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.




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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.




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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.




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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.

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Memo to the environment minister: a river does need all its water


Paul Humphries, Charles Sturt University and R. Keller Kopf, Charles Sturt University

Given her new role as federal environment minister, one of Sussan Ley’s comments in an interview with Nine Newspapers was eyebrow-raising, to put it mildly. She said:

Sometimes the environment doesn’t need all its water but farmers desperately do need water.

This is inaccurate and concerning, but not all that surprising, given the attitude to water and rivers of some in the community and federal government.

In this age of water sharing and trading, and storing water in dams, it is easy to lose sight of what water is to a river, and how every drop of water that enters (or should enter) a river defines the character and function of that river.

Ultimately, the community – not scientists or even river managers – decides how much water a river should get. But it’s essential to be honest about the effects these decisions have on rivers and the ecosystems they support. This is vital for long-term environmental sustainability, upon which all our industry, agriculture and indeed our society are based.

Crises and concerns

Recently the Murray-Darling river system has suffered several crises, including fish kills, hypoxic water, acid-sulfate soils, and algal blooms. These are all wake-up calls that the way we manage rivers are not working.




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But besides these disastrous incidents, there are many other ways in which river ecosystems are changing, that are not as obvious to the general public.

Contraction of native species’ ranges, local extinctions, success of invasive species and the “need” to stock non-native recreational fish species are just a few of the insidious symptoms of a general malaise.

Water to a river is like air to a balloon. Let out a little air and the balloon is still balloon-shaped, albeit less taut than before. But let out more air and there comes a point, which is hard to predict exactly, when the balloon suddenly collapses. By this analogy, the Murray-Darling Basin is very deflated indeed.

The point is that if we take water out of a river, or change the patterns of its flow, we inevitably change the nature of that river. Irrigators undoubtedly need water. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we’re not altering the river and its ecosystems by allowing them to take it.

Do we want healthy rivers?

Our job as river scientists is not to say what type of river the community wants. Our job is to inform people on what the actions of changing river management will do to a river and its life.

We already have seriously degraded river ecosystems. Restoring them is exceedingly unlikely under current demands and management. But if we take even more of a river’s water away, we need to acknowledge that the river will become yet a different river, and in some cases, one that we hardly recognise.

The public backlash following the fish kills earlier this year suggests that the community has decided that further degradation of our rivers is not acceptable.




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


The Conversation


Paul Humphries, Senior lecturer in Ecology, Charles Sturt University and R. Keller Kopf, Research fellow, Charles Sturt University

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

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


Barry Hart, Monash University and Martin Thoms, University of New England

The health of the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia’s largest and most complex river system, is in rapid decline, and faces major challenges over the next 30 years as the climate changes.

In our view, there are still major problems with the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. These must be addressed to make sure the system is resilient enough to have a reasonable chance of bouncing back from future shocks to the river’s ecosystems, particularly due to climate change.




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Here are five ways the government can clean up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan so the river system has a chance of surviving in the long term.

1. Allow the rivers to spill into the floodplain

There are restrictions in all states on deliberately using environmental water (water set aside to keep the rivers healthy) to go over the river bank and inundate the floodplain. When this happens, it’s known as “overbank flow”, and is restricted to areas and times of year when it’s permitted.

Overbank flow is the connection between rivers and their floodplain, and is essential for two reasons.

Populations of water birds like pelicans are not recovering as well as they used to after drought and flood cycles in the Basin.
Shutterstock

The first is to ensure floodplain wetlands and forests are resilient. For example, without additional water, the current red gum forests along the River Murray are likely to die and be replaced with black box trees, which need less water.

The second is for the exchange of nutrients and organic matter between rivers and floodplains. Without these inputs from the floodplain, the river system would only be able to support a much smaller number of fish.

Governments have been reluctant to work towards increased overbank flows, largely because of a potential backlash from landholders who don’t want their floodplain land to be flooded.




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But in several regions, such as the Edward-Wakool system in New South Wales, landowners and government officials are working through the issues that infrequent flooding has on riverside agricultural land, such as stock being unable to graze flooded areas, crops being innundated by floodwaters, and loss of access to parts of their property through road flooding.

We hope their discussions will lead to a balance, where overbank flows can still occur with minimum impact on landholders.

Still, without changes to state policies on overbank flows, parts of the Basin’s floodplain systems are unlikely to have sufficient resilience to absorb future stresses.

2. Better management of the rivers

The Commonwealth and states now have almost 3 trillion litres (3,000 gigalitres) of dedicated environmental water, purchased from irrigators, many of whom have made significant water savings by upgrading their irrigation equipment.

This is called “held” environmental water. Currently, there is around 3 trillion litres of held environmental water, and 13.7 trillion litres of water allocated to irrigators in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Management of this environmental water is relatively new, compared with the management of water for irrigators, which has been occurring for the better part of 80 years in rivers such as the Murray, Goulburn and Murrumbidgee.

There is a major difference in when environmental and irrigation water is needed through the year. Farmers have their highest water demand for irrigation in late spring and summer, while the major environmental water demand is often highest in late winter and early spring. This is when high natural inflows would have filled river channels and spilled into floodplain forests and wetlands.

The use of the river channels to deliver irrigation water has lead to large flows in the summer when naturally the river flows would have been low. This has resulted in environmental problems, such as bank erosion and the wrong triggers for fish breeding.

3. A greater focus on river refuges

During periods of low or no flow, many of the Basin’s rivers exist as networks of waterholes. In such dry periods, these waterholes are vital habitats, or “refuges”, for fish, frogs, waterbugs, and other species that need permanent water.

Changes in land use, flow regimes and the condition of riverbank vegetation all threaten the ability for these waterholes to act as refuges for these species. These waterhole refuges also need a full set of structural habitats, such as snags and riverbank vegetation.




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Maintaining a “mosaic” of refuges with different levels of connection is required for the full suite of species to be able to survive droughts.

4. Better protection of planned environmental water

Runoff – rainwater that drains from the land and into the rivers – will be seriously affected by climate change.

A predicted 20% reduction in rainfall is expected in the southern Basin by 2050. This would translate to a 40-50% reduction in runoff, and would impact on all water in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Disturbingly, the current policy in the Basin Plan safeguards the entitlements to irrigation water and held environmental water, but not the rest of the flow – which is largely also “environmental” water. Currently, this makes up around half of the total flow (32.5 trillion litres per year) in the Murray-Darling Basin a very large volume.

Drought stricken wetlands of the Murray-Darling Basin. We need a more coordinated management of all of the Basin’s natural resources.
Shutterstock

The effect varies over the basin, but by 2030, overall losses are predicted to be two to three times greater for water that is outside of these entitlements, compared with irrigation water and held environmental water.

Unless this policy is changed, climate change will have an excessive impact on the river’s health. Entitlement-holders will continue to take the same amount of water while the overall river flow drops dramatically. This deficiency must be addressed when the Basin Plan is reviewed by 2026.

5. Linking water and other natural resource management

The Basin’s water resources do not exist in isolation from other “natural capital”, such as riverbank habitats, floodplain land, and the surrounding catchments.

Before the Basin Plan, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission had in place an integrated natural resource management strategy, but this has now been discontinued.

River scientists know “the catchment rules the river”. But the water and catchments are now managed separately, despite many calls over the years for better integration.

Poor agricultural practices result in sediment, nutrients and salt entering the rivers in runoff. This reduces water quality and harms the Basin’s ability to provide essential “ecosystem services”, such as water quality improvement and the effective functioning of the ecosystem.




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We believe a more coordinated management of all natural resources in the Basin, and attention to other complementary measures, should be addressed when the current Basin Plan is reviewed in 2026.

We submit that continuing with the existing Basin Plan, it’s unlikely the Murray-Darling Basin will be resilient enough to withstand future climate impacts, and we will see major detrimental changes to the basin’s ecosystems.

At the very least, we must properly implement the current Basin Plan by addressing the first three issues above, and also make the necessary policy change to ensure the other two issues – protection of planned environmental water and better links with other natural resources – are addressed in the next Basin Plan in 2026.The Conversation

Barry Hart, Emeritus Professor Water Science, Monash University and Martin Thoms, Professor – Faculty of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences and Education; School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences , University of New England

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

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.




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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



File 20180215 124914 66e0k7.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
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.




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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.




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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.

Drought on the Murray River harms ocean life too



File 20171206 896 z9mjw2.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The mouth of the Murray River delivers vital nutrients to marine life in the ocean beyond.
SA Water, Author provided

Hannah Auricht, University of Adelaide and Kenneth Clarke, University of Adelaide

Drought in the Murray River doesn’t just affect the river itself – it also affects the ecosystems that live in the ocean beyond.

In a study published in Marine and Freshwater Research today, we found that the very low flows in the river over the past decade reduced the abundance of microscopic marine plants called phytoplankton, which are ultimately the base of all marine food webs.

This shows that the health of the Murray River has a much bigger influence on the marine environment than we previously realised. With climate change poised to make droughts more frequent and severe in the river, it will be crucial to monitor the health not just of freshwater species, but of the local marine ones too.


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


Phytoplankton depend on nutrients, which are often delivered to the ocean by rivers. In turn, these tiny plants are a source of food for almost all marine ecosystems. Worldwide, they are responsible for half the production of organic matter on the planet.

In South Australia, a dry period dubbed the Millennium Drought (2001 to 2010) and overallocation of water resources (primarily for agriculture) meant that very little water was delivered from the Murray Mouth to the coastal ocean. Between 2007 and 2010, no water was discharged at all. The water in the river’s lower reaches became much saltier and cloudier.

We used historical flow records and satellite imagery, taken between early 2002 and late 2016, to figure out how much phytoplankton and other organic matter were in the coastal ocean each month. We broke up the area into incremental zones, venturing up to 130km from the river mouth.

We found that during and after high-flow events, Murray River discharge resulted in a huge increase in phytoplankton concentrations – as far as 60km beyond the river’s mouth. Surprisingly, before our research it wasn’t known that the river played such an important role in stimulating phytoplankton growth over such a large area.

The mouth of the Murray River, where sometimes no water flows into the ocean at all.
CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Armed with an understanding of how river flows influenced phytoplankton growth, we used historic flow records to estimate phytoplankton concentrations back to 1962. Our results showed that large flows used to occur more often and in greater volumes, and consequently that phytoplankton populations would have gone through more frequent and larger booms.

This in turn would have benefited all of the species that ultimately depend on phytoplankton for food, either directly or indirectly. This food web encompasses almost the whole marine ecosystem.

The past affects the future

Water resource management has greatly altered the volume and timing of freshwater discharges from the Murray. The ocean beyond the Murray mouth now receives small and infrequent deliveries of freshwater.

Rainfall and streamflow are decreasing in this already variable region, while temperatures are rising. This means that South Australia is likely to experience more severe and more frequent droughts, which will cause flows from the Murray mouth to decline still further, ultimately reducing phytoplankton abundance.

Previous research had already established the links between river outflows, phytoplankton and health of marine environments and species. But as far as we can tell, no other research has looked at exactly how extended periods of no or low river outflows affect marine ecosystems. This makes it difficult to predict how these systems will respond to climate change.

We believe that reduced Murray River outflows and reduced phytoplankton concentrations would likely have also placed strain on local mulloway fish and Goolwa cockle populations. Juvenile mulloway use river outflows as habitat and environmental cues, and cockles feed on organic material in the water.


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


This is why it is so important that the management of the Murray River doesn’t just stop at the river’s mouth, but continues into the ocean beyond. Current plans are focused on restoring flows to support the riparian and wetland ecosystems of the Murray as well as the Lower Lakes and Coorong.

But there has been little recognition of the role of river outflows on the marine environment – let alone in management. Although we might not always think about it, the marine environment is really the end of the river system, and part of a larger global cycle. It would therefore be beneficial if plans extend to monitor the marine ecosystem’s response, both at broad and fine scales, to varying flow events.

The ConversationIt would seem the time is past ripe to call for greater research and consideration on this matter, so that we don’t do further damage to what is actually still a part of the Murray River system, and can improve measures to protect the marine environment.

Hannah Auricht, PhD candidate, University of Adelaide and Kenneth Clarke, Researcher, School of Biological Sciences, University of Adelaide

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