Paddling blind: why we urgently need a water audit



There’s broad support from communities and farmers for proper water audits.
John/Flickr, CC BY-SA

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

In the wake of a damning royal commission and an ABC Four Corners investigation, the federal government has created an Inspector General for the Murray-Darling Basin, to combat water theft, ensure water recovery and efficiency projects are delivered properly, and essentially make sure everyone is acting as they should.

While this is a laudable aim, the Inspector General – currently former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mike Keelty – cannot hope to do this job without knowing how much water is being used in the Basin, by whom it is used, and where.




Read more:
Billions spent on Murray-Darling water infrastructure: here’s the result


This might seem like basic information, but the Bureau of Meteorology, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and state water accounts are not up to the task.

We urgently need a comprehensive audit to track the water in the Murray Darling Basin, so Inspector General Keelty can effectively investigate what he has already described as a “river ripe for corruption”.

Up the creek

Back in 2004 all governments in Australia agreed to track and provide information on water in terms of planning, monitoring, trading, environmental management, and on-farm management.

But water accounts still lack many essential features including double-entry accounting. When applied to water, double-entry accounts means that when one person consumes more water, someone else must consume less.




Read more:
Aboriginal voices are missing from the Murray-Darling Basin crisis


The technology to track this already exists: satellites that can quantify surface water are successfully being used used in the United States.

If we had monthly water consumption measurements, we could see how much water is being used, by whom, when and where. This would help decision makers see problems before they emerge, such as the mass fish deaths in the Darling River, and respond in real time.

As a recent report from the Natural Resources Commission shows, without proper accounting, too much water is taken upstream – seriously harming downstream communities.

Wide support for an audit

An independent Basin-wide water audit is supported by communities and some irrigators.

In July NSW farmers voted in support of a federal royal commission into “the failings of the Murray Darling Basin Plan”. In our view, this vote shows many farmers support much greater transparency about how much water is being consumed, and by whom.




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


Double-entry water consumption accounts would help identify whether the billions of dollars planned in subsidies to increase irrigation efficiency will actually deliver value for money. But irrigation improvements only generate public benefits when more water is left or returns to flow in streams and rivers. Such flows are essential to healthy rivers and sustainable Basin communities.

Irrigators’ crops benefit from increased efficiency, so subsidies help farmers greatly – but it is very unclear whether they do anything for the public good. In fact, they seem to reduce the amount of water that finds its way back into the rivers. Research also shows infrastructure subsidies to improve irrigation efficiency typically increases water consumption at the Basin level.

Our research, published earlier this year in the Australasian Journal of Water Resources shows federal irrigation infrastructure subsidies may have reduced net stream and river levels. This is even after accounting for the water entitlements irrigators provided to the government in exchange for these subsidies.




Read more:
5 ways the government can clean up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan


Independent audits

Just like financial accounts, water accounts must be independently audited.

For the average taxpayer, who has to justify every dollar they get from the government, it’s hard to imagine how some corporations can be given millions of dollars in subsidies without actual measurements (before and after) of the claimed water savings.

If Newstart recipients need to report and manage their income and have a job plan, as part of a system of appropriate checks and balances, shouldn’t the Australian government also be checking whether billions spent on subsidies for irrigators actually saves water?




Read more:
The Murray-Darling Basin scandal: economists have seen it coming for decades


A water audit would cost less than 1% of the money already spent on water infrastructure subsidies in the Basin. Unlike irrigation infrastructure subsidies, a water audit is value for money.

Importantly, independent water consumption accounts would allow the Inspector General for the Murray-Darling Basin to effectively manage our most critical nature resource, water.The Conversation

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

Advertisements

The Murray-Darling Basin scandal: economists have seen it coming for decades


John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

Nations behave wisely, Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban observed five decades ago, “once they have exhausted all other alternatives”.

One can only hope that proves the case with water policy in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin, the nation’s largest river system and agricultural heartland.




Read more:
Billions spent on Murray-Darling water infrastructure: here’s the result


The ABC’s Four Corners program Cash Splash, aired last night, illustrates how thoroughly we are exhausting the options that don’t work to keep rivers being sucked dry by irrigators. Billions of dollars have been spent on infrastructure schemes that have failed to deliver any measurable improvement in water flows or the state of the environment.

The Murray–Darling Basin is Australia’s largest and most complex river system. With 77,000 km of rivers, it is the food bowl of the nation.
Murray–Darling Basin Authority

This failure is no surprise to economists who have studied the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin for decades.

The central problem is well understood, as are the workable (and unworkable) possible responses.

The basin covers four states: Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. All state governments have allocated permits to extract water for human uses (irrigated agriculture and urban water). The allocations grew rapidly in the second half of the 20th century, exceeding the sustainable capacity of the natural environment.

One sign of the failure became dramatically obvious in 1991, with an outbreak of toxic blue-green algae over 1,200 km of the Darling River. Algal blooms are fed by nitrogen and other nutrients in fertiliser runoff and sewerage. They continue to occur.

This event underlined the need to leave enough water in rivers for “environmental flows” to keep the system healthy.

Acting with what now seems like impressive promptness, the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council (made up of the water resources ministers from the basin states, the Australian Capital Territory and the federal government) imposed a cap on water extractions in 1995. It limited extractions to the volume of water capable of being taken out by the infrastructure (pumps, dams, channels, management rules) that existed in 1993-94.

The cap was supposed to be a temporary measure. It wasn’t intended to solve the problem, just stop it getting any worse in the short run.

The long-term solution was to be a system of trade in water rights, introduced by the Council of Australian Governments in 1994. Combined with the right price signals from environmental purchases, this system was meant to allocate water to its most productive uses while reducing extractions to sustainable levels.

A quarter-century on, the cap is only now being phased out, and a vast array of measures have come and gone, including the National Water Initiative, the Water Act of 2007, Water for the Future and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Buying block

The failure of these initiatives rests on one simple fact: the refusal of irrigation lobby groups to countenance the government buying water rights on the open market to increase environmental flows. Their opposition has been immovable, despite many individual irrigators being keen to sell their water rights and use the money to invest in alternative cropping activities or retire.

On the other hand, there are a lucky (often politically well-connected) few who have done very well from “strategic” purchases of water. Investigative journalist Michael West has noted the National Party’s Barnaby Joyce has been publicly hostile towards buybacks of water entitlements but authorised, as federal water resources minister, three major “strategic purchases”.

Instead of water purchases, politicians like Joyce have put their faith in subsidies to infrastructure, to improve the efficiency of water use.

The idea has a lot of intuitive appeal. If less water can be used, it should be possible to increase flows in the river system without reducing agricultural output. With rare exceptions, this appealing vision has dominated the thinking of politicians and much of the public.

The reality is sadly different. The failure of infrastructure-based water recovery was both predictable and predicted.




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


I pointed out the main difficulties in a piece for ABC Online in 2012. The article didn’t contain any remarkable insights. It simply stated views shared by every independent economist who has worked on the issue.

The illusion of efficiency

Among the many problems with infrastructure schemes, two have stood out.

First, the measured cost of saving water through infrastructure schemes is two to three times as much as that of buying water on the open market.

Second, and more importantly, much of the supposed water savings are illusory. Much of the water “wasted” in irrigation systems is not lost to the environment. Most of the water leakage and seepage from irrigation channels eventually returns to rivers through groundwater systems. So “saving” this water through infrastructure efficiency doesn’t actually add anything more to environmental flows.

My 2012 analysis assumed a scientifically based effort to secure water savings at the lowest possible cost to the public. As the Four Corners report has shown, that assumption was massively over-optimistic. In reality, the scheme has been characterised by lax monitoring, cronyism and rorting.




Read more:
5 ways the government can clean up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan


After the expenditure of billions in public money, the system may be worse off than before. As a result, environmental disasters keep on happening.

Along with recurring algal outbreaks, we are witnessing disasters such as the massive fish kills like that in western New South Wales in January. The massive fish kills have been attributed to little or no flow in the Darling River combined with plunges from high temperatures, starving the water of oxygen.

Hundreds of thousands of dead fish in waterways around Menindee, far-west New South Wales, in January 2019.
Graeme McCrabb/AAP

As the riverine environment keeps deteriorating, there’s no sign of any positive change in policy.

Eventually, though, we must hope Abba Eban will be proved right. Having exhausted all the options that don’t work, we will have to turn to those that do.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

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

Billions spent on Murray-Darling water infrastructure: here’s the result


Q J Wang, University of Melbourne and Avril Horne, University of Melbourne

Earlier this year, researchers suggested the amount of water returned to the Murray Darling Basin under a federal program has been “grossly exaggerated”, to the tune of hundreds of billions of litres.

The report argued that government investment in irrigation improvements might even result in a net loss of water for the environment.




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


To investigate these claims, the Murray Darling Basin Authority commissioned us to undertake an independent review to examine the best available data for every irrigation efficiency project funded across the basin.

We found the government investment into irrigation efficiency projects has achieved 85% of the 750 gigalitres per year target. The remaining 15% of the target may be affected by unintended side-effects.

This result highlights the need for continued review of risks to the basin plan, as Australia grapples with the management of an extraordinary complex natural system.

How is water for the environment recovered?

The Water Act 2007 introduced significant reforms aimed at setting aside more water for the environment. At the time, record high levels of surface water were being consumed. Aiming to save 2,750 gigalitres of surface water (water flowing in the open air, rather than underground) the federal government began buying back water rights and investing in more efficient infrastructure.

The Commonwealth is providing A$3.1 billion to buy these water rights, of which A$2.5 billion has been spent. It is also providing more than A$8 billion for modernising infrastructure and water efficiency improvements, of which more than A$4 billion has so far been spent.

These projects aim to improve water delivery – reducing leaks and evaporation – and make irrigation more efficient. The water saving generated from these projects is shared between the governments for environmental use, and irrigators.

Mass fish deaths earlier in the year raised serious concerns about the health of the Murray-Darling system.
DEAN LEWINS/AAP

What are “return flows”?

To understand why the government investment in irrigation efficiency projects have not achieved 100% of the original target, we need to talk about return flows.

When water is diverted from the river for irrigation, not all of it gets consumed by the plants. Some water will make its way back to the river. This is called return flow. A large part of the return flow is through groundwater to the rivers, and this part is extremely difficult to measure. More efficient infrastructure and irrigation generally means less return flow to the river.

If these reductions are not considered when calculating the water savings, it is possible there will be implications for irrigators, the environment and other water users downstream, that previously benefited from return flows.

What we tried to determine is how much the efficiency projects reduced return flow.




Read more:
We wrote the report for the minister on fish deaths in the lower Darling – here’s why it could happen again


Are the water savings real?

For the first time, we attempted to bring together data on individual projects in order to assess return flows across the basin. We developed a framework for calculating return flows, which took into account water in the rivers, groundwater, and efficiency projects.

This is the first attempt to bring together the existing data on individual projects to assess return flows in the basin at a detailed level. A large portion of the data used in this study was collated for the first time and not previously available in a readily accessible format.

We found a reduction in return flow of 121 gigalitres per year as a result of the government funded projects. This is comparable to 16% of the recovery transferred to environmental entitlements.

What does this mean for the Basin Plan?

There are several important details that must be considered to assess the importance of the return flow volume for the environment and Basin Plan objectives. We do not attempt here to quantify the outcomes, but instead to raise a number of important considerations beyond simply “volume”.

1. Recovered water should be legally protected

Return flows are good for the environment, but are essentially accidental. As irrigation becomes more efficient, inevitably they will diminish.

On the other hand, formally allocated environmental water entitlements are legally protected. It is more secure for the environment – and far easier to keep track of.

2. It’s not ‘efficiency vs the environment’

Part of this debate centres around the idea that reducing return flows means less water for the environment. But in Victoria and New South Wales, before water is allocated to anyone (irrigators or the environment), a base level is set aside. This is the minimum required to keep the rivers physically flowing and to meet critical human needs.

Efficiency projects mainly affect this base-level flow of the river. This means the water reduction is shared across everyone who holds a water licence – the majority of which are irrigators.

This policy means it does not make sense to compare the effect of efficiency projects directly with the recovery of environmental water.

3. Volume is a crude measure of environmental benefit

The focus of the debate around return flows has been based on the annual volume of returned environmental water in comparison to the stated Basin Plan target.

However, the real objective of the water recovery is to achieve environmental objectives in the Basin. This is not just about annual volumes, but the quantity, timing, and quality of fresh water.

How should we move forward?

Our review has particularly highlighted the need for better ongoing data collection and regular evaluations.




Read more:
Aboriginal voices are missing from the Murray-Darling Basin crisis


Both taxpayer investments and the water market are changing irrigation to become more efficient and reducing the river’s base flow. With this in mind, we need to regularly reexamine how we share water between everyone (and everything) that needs it, particularly in extended dry periods.

The Murray-Darling Basin is a constantly changing system, both in terms of climate and irrigation. Return flows are one of a number of potential threats to the Basin Plan. As the system is continually changing, these threats will need to be reassessed with each Basin Plan review.


A Four Corners program on the $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan will air on ABC at 8.30pm on July 8.

This article was co-written by Glen Walker, a former CSIRO employee and now private consultant, who worked with the University of Melbourne on the independent review.The Conversation

Q J Wang, Professor, University of Melbourne and Avril Horne, Research fellow, Department of Infrastructure Engineering, University of Melbourne

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

Murray-Darling report shows public authorities must take climate change risk seriously


Arjuna Dibley, Stanford University

The tragic recent events on the Darling River, and the political and policy furore around them, have again highlighted the severe financial and environmental consequences of mismanaging climate risks. The Murray-Darling Royal Commission demonstrates how closely boards of public sector corporate bodies can be scrutinised for their management of these risks.

Public authorities must follow private companies and factor climate risk into their board decision-making. Royal Commissioner Brett Walker has delivered a damning indictment of the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s management of climate-related risks. His report argues that the authority’s senior management and board were “negligent” and fell short of acting with “reasonable care, skill and diligence”. For its part, the authority “rejects the assertion” that it “acted improperly or unlawfully in any way”.

The Royal Commission has also drawn attention to the potentially significant legal and reputational consequences for directors and organisations whose climate risk management is deemed to have fallen short of a rising bar.




Read more:
Damning royal commission report leaves no doubt that we all lose if the Murray-Darling Basin Plan fails


It’s the public sector’s turn

Until recently, scrutiny of how effectively large and influential organisations are responding to climate risks has focused mostly on the private sector.

In Australia it is widely acknowledged among legal experts that private company directors’ duty of “due care and diligence” requires them to consider foreseeable climate risks that intersect with the interests of the company. Indeed, Australia’s companies regulator, ASIC, has called for directors to take a “probative and proactive” approach to these risks.

The recent focus on management of the Murray-Darling Basin again highlights the crucial role public sector corporations (or “public authorities” as we call them) also play in our overall responses to climate change – and the consequences when things go wrong.

Australia’s economy, once dominated by publicly owned enterprises, was reshaped by waves of privatisations in the late 20th century. However, hundreds of public authorities continue to play an important role in our economy. They build and maintain infrastructure, generate energy, oversee superannuation portfolios, provide insurance and manage water resources, among many other activities.

This means that, like their counterparts in the private sector, many face risks associated with climate change. Take Melbourne Water, for instance, a statutory water corporation established to manage the city’s water supply. It will have to contend with increasingly hot summers and reduced rainfall (a physical risk), and also with the risk that government policy in the future might impose stricter conditions on how water is used (a transition risk).

What duties do public authorities owe?

Our new research from the Centre for Policy Development, shows that, at the Commonwealth and Victorian level (and likely in other Australian jurisdictions), the main laws governing officials in public authorities are likely to create similar obligations to those imposed on private company directors.

For instance, a 2013 federal act requires public authority board members to carry out their duties with the degree of “due care and diligence” that a reasonable person would exercise if they were a Commonwealth official in that board position.

The concept of a “reasonable person” is crucial. There is ever-increasing certainty about the human contribution to climate change. New tools and models have been created to measure the impact of climate change on the economy. Climate risks are therefore reasonably foreseeable if you are acting carefully and diligently, and thus public authority directors should consider these risks.

The obligations of public authority directors may, in some cases, go beyond what is required of private company directors. The same act mentioned above requires Commonwealth officials to promote best practice in the way they carry out their duties. While there is still wide divergence in how private companies manage climate change, best practice in leading corporations is moving towards more systematic analysis and disclosure of these risks. Accordingly, a “best practice” obligation places an even higher onus on public sector directors to manage climate risk.

The specific legislation that governs certain public authorities may introduce different and more onerous requirements. For instance, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s governing legislation, the Water Act 2007, imposes a number of additional conditions on the authority. This includes the extent to which the minister can influence board decision-making.

Nonetheless, our laws set out a widely applicable standard for public authority directors.

Approaches to better manage public authority climate risks

While some public authorities are already carefully considering how physical and transition climate risks affect their work, our research suggests that standards vary widely.

As with the private sector, a combination of clear expectations for better climate risk management, greater scrutiny and more investment in climate-related capabilities and risk-management frameworks can all play a role in raising the bar. Our research highlights four steps that governments should consider:

  • creating a whole-of-government toolkit and implementation strategy for training and supporting directors to account for climate-risk in decision-making

  • using existing public authority accountability mechanisms – such as the public sector commissioner or auditor general’s office – to more closely scrutinise the management of climate-related financial risks

  • issuing formal ministerial statements of expectations to clarify how public authorities and their directors should manage climate-related risks and policy priorities

  • making legislative or regulatory changes to ensure consistent consideration, management and disclosure of climate risk by public sector decision-makers.




Read more:
Company directors can be held legally liable for ignoring the risks from climate change


Measures such as these would set clear expectations for more consistent, sophisticated responses to climate risks by public authorities. However, even without any changes, it should be clear that public authority directors have legal duties to consider climate risks – and that these duties must be taken seriously even when doing so is complicated, controversial or politically sensitive.The Conversation

Arjuna Dibley, Graduate Fellow, Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, Stanford University

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

Aboriginal voices are missing from the Murray-Darling Basin crisis


Bradley J. Moggridge, University of Canberra and Ross M Thompson, University of Canberra

The Murray-Darling crisis has led to drinking water shortages, drying rivers, and fish kills in the Darling, Macintyre and Murrumbidgee Rivers. This has been the catalyst for recommendations for a Royal Commission and creation of two independent scientific expert panels.

The federal Labor party has sought advice from an independent panel through the Australian Academy of Science, while the Coalition government has asked former Bureau of Meteorology chief Rob Vertessy to convene a second panel. Crucially, the first panel contains no Indigenous representatives, and there is little indication that the second panel will either.




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


Indigenous meaning

Water for Aboriginal people is an important part of survival in the driest inhabited landscape on Earth. Protecting water is both a cultural obligation and a necessary practice in the sustainability of everyday life.

The Aboriginal peoples’ worldview sees water as inseparably connected to the land and sky, bound by traditional lore and customs in a system of sustainable management that ensures healthy water for future generations.

Without ongoing connection between these aspects, there is no culture or survival. For a people in a dry landscape, traditional knowledge of finding, re-finding and protecting water sites was integral to survival. Today this knowledge may well serve a broader vision of sustainability for all Australia.

While different Aboriginal Nations describe this in local ways and language, the underlying message is fundamentally the same: look after the water and the water will look after you.

Native title

In the current crisis in the Darling River and Menindee Lakes, the focus should be on the Barkandji people of western New South Wales. In 2015, the native title rights for 128,000 square kilometres of Barkandji land were recognised after an 18-year legal case. This legal recognition represented a significant outcome for the Barkandji People because water – and specifically the Darling River or Barka – is central to their existence.

Under the NSW Water Management Act, Native Title rights are defined as Basic Landholder Rights. However, the Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan provides a zero allocation for Native Title. The Barkandji confront ongoing struggles to have their common law rights recognised and accommodated by Australian water governance regimes.

The failure to involve them directly in talks convened by the Murray Darling Basin Authority and Basin States, and their exclusion from the independent panels, are further examples of these struggles.

Over the past two decades, Aboriginal people have been lobbying for an environmental, social, economic and cultural share in the water market, but with little success.




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


The modern history of Aboriginal peoples’ water is a litany of “unfinished business”, in the words of a 2017 Productivity Commission report.

In 2010 the First Peoples Water Engagement Council was established to advise the National Water Commission, but was abolished prior to the National Water Commission’s legislative sunset in 2014.

The NSW Aboriginal Water Initiative, tasked with re-engaging NSW Aboriginal people in water management and planning, ran from 2012 until the Department of Industry water disbanded the unit in early 2017. In a 2018 progress report the Murray-Darling Basin Authority described NSW as “well behind” on water sharing plans.

Even after a damning ABC 4Corners report shed light on alleged water theft and mismanagement, the voices of the Aboriginal people of the Murray-Darling Basin were absent.

In May 2018 the federal Labor party agreed to a federal government policy package of amendments to the Basin Plan, including a cut of 70 billion litres to the water recovery target in the northern basin, and further bipartisan agreement for better water outcomes for Indigenous people of the basin.




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


While the measures also included A$40 million for Aboriginal communities to invest in water entitlements, a A$20 million economic development fund to benefit Aboriginal groups most affected by the basin plan, and A$1.5 million to support Aboriginal waterway assessments, how worthwhile are they in a river with no water?

The recent crisis emphasises the perpetual sidelining of Aboriginal voices in water management in NSW and beyond. Indigenous voices need to be heard at all levels, with mechanisms that empower that involvement. Indigenous communities continue to fight for rights to water and for the protection of its spirit.The Conversation

Bradley J. Moggridge, Indigenous Water Research, University of Canberra and Ross M Thompson, Chair of Water Science and Director, University of Canberra

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

Damning royal commission report leaves no doubt that we all lose if the Murray-Darling Basin Plan fails


Jamie Pittock, Australian National University

In the wake of revelations of water theft, fish kills, and towns running out of water, the South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray-Darling Basin has reported that the Basin Plan must be strengthened if there is to be any hope of saving the river system, and the communities along it, from a bleak future.

Evidence uncovered by the Royal Commission showed systemic failures in the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The damning report must trigger action by all governments and bodies involved in managing the basin.

The Basin Plan was adopted in 2012 to address overallocation of water to irrigated farming at the expense of the environment, river towns, Traditional Owners, and the pastoral and tourism industries.

The Commission has made 111 findings and 44 recommendations that accuse federal agencies of maladministration, and challenge key policies that were pursued in implementing the plan.




Read more:
Aboriginal voices are missing from the Murray-Darling Basin crisis


What did the report find?

The commission found that the Basin Plan breached federal water laws by applying a “triple bottom line” trade-off of environmental and socioeconomic values, rather than prioritising environmental sustainability and then optimising socio-economic outcomes.

I and my colleagues in the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists provided evidence to the commission from our independent assessment of the Basin Plan in 2017, which the commission’s findings reflect.

Contrary to current government practices, the Commission recommendations include:

  • prioritising environmental sustainability
  • basing the plan on transparent science
  • acquiring more water for the environment through direct purchase from farmers
  • meeting the water needs of the Basin’s 40 Indigenous nations
  • ensuring that state governments produce competent subsidiary plans and comply with agreements to remove constraints to inundating floodplain wetlands
  • addressing the impacts of climate change
  • improving monitoring and compliance of Basin Plan implementation.

Resilience in decline

The Murray-Darling Basin is not just a food bowl. It is a living ecosystem that depends on interconnected natural resources. It also underpins the livelihoods of 2.6 million people and agricultural production worth more than A$24 billion.

The continued health of the basin and its economy depends on a healthy river – which in turns means healthy water flows. Like much of Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin is subject to periods of “droughts and flooding rains”. But over the past century the extraction of water, especially for irrigation, has reduced river flows to a point at which the natural system can no longer recover from these extremes.

That lack of resilience is evidenced by the current Darling River fish kills. More broadly, overextraction risks the health of the entire basin, and its capacity to sustain productive regional economies for future generations.

From the perspective of the Wentworth Group, we support the commission’s main recommendations, including increasing pressure on recalcitrant state governments to responsibly deliver their elements of the plan, and to refocus on the health of the river.

We particularly support recommendations related to the use of the best available science in decision-making, including for managing declining water availability under a changing climate.

We welcome the recommendation to reassess the sustainable levels of water extraction so as to comply with the Commonwealth Water Act. These must be constructed with a primary focus on the environment.

In line with this, the 70 billion litre reduction in environmental water from the northern basin adopted by parliament in 2018 should be immediately repealed. So should the ban on direct buyback of water from farmers for the environment.

We also recognise that the Basin Plan’s water recovery target is insufficient to restore health to the environment and prevent further damage, and would welcome an increase in the target above 3,200 billion litres.




Read more:
A good plan to help Darling River fish recover exists, so let’s get on with it


South Australian Premier Steven Marshall has taken a welcome first step in calling for a Council of Australian Governments meeting to discuss the commission’s findings. Our governments need to avoid the temptation to legislate away the politically inconvenient failings exposed by the commission, and instead act constructively and implement its recommendations.

This is not only a challenge for the current conservative federal government. The Labor side of politics needs to address its legacy in establishing the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Basin Plan, as well as the Victorian government’s role in frustrating the plan’s implementation by failing to remove constraints to environmental water flows.

Now, more than ever, we need strong leadership. If the Murray-Darling Basin Plan fails, we all lose.The Conversation

Jamie Pittock, Professor, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University

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

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



File 20190115 180516 1t15oz7.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
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.