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.