CSIRO; Robyn J Watts, Charles Sturt University; Samantha Capon, Griffith University, and Skye Wassens, Charles Sturt University

Amid the politics, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was originally designed primarily to restore the rivers’ environment. While questions have been raised over the plan’s governance, economics, and political commitment by the states, it is important to note that, more than five years after the plan’s adoption, the environmental benefits are slowly but surely being seen.

The Long-Term Intervention Monitoring Project began in 2014 to monitor and evaluate environmental outcomes from Commonwealth environmental water – the water being delivered into the Murray-Darling Basin by the plan.




Read more:
The science behind the Murray-Darling Basin plan


We are leading independent teams of researchers and consultants in monitoring seven selected areas across the Murray-Darling Basin, and then scaling up those results to deduce the health of the basin as a whole.

The seven monitoring sites.
Author provided

Three and a half years into an initial five-year program, we are generally seeing environmental changes of the types and magnitudes expected at this stage of the plan.

Plans, predictions and possibilities

It’s not widely known what environmental water can and cannot do, and how different environmental indicators will respond at different rates. The Basin Plan’s objectives focus on fish, bird and vegetation communities – and in all of these areas, the changes will take time.

Under the plan, we expect that it will take more than a decade from the start of flow delivery before large-scale changes become evident. Detecting these changes will require both time and high-quality data.

What’s more, Commonwealth environmental water is a relatively small proportion of what once flowed through these systems. The government currently holds entitlements to 1,836 billion litres, which is less than 6% of average system inflows (the rainfall that makes it into the river system).

This is not enough water to restore natural flow patterns. Along with other constraints, such as the pressure to keep water off floodplains, this means that managers need to be extremely selective about where, when and how water is delivered for environmental benefits.

What are we monitoring?

While we are monitoring fish, birds and vegetation to allow us to measure progress towards the Basin Plan’s objectives, we are also monitoring shorter-term responses. These responses provide data on environmental processes that will allow us to predict whether we can expect the Basin Plan ultimately to deliver on the promised long-term improvements.

A good example of this is golden perch, a threatened and iconic native fish species in the Murray-Darling Basin. Long-term changes in the adult population will only be seen if shorter-term processes, such as migration and spawning, occur. Environmental water should help these processes, and we are monitoring those outcomes.

Adult fish respond to high flows in spring, moving downstream to spawn. Eggs and larvae are washed further downstream, so to bring new fish into the local population, high flow events in autumn can be used to attract juvenile fish back into a river. Golden perch move over very large distances, and as adults they may end up living in a different river from where they were spawned.

If environmental water is used to achieve all these processes, then over years to decades, we will see an increase in adult golden perch numbers.

Adult golden perch fitted with a tag to track its movements.
Wayne Koster/Arthur Rylah Institute, Author provided

Quicker results

Not everything takes decades, however. We have already been able to detect some shorter-term benefits from the plan. Here are some examples from around the Basin:

  • Lower Murray: environmental water has reduced salinity in the Coorong and increased salt export through the Murray mouth

  • Edward-Wakool: environmental water has provided refuges for aquatic fauna during low-oxygen “black water” events caused by floods in 2010 and 2016, reducing impacts on fish populations

  • Murrumbidgee: environmental water has been crucial in helping endangered populations of the vulnerable southern bell frog to recover

  • Gwydir: environmental water allowed the production of 1,000 tonnes of zooplankton over 90 days, in turn providing food for fish and higher predators

  • Warrego-Darling: environmental water has maintained flows in a system that would have otherwise dried to a series of isolated pools, maintaining food webs and stimulating fish breeding.

Alternative outcomes

Besides reporting progress, our monitoring program also allows us to make predictions of what the system might have looked like with different environmental flows, or with no environmental flows at all.

In the Lachlan River in New South Wales, environmental water has been used to support a major bird breeding event by extending the period of flooding. Without this water, nests would have been abandoned, leaving thousands of fledglings to die.

Straw necked Ibis chicks from the Lachlan River.
Mal Carnegie/Lake Cowal Association, Author provided

We also share our results with environmental water managers to help improve the effectiveness and efficiency of environmental water delivery – a process called adaptive management. In the Goulburn River in Victoria, we have learned that the release of environmental water to help riverbank vegetation is more effective if delivered earlier in spring. Riverbank vegetation has now improved so much that metal pins being used to monitor erosion and sediment deposition can’t be found without a metal detector.

In it for the long haul

One criticism of the Basin Plan is that there is no evidence yet of basin-wide improvements. For some indicators this is to be expected because of the long time frames of response of the Basin Plan objectives. However, we have already reported on basin scale changes of other indicators, such as vegetation.

Also, the assessment of Commonwealth environmental water delivery shows that across the basin, we are creating the types of flow events expected to lead to beneficial environmental outcomes at broad scales.

Environmental water release to improve water quality in the Edward-Wakool system.
Photo: Commonwealth Environmental Water Office, Author provided



Read more:
Is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan broken?


The politics of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan will probably always be fraught. But as the group charged with assessing environmental progress, we want the debate on its effectiveness to be underpinned by sound evidence from independent experts.

The Long-Term Intervention Monitoring Project, along with other research and monitoring, is providing that evidence.

So, while the Basin Plan’s objectives will take a long time to be realised, there are positive signs that it is slowly achieving its major goal of improving environments in the Murray-Darling Basin, underpinning more sustainable social, environmental and economic outcomes into the future.


The ConversationThis article was coauthored by Mark Southwell, Geomorphologist, Eco Logical Australia; and Shane Brooks, Director, LitePC Technologies.

Angus Webb, Senior Lecturer and quantitative ecologist, University of Melbourne; Darren Ryder, Professor of Aquatic Ecology and Restoration, University of New England; Fiona Dyer, Associate professor, University of Canberra; Michael Stewardson, Professor, University of Melbourne; Mike Grace, Associate Professor, Monash University; Nick Bond, Professor, La Trobe University; Paul Frazier, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, University of New England; Qifeng Ye, Principal Scientist, Inland Waters and Catchment Ecology Program; Rick Stoffels, Senior Scientist, CSIRO; Robyn J Watts, Professor of Ecology, Charles Sturt University; Samantha Capon, Research Fellow in Ecology, Griffith University, and Skye Wassens, Associate Professor in Ecology, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

States’ dummy-spit over the Murray-Darling Basin Plan clouds the real facts



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The Darling River near Menindee, NSW.
Tim Keegan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Quentin Grafton, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and John Williams, Australian National University

Given the outraged reaction from some state water ministers to the disallowance of an amendment to the Murray Darling Basin Plan, you would be forgiven for thinking that a heinous crime had been committed against farmers in upstream states.

In fact, what happened was that the Senate voted for the Basin Plan to continue unchanged, rather than allow a modest increase in the water available to farms in the Murray Darling’s Northern Basin.

NSW water minister Niall Blair reacted by declaring that his state “will now start the process of withdrawing ourselves from the plan”, while his Victorian counterpart Lisa Neville angrily declared that “the plan is over” (despite Victoria not even being in the Northern Basin).

The political friction is generating a lot of heat, but precious little light. The debate could use a few more facts, so here they are.




Read more:
Is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan broken?


First of all, the amount of water involved in the amendment represents less than 1% of the average annual surface water extractions allowed by the Basin Plan. This is roughly equivalent to a single day’s irrigation use throughout the basin during the growing season.

In other words, irrigators already use huge amounts of water, and ensuring that environmental water recovery on the Darling River is not reduced by 70 billion litres will make very little difference to irrigators.

Second, the delivery of the environmental water target of 390 billion litres in the Northern Basin, rather than 320 billion litres as proposed in the amendment, will be undertaken with full compensation. In other words, no individual irrigator will be made worse off by allowing the original target to be delivered. No one is “taking water” from anyone.

Third, let’s just reiterate that no one has changed the Basin Plan, so the “loss” of 70 billion litres simply represents 70 billion litres less in diversions that farmers were hoping to receive in future, but now won’t.

Meanwhile, there is another amendment under consideration, to be decided by May 7, that will potentially allow farmers across the Basin to divert an extra 605 billion litres from the river. These amendments are political compromises and not part of the scientific and economic assessments that led to the Basin Plan.

Fourth, the claims by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority that the reduction in the environmental water recovery will save 200 jobs does not bear scrutiny. Jobs in agriculture have everything to do the weather, with commodity prices and the value of the Australian dollar, and very little to do with environmental water recovery. We should not spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a consultant to get an “answer” that does not pass proper peer review in academic journals if we want good public policy outcomes.

Fifth, and finally, it’s time for some maths. The Basin Plan that was passed in 2012 had, on average, a surface water diversion limit (that is, the total amount that farmers and other water users were allowed to take) of 10,873 billion litres per year. Before surface water diversions were controlled in the mid-1990s, the average annual surface water diversions in the Basin were 10,684 billion litres per year. Between 2000-01 and 2014-15, the average was 7,956 billion litres per year.

In other words, the water limits allowed by the existing Basin Plan represent an increase, rather than a reduction, on what water users have been taking, on average, for the past 30 years. For this reason alone, we should be very careful about letting them have even more.




Read more:
The Murray Darling Basin Plan is not delivering – there’s no more time to waste


Politicians and vested interests are playing fast and loose with the facts.
Let’s be clear, the Basin Plan will not keel over because of this disallowed amendment. But it will die if the irrigators who have already received billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money, and who have billions allocated for them in the forward estimates, stop the Basin Plan from delivering on its original intentions.

It’s time our federal government stood up and defended the national interest and faithfully delivered on the original intent of the Basin Plan, and actually increase stream flows in the Basin by 2,750 billion litres per year.

The ConversationAs we and our colleagues argued earlier this month, that means establishing a truly independent scientific and expert body to evaluate the Basin’s health and what has been delivered in terms of increased net stream flows with the Basin Plan. It also means an end to further infrastructure subsidies and efficiency projects until the full facts are publicly known and scrutinised about what public benefits they provide.

Quentin Grafton, Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and John Williams, Adjunct Professor Environment and Natural Resources, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Murray Darling Basin Plan is not delivering – there’s no more time to waste



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Despite billions spent on trying to save water in the Murray Darling Basin, results have been disappointing.
John Williams, Author provided

Quentin Grafton, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Darla Hatton MacDonald, University of Tasmania; David Paton, University of Adelaide; Graham Harris, University of Wollongong; Henning Bjornlund, University of South Australia; Jeffery D Connor, University of South Australia; John Quiggin, The University of Queensland; John Williams, Australian National University; Lin Crase, University of South Australia; Richard Kingsford, UNSW, and Sarah Ann Wheeler, University of Adelaide

More than five years after the Murray Darling Basin Plan was implemented, it’s clear that it is not delivering on its key objectives.

The Basin Plan, at its core, is about reducing the amount of water that can be extracted from its streams, rivers and aquifers. It includes an environmental water strategy to improve the conditions of the wetlands and rivers of the basin.
The Productivity Commission will conduct a five-yearly inquiry into the effectiveness of the Basin Plan in 2018.

It is high time to explain what is really going on in the Basin and water recovery. For this reason we have all signed the Murray-Darling Basin Declaration to explain what has gone wrong, to call for a freeze on funding for new irrigation projects until the outcomes of water recovery has been fully and independently audited, and to call for the establishment of an independent, expert body to deliver on the key goals of the Water Act (2007).




Read more:
Is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan broken?


Until the ABC’s 4 Corners program in July last year, many Australians were unaware of alleged water theft and grossly deficient compliance along the Darling River. The true situation stands in stark contrast to the official view that all was well.

Some A$6 billion has been spent on “water recovery” in the Murray-Darling Basin. Of this, A$4 billion was used to subsidise irrigation infrastructure. This water recovery and the 2012 Basin Plan have been presented as a comprehensive solution to the environmental and economic problems of the Murray-Darling. But what has this huge public expenditure actually bought us?

The basin remains in a poor state. While there have been environmental improvements at specific sites, these have not been replicated basin-wide. Indeed, the federal government’s own State of the Environment Report 2016 gives a “poor” assessment on inland water flows in the basin. It reports long-term downward trends in flows since 2011 and a widespread loss of ecosystem function. Other evidence tells the same story.

Water recovery infrastructure projects have benefited irrigators, but for many of these projects there is no scientific evidence that they have actually increased net stream flows. Flows at the Murray River mouth remain inadequate. The federal government’s objective to keep the mouth open to the sea 90% of the time will almost certainly not be achieved.

The Murray mouth remains in a dire statedredging to keep it open is the norm rather than the exception, even without a drought.

How is it possible to spend A$6 billion on water recovery in the basin and have so little to show for it? It is now more than 11 years since the A$10 billion National Plan for Water Security was announced, seven years since the Millennium Drought ended, and the Australian government is already 70% towards achieving its water recovery goal. Surely, by now, Australian taxpayers – not to mention the river’s ecosystems – should be seeing a better return on this bold environmental investment?

Bad decisions

We have spent much of our working lives investigating water reforms and the health of the Murray-Darling Basin. We deplore the diversion of funds for environmental recovery into irrigation upgrades – a decision that simply represents poor public policy. Much more could have been achieved for far less, as federal government data show that buying water from willing sellers is 60% cheaper than building questionable engineering works.

To make matters worse, just two months ago the Murray-Darling Basin Authority recommended to parliament that buying back of environmental flows be reduced by 22% by July 1, 2019. This is an average annual reduction that exceeds the volume of water in Sydney Harbour.

Instead, 36 water supply projects are planned to deliver this water recovery goal. Yet 25 of them fail to satisfy the Basin Plan’s own conditions of approval such as environmental risks are adequately mitigated.

Plans are also afoot to “invest” A$1.5 billion in yet more infrastructure projects that will supposedly be the equivalent of 450 billion litres per year of water by 2024. South Australia demanded this extra water before it would approve the 2012 Basin Plan.

An algal bloom in the Darling River at Louth.
John Williams, Author provided

Despite spending A$4 billion to reduce water losses from irrigation over the past decade, we still do not know what impact this has had on the water that previously flowed from farmers’ paddocks and returned to wetlands, rivers and aquifers. The decline in these flows might have completely offset increases in environmental flows from water rights acquired through subsidies.

It is time to call it like it is. Australia is paying the price of alleged water theft, questionable environmental infrastructure water projects, and policies that subsidise private benefits at the expense of taxpayers and sustainability.

Accountability requires transparency in reporting and monitoring. So far we have failed to redirect public money away from wasteful subsidies while the rivers suffer. This is why we have signed the Murray-Darling Declaration, to highlight our concerns and to offer solutions.

Steps to change

Many aspects of water reform need to change, but three steps are necessary to deliver fully on the key objectives of the Water Act 2007. These are:

  1. Stop any further expenditures on subsidies or grants for irrigation infrastructure in the Murray-Darling Basin until there is an independent, scientific and economic audit of what A$4 billion delivered in volumes of water and environmental outcomes.

  2. Audit all water recovery and planned sustainable diversion limit (SDL) adjustments in the basin, including details of environmental water recovered, expenditures and actual environmental outcomes, especially in terms of stream flows at all special environmental assets, including the Murray Mouth.

  3. Establish an independent expert scientific advisory body to monitor the basin’s health and to publicly guide all governments to ensure the full achievement of key objectives of the Water Act 2007. These are: to restore overallocated resources to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction; and to protect, restore and provide for the ecological values and ecosystem services of the Murray-Darling Basin.




Read more:
Drought on the Murray River harms ocean life too


There is no time to waste for the Murray-Darling Basin, its rivers, environments, traditional owners, and communities. Our declaration makes it clear what must be done. The federal and state governments must be held to account and actually deliver what is needed for the basin, before the next big drought causes irreversible damage.


This article was co-authored by Richard Davis, a former chief science adviser to the National Water Commission.

The ConversationThis article is co-published with Policy Forum at the Crawford School of Public Policy.

Quentin Grafton, Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Darla Hatton MacDonald, Associate Professor, University of Tasmania; David Paton, Associate Professor, University of Adelaide; Graham Harris, Professorial Fellow, University of Wollongong; Henning Bjornlund, Professor, University of South Australia; Jeffery D Connor, Professor in Water Economics, University of South Australia; John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland; John Williams, Adjunct Professor Environment and Natural Resources, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Lin Crase, Professor of Economics and Head of School, University of South Australia; Richard Kingsford, Professor, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UNSW, and Sarah Ann Wheeler, Professor in Water Economics, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

New Royal Commission into water theft may be just the tip of iceberg for the Murray Darling Basin


Jamie Pittock, Australian National University

Last weekend South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill announced the establishment of a Royal Commission to investigate breaches of the Murray Darling Basin Agreement.

This follows apparently egregious behaviour by some irrigators and state government regulators in New South Wales. Yet the alleged theft of water in the Murray-Darling Basin is only the tip of the iceberg when we consider the institutional problems – namely the capture of state government agencies by powerful irrigation interests.

Take NSW as an example. In 1993 the then state Department of Water Resources’ North west rivers audit found the same theft, meter-tampering and questionable government oversight exposed again by the ABC’s Four Corners investigation in July.

Only half of the targeted volume of salt has been flushed out to sea and the water supply to Broken Hill and other communities has become unreliable. Moreover, floodplain forests and wetlands of international significance continue to decline, and native fish and water bird populations have flatlined.

In fact, many values are at risk in the river system that supplies water to more than 3 million people, and covers a seventh of Australia’s landmass. It is not only a few (alleged) bad apples, it is governance of water that is broken.

Problems with the existing plan

While bad behaviour in NSW is evident, of more concern is the way some state governments are frustrating implementation of the A$13 billion 2012-26 Basin Plan and associated programs to recover water for the river system.

If the Basin Plan is to improve the health of the river and its extensive floodplain forests along the lower River Murray, the water recovered for the environment needs to be released in pulses. That will be the best way to ensure it can rise out of the river channel and inundate wetlands.


Read more: Is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan broken?


In this context it is unhelpful for the Victorian Government to propose flows of around half the previously agreed size because of the objections of a small number of landowners along the Goulburn River in its Goulburn key focus area project.

Upstream, state governments have rules that allow water purchased by taxpayers for the river to be extracted by irrigators when it crosses state borders. However, they are failing to remove bottlenecks that prevent managed floods from travelling safely down rivers. They have even proposed to reduce the water available for the environment below minimum requirements.

Astonishingly, 30% of water extraction points in the Basin are still not metered and the information that is collected is not publicly available or audited so that theft can be penalised.

Sustainable management required

Sustainable management of the Murray-Darling Basin requires trust and cooperation among the responsible state, ACT and federal governments.

The alleged water theft in NSW breaks that trust, especially for SA as the downstream state that relies on the River Murray. But so too does the stalling of implementation of the Basin Plan agreement and manipulation of the rules that govern who gets what water and when they get it.


Read more: ‘Tax returns for water’: satellite-audited statements can save the Murray-Darling


The foundation of trust is transparency. As a start, there are many opportunities for online recording of water allocations and use to increase trust. It is still possible to fix implementation of the Plan.

In a report released yesterday the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists has identified several solutions, including metering all water diversions, completing water recovery, and investing in regional development.

The good news is that there are signs of political leadership. The Council of Australian Governments promised in June to deliver the Basin Plan “in full and on time” for its planned commencement in 2019.

Recently, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recommitted the federal government to Basin Plan implementation. He endorsed the far-reaching recommendations of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s Basin-wide Compliance Review to strengthen enforcement of water laws and the Basin Plan, and to recover the remaining environmental water.

The SA Royal Commission

Beginning in 2018, Weatherill’s newly announced Royal Commission will investigate breaches of the Murray Darling Basin Agreement, and the Commissioner “will examine the adequacy of existing legislation and practices and make recommendations for any necessary changes.”

Most significantly, Weatherill has proposed going beyond water theft to “look into whether any legislative or policy changes since the agreement was signed in 2012 have been inconsistent with the purpose of the Basin Agreement and Basin Plan”.


Read more: We need more than just extra water to save the Murray-Darling Basin


The Royal Commission’s terms of reference are not yet available and the extent of cooperation of upstream governments is highly uncertain (NSW has already said it will not cooperate). Yet the Royal Commission could help identify ways to better meter and account for water, improve compliance and set rules to protect environmental water.

At the next Basin Ministerial Council meeting later this year the governments need to map out measures to put the Plan back on track. If it can do so, it will be endorsed at the Council of Australian Governments in 2018. This is their opportunity to articulate precisely how they will fulfil their commitment to delivering the basin plan in full and on time.

The ConversationThe Murray-Darling Basin Plan is not perfect. Implementation has problems, but with the remaining $5.1 billion allocated funds and proper leadership it can be well implemented to benefit both people and the environment.

Jamie Pittock, Director, International Programs, UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Preventing Murray-Darling water theft: a space agency can help Australia manage federal resources


Andrew Dempster, UNSW

This is the first article in the series Australia’s place in space, where we’ll explore the strengths and weaknesses, along with the past, present and the future of Australia’s space presence and activities.


An independent report into allegations of water theft and corruption in the Murray-Darling Basin has recommended fundamental reforms to the system.

Solutions suggested in the report focus on the state of New South Wales, and involve metered pumps and public access to information. Others have proposed a space-based solution: wide application of “random audits” of water meters by an independent monitoring system: satellites.

But what if we went further. Forget the random audits – why not use satellites to monitor everywhere in the Murray-Darling Basin, all the time?

It’s another argument supporting Australia’s need of a space agency.


Read more: Is the Murray Darling Basin plan broken?


Australian solutions to Australian problems

Among the many arguments in favour of Australia having its own space agency, the use of satellites to collect local data to solve local problems is a vital one.

Under the Australian Space Research Program (the ASRP, which ended in 2013), my colleagues and I developed a design for a pair of Synthetic Aperture Radar satellites that would map soil moisture for all of Australia, every 3 days, to a resolution of 10 metres. We called it “Garada”. This system could readily detect overuse of water of the type noted in the Murray Ddarling Basin, as it was occurring.

Our report was delivered to the Space Policy Unit (which later became the Space Coordination Office), and then the idea stopped dead. There was no mechanism within the public sphere to advance the project: it fell into the hole where a space agency should have been.

The Garada satellites are big and expensive, not exactly the low-cost, “Space 2.0”-focused solutions where most of Australia’s opportunities lie (such as small satellites and startup companies).

However, when we did the study, we showed how the satellite system could be viable if it was considered to be infrastructure. We showed that despite a hefty price tag of A$800 million, the satellite would pay for itself if:

  • its data led to an increase of 0.35% in GDP for non irrigated agriculture, or
  • its data led to a decrease of 7% of irrigation infrastructure, or
  • it was able to save 1% of Murray-Darling water flows.

Read more: Ten reasons why Australia urgently needs a space agency


In a practical sense, the space agency, which needn’t have a big budget itself, wouldn’t have to pay for such a satellite; it just needs a seat at the infrastructure table and compare benefit-to-cost ratios with other projects such as roads and railways. In my opinion, one part of the agency’s role, should it exist, is to make sure infrastructure such as this is considered.

Another important thing to acknowledge here is that both the problem and solution here are federal, with multiple states as stakeholders. An agency that functions to solve problems of this type is not consistent with the sort of “go it alone” approach recently put forward by the ACT and South Australia.

Satellites forge ahead

Even without a space agency, recent years have started to see satellites used to solve Australia-specific problems. The NBN “Skymuster” satellites deliver broadband to remote areas where fibre and wireless solutions were impractical. But they were 100% imported – not an Australian solution.

Start-up Fleet in Adelaide has recently received first-round funding to deliver internet of things services to remote areas from a constellation of cubesats. This may have been achieved against the odds without a local ecosystem, but the company’s official stance is “Australia can no longer afford not to have a space agency”. A number of other start-ups are also starting to gain traction.

Australian universities have been successful in launching and operating cubesats in the QB50 constellation, such as our own UNSW-EC0. These are the first Australian-built satellites to be launched in 15 years. My own group has also delivered GPS receivers as payloads on Defence missions Biarri and Buccaneer.

Australia not at the space table

The world’s largest space conference, the International Astronautical Congress is to be held in Adelaide, September 25-29 2017.

When members of the global space community – NASA, the European Space Agency, the Chinese National Space Agency, the UK Space Agency, and others – meet at the congress to make decisions on missions, strategy, collaborations and other global directions in space, Australia will not be at the table, because we do not have a space agency.


Read more: The 50-year old Outer Space Treaty needs adaptation


The more general commercial and scientific implications related to this have been well outlined. What I have tried to highlight here is simply one example of a possible great many: there are local, practical implications linked to failed advancement of an infrastructure project that relies on expertise in space.

Submissions to the Federal Government’s Review of Australia’s Space Industry Capability closed in August, with many in the industry hoping that its report in March 2018 will recommend an Australian space agency.

The ConversationThe benefits can be broader than most Australians realise – we need to imagine better.

Andrew Dempster, Director, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research; Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan broken?


Ross M Thompson, University of Canberra

A recent expose by the ABC’s Four Corners has alleged significant illegal extraction of water from the Barwon-Darling river system, one of the major tributaries of the Murray River. The revelations have triggered widespread condemnation of irrigators, the New South Wales government and its officials, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Basin Plan itself.

If the allegations are true that billions of litres of water worth millions of dollars were illegally extracted, this would represent one of the largest thefts in Australian history. It would have social and economic consequences for communities along the entire length of the Murray-Darling river system, and for the river itself, after years of trying to restore its health.

Water is big business, big politics and a big player in our environment. Taxpayers have spent A$13 billion on water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin in the past decade, hundreds of millions of which have gone directly to state governments. Governments have an obligation to ensure that this money is well spent.

The revelations cast doubt on the states’ willingness to do this, and even on their commitment to the entire Murray-Darling Basin Plan. This commitment needs to be reaffirmed urgently.

Basic principles

To work out where to go from here, it helps to understand the principles on which the Basin Plan was conceived. At its foundation, Australian water reform is based on four pillars.

1. Environmental water and fair consumption

The initial driver of water reform in the late 1990s was a widespread recognition that too much water had been allocated from the Murray-Darling system, and that it had suffered ecological damage as a result.

State and Commonwealth governments made a bipartisan commitment to reset the balance between water consumption and environmental water, to help restore the basin’s health and also to ensure that water-dependent industries and communities can be strong and sustainable.

Key to this was the idea that water users along the river would have fair access to water. Upstream users could not take water to the detriment of people downstream. The Four Corners investigation casts doubt on the NSW’s commitment to this principle.

2. Water markets and buybacks

The creation of a water market under the Basin Plan had two purposes: to allow water to be purchased on behalf of the environment, and to allow water permits to be traded between irrigators depending on relative need.

This involved calculating how much water could be taken from the river while ensuring a healthy ecosystem (the Sustainable Diversion Limit). Based on these calculations, state governments developed a water recovery program, which aimed to recover 2,750 gigalitres of water per year from consumptive use, through a A$3 billion water entitlement buyback and a A$9 billion irrigation modernisation program.

This program hinged on the development of water accounting tools that could measure both water availability and consumption. Only through trust in this process can downstream users be confident that they are receiving their fair share.

3. States retain control of water

Control of water was a major stumbling block in negotiating the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, because of a clash between states’ water-management responsibilities and the Commonwealth’s obligations to the environment.

As a result, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority sits outside of both state and Commonwealth governments, and states have to draw up water management plans that are subject to approval by the authority.

The states are responsible for enforcing these plans and ensuring that allocations are not exceeded. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority cannot easily enforce action on the ground – a situation that generates potential for state-level political interference, as alleged by the Four Corners investigation.

4. Trust and transparency

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was built on a foundation of trust and transparency. The buyback scheme has transformed water into a tradeable commodity worth A$2 billion a year, a sizeable chunk of which is held by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office.

Water trading has also helped to make water use more flexible. In a dry year, farmers with annual crops (such as cotton) can choose not to plant and instead to sell their water to farmers such as horticulturists who must irrigate to keep their trees alive. This flexibility is valuable in Australia’s highly variable climate.

Yet it is also true that water trading has created some big winners. Those with pre-existing water rights have been able to capitalise on that asset and invest heavily in buying further water rights, an outcome highlighted in the Four Corners story.

More than A$20 million in research investment has been devoted to ensuring that the ecological benefits of water are optimised – most notably through the Environmental Water Knowledge and Research and Long Term Intervention Monitoring programs. What is not clear is whether water extractions and their policing have been subjected to a similar degree of review and rigour.

What next for the Murray-Darling Basin?

The public needs to be able to trust that all parties are working honestly and accountably. This is particularly true for the downstream partners, who are the most likely victims of management failures upstream. Without trust in the upstream states, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan will unravel.

State governments urgently need to reaffirm their commitment to the four pillars that underpin the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and to reassure the public that in retaining control of water they are operating in good faith.

Finally, rigour and transparency are needed in assessing the Basin Plan’s methods and environmental benefits, and the operation of the water market. The Productivity Commission’s review of national water policy, and its specific review of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan next year, will offer a clear opportunity to reassure everyone that the A$13 billion of public money that has gone into water reform in the past decade has been money well spent.

The ConversationOnly then will the fragile trust that underlies the water reform process be maintained and built.

Ross M Thompson, Chair of Water Science and Director, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.