Australia, like its competitors Qatar, Canada and the United States, aspires to become the world’s largest exporter of gas, arguing this helps importing nations reduce their greenhouse emissions by replacing coal.
Yes, burning gas emits less carbon dioxide than burning coal. Yet the “fugitive emissions” – the methane that escapes, often unmeasured, during production, distribution and combustion of gas – is a much more potent short-term greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
A special report issued by the World Health Organisation after the 2018 Katowice climate summit urged governments to take “specific commitments to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants” such as methane, so as to boost the chances of staying with the Paris Agreement’s ambitious 1.5℃ global warming limit.
Current gas expansion plans in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland, where another 2,500 coal seam gas wells have been approved, reveal little impetus to deliver on this. Harvesting all of WA’s gas reserves would emit about 4.4 times more carbon dioxide equivalent than Australia’s total domestic energy-related emissions budget.
Gas as a cause of local ill-health
There are not only global, but also significant local and regional risks to health and well-being associated with unconventional gas mining. Our comprehensive review examines the current state of the evidence.
Since our previous reviews (see here, here and here), more than 1,400 further peer-reviewed articles have been published, helping to clarify how expanding unconventional gas production across Australia risks our health, well-being, climate, water and food security.
This research has been possible because, since 2010, 17.6 million US citizens’ homes have been within a mile (1.6km) of gas wells and fracking operations. Furthermore, some US research funding is independent of the gas industry, whereas much of Australia’s comparatively small budget for research in this area is channelled through an industry-funded CSIRO research hub.
Key medical findings
The US literature now consistently reports higher frequencies of low birth weight, extreme premature births, higher-risk pregnancies and some birth defects, in pregnancies spent closer to unconventional gas mining activities, compared with pregnancies further away. No parallel studies have so far been published in Australia.
US studies have found increased indicators of cardiovascular disease, higher rates of sinus disorders, fatigue and migraines, and hospitalisations for asthma, heart, neurological, kidney and urinary tract conditions, and childhood blood cancer near shale gas operations.
Exploratory studies in Queensland found higher rates of hospitalisation for circulatory, immune system and respiratory disorders in children and adults in the Darling Downs region where coal seam gas mining is concentrated.
Chemicals found in gas mining wastewater include volatile organic compounds such as benzene, phenols and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, as well as heavy metals, radioactive materials, and endocrine-disrupting substances – compounds that can affect the body’s hormones.
This wastewater can find its way into aquifers and surface water through spillage, injection procedures, and leakage from wastewater ponds.
The environmental safety of treated wastewater and the vast quantities of crystalline salt produced is unclear, raising questions about cumulative long-term impacts on soil productivity and drinking water security.
Concern about the unconventional gas industry’s use of large quantities of water has increased since 2013. Particularly relevant to Australian agriculture and remote communities is research showing an unexpected but consistent increase in the “water footprint” of gas wells across all six major shale oil and gas mining regions of the US from 2011 to 2016. Maximum increases in water use per well (7.7-fold higher, Permian deposits, New Mexico and Texas) and wastewater production per well (14-fold, Eagle Ford deposits, Texas) occurred where water stress is very high. The drop in water efficiency was tied to a drop in gas prices.
Research on the potentially harmful substances emitted into the atmosphere during water removal, gas production and processing, wastewater handling and transport has expanded. These substances include fine particulate pollutants, ground-level ozone, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, hydrogen sulfide, formaldehyde, diesel exhaust and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
Measuring concentrations and human exposures to these pollutants is complicated, as they vary widely and unpredictably in both time and location. This makes it difficult to prove a definitive causal link to human health impacts, despite the mounting circumstantial evidence.
Our review found substantially more evidence of what we suspected in 2013: that gas mining poses significant threats to the global climate, to food and water supplies, and to health and well-being.
On this basis, Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) has reinforced its position that no new gas developments should occur in Australia, and that governments should increase monitoring, regulation and management of existing wells and gas production and transport infrastructure.
Melissa Haswell, Professor of Health, Safety and Environment, School of Public Health and Social Work, Queensland University of Technology, Queensland University of Technology and David Shearman, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide
This is the second of two articles looking at the increasing reliance of Australian cities on desalination plants to supply drinking water, with less emphasis on the alternatives of water recycling and demand management. So what is the best way forward to achieve urban water security?
An important lesson from the Millennium Drought in Australia was the power of individuals to curb their own water use. This was achieved through public education campaigns and water restrictions. It was a popular topic in the media and in daily conversations before the focus turned to desalination for water security.
Water authorities were also expanding the use of treated wastewater – often a polite term for sewage – for “non-potable” uses. These included flushing toilets, watering gardens, and washing cars and laundry.
Today, the emphasis on recycling wastewater in some locations is declining. The arguments for increased water recycling appear to be falling away now that desalinated water is available.
This trend ignores the fact that the potential supply of recycled water increases as populations grow.
Today most Australian wastewater is treated then disposed into local streams, rivers, estuaries and the ocean. In Sydney, for example, the city’s big three outfalls dump nearly 1 billion litres (1,000 megalitres, ML) a day into the ocean.
Where has recycling succeeded?
Australia has several highly successful water recycling projects.
Sydney introduced the Rouse Hill recycled water scheme in 2001. Highly treated wastewater is piped into 32,000 suburban properties in distinct purple pipes. Each property also has the normal “potable” drinking water supply.
Our farmers often struggle to secure water for irrigation. Chronic water shortages across the Murray-Darling river system vividly demonstrate this.
Perth has gone further by embracing water recycling for urban use with plans to treat it to a drinking water standard. Part of the extensive treatment process involves reverse osmosis, which is also used in desalination. The treated water is then pumped into groundwater aquifersand stored.
This “groundwater replenishment” adds to the groundwater that contributes about half of the city’s water supply. The Water Corporation of Perth has a long-term aim to recycle 30% of its wastewater.
Southeast Queensland, too, has developed an extensive recycled water system. The Western Corridor Recycled Water Scheme also uses reverse osmosis and can supplement drinking water supplies during droughts.
Demand management works too
Past campaigns to get people to reduce water use achieved significant results.
In Sydney, water use fell steeply under water restrictions (2003-2009). Since the restrictions have ended, consumption has increased under the softer “water wise rules”. Regional centres including (Tamworth) outside of Sydney are under significant water restrictions currently with limited relief in sight.
The Victorian government appears to be the Australian leader in encouraging urban water conservation. Across Melbourne water use per person averaged 161 litres a day over 2016-18. Victoria’s “Target 155” program, first launched in late 2008 and revived in 2016, aims for average use of 155 litres a day.
In a comparison of mainland capitals Melbourne used the least water per residential property, 25% less than the average. Southeast Queensland residents had the second-lowest use, followed by Adelaide. Sydney, Perth and Darwin had the highest use.
Although Melbourne water prices are among the highest of the major cities, lower annual water use meant the city’s households had the lowest water bills in 2016-17, analysis by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology found.
What impact do water prices have?
Clearly, water pricing can be an effective tool to get people to reduce demand. This could partly explain why water use is lower in some cities.
Water bills have several components. Domestic customers pay a service fee to be connected. They then pay for the volume of water they use, plus wastewater charges on top of that. Depending on where you live, you might be charged a flat rate, or a rate that increases as you use more water.
The chart below shows the pricing range in our major cities.
However, most water authorities charge low water users a cheaper rate, and increased prices apply for higher consumption. The most expensive water in Australia is for Canberra residents – $4.88 for each kL customers use over 50kL per quarter. The cheapest water is Hobart ($1.06/kL).
Higher fees for higher residential consumption are charged in Canberra, Perth, Southeast Queensland, across South Australia and in Melbourne. In effect, most major water providers penalise high-water-using customers. This creates an incentive to use less.
For example, Yarra Valley Water customers in Melbourne using less than 440 litres a day pay $2.64/kL. From 441-880L/day they are charged $3.11/kL. For more than 881L/day they pay $4.62/kL – 75% more than the lowest rate.
Is recycled water getting priced out of business?
Recycling water may not be viable for Sydney Water. It can cost over $5 per 1kL to produce, but the state pricing regulator, IPART, sets the cost of recycled water to Sydney customers at just under $2 per kL. That’s probably well below the cost of production.
Recycled water, where available, is a little bit more expensive ($2.12/kL) in South Australia.
Subsidies are probably essential for future large recycling schemes. This was the case for a 2017 plan to expand the Virginia Irrigation Scheme. South Australia sought 30% of the capital funding from the Commonwealth.
Where to from here?
Much of southern Australia is facing increasing water stress and capital city water supplies are falling. Expensive desalination plants are gearing up to supply more water. Will they insulate urban residents from the disruption many others are feeling in drought-affected inland and regional locations? Should we be increasing the capacity of our desalination plants?
We recommend that urban Australia should make further use of recycled water. This will also reduce the environmental impact of disposing wastewater in our rivers, estuaries and ocean. All new developments should have recycled water made available, saving our precious potable water for human consumption.
Water conservation should be given the highest priority. Pricing of water that encourages recycling and water conservation should be a national priority.
You can read the first article, on cities’ increasing reliance on desalination, here.
This is the first of two articles looking at the increasing reliance of Australian cities on desalination to supply drinking water, with less emphasis on alternatives such as recycling and demand management. So what is the best way forward to achieve urban water security?
Removing salts and other impurities from water is really difficult. For thousands of years people, including Aristotle, tried to make fresh water from sea water. In the 21st century, advances in desalination technology mean water authorities in Australia and worldwide can supply bountiful fresh water at the flick of a switch.
Achieving water security using desalination is now a priority for the majority of Australia’s capital cities, all but one of which are on the coast. Using the abundance of sea water as a source, this approach seeks to “climate proof” our cities’ water supplies.
It’s hard to believe now that as recently as 2004 all Australian capital city water authorities relied on surface water storage dams or groundwater for drinking water supplies. Since Perth’s first desalination plant was completed in 2006, Australian capital cities have embraced massive seawater desalination “water factories” as a way to increase water security.
Perth and Adelaide have relied most on desalination to date. Canberra, Hobart and Darwin are the only capitals without desalination.
The drought that changed everything
From the late 1990s to 2009 southeastern Australia suffered through the Millennium Drought. This was a time of widespread water stress. It changed the Australian water industry for ever.
All major water authorities saw their water storages plummet. Melbourne storages fell to as low as 25% in 2009. The Gosford-Wyong water storage, supplying a fast-growing area of more than 300,000 people on the New South Wales Central Coast, dropped to 10% capacity in 2007.
These were familiar issues in locations such as Perth, where the big dry is epic. For more than four decades, the city’s residents have been watching their supply of surface water dwindle. Remarkably, only about 10% of Perth’s water now comes from this source.
Perth’s two desalination plants have a combined output of up to 145 billion litres (gigalitres, GL) a year. That’s nearly half the city’s water needs. Both have remained in operation since they were built.
Modern industrial-scale desalination uses reverse osmosis to remove salt and other impurities from sea water. Water is forced under high pressure through a series of membranes through which salt and other impurities cannot pass.
Design, construction and maintenance costs of these industrial plants are high. They also use massive amounts of electricity, which increases greenhouse gas emissions unless renewable energy sources are used.
Another concern is the return of the excess salt to the environment. Australian studies have shown minimal impact.
Just as many of the massive new desalination factories were completed, and proudly opened by smiling politicians, it started raining. The desalination plants were switched off as storages filled. However, water consumers still had to pay for the dormant plants to be maintained – hundreds of millions of dollars a year in the case of the Melbourne and Sydney plants.
Bringing plants out of mothballs
Now drought has returned to southeast Australia. Once again, many capital city water storages are in steep decline. So what is the response of water authorities in the desal age? Not surprisingly, more desalination is their answer.
One by one the desalination plants are being switched back on. Sydney has just begun the process of restarting its plant, which was commissioned in 2010. Adelaide has plans to greatly increase the modest output from its plant this year. The Gold Coast plant, which can also supply Brisbane, is operating at a low level in “hot standby” mode.
After a dry winter, Melbourne Water is expected to advise the Victorian government to make the largest orders for desalinated water since its plant, able to produce 150GL a year, was completed in December 2012. Mothballed for more than four years, it supplied its first water to reservoirs in March 2017. The previously forecast need for 100GL in 2019-20 (annual orders are decided in April) is almost one-quarter of Melbourne’s annual demand. Plant capacity is capable of being expanded to 200GL a year.
When bushfires recently threatened Victoria’s largest water storage, the Thomson dam, the government said desalinated water could be used to replace the 150GL a year taken from the dam.
Sydney’s plan for future droughts is to double the output of its desalination plant from 250 million litres (megalitres, ML) a day to 500ML a day. This would take its contribution from 15% to 30% of Sydney’s water demand.
Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and the Gold Coast already have the capacity to supply larger proportions of their populations with desalinised water as required.
What about inland and regional settlements across Australia? Large-scale desalination plants may not viable for Canberra and other inland centres. These regions would require sufficient groundwater resources and extraction may not be environmentally sound.
How much, then, do we pay for the water we use?
The plants supplying our biggest cities cost billions to construct and maintain, even when they sit idle for years.
The Australian Water Association estimates the cost of supplying desalinated water varies widely, from $1 to $4 per kL.
In fact, water costs in general vary enormously, depending on location and how much is used. The pricing structures are about as complex as mobile phone plans or health insurance policies.
The issue of water pricing leads on to the question of what happened to the alternative strategies – recycling and demand management – that cities pursued before desalination became the favoured approach? And how do these compare to the expensive, energy-hungry process of desalination? We will consider these questions in our second article.
This article has been updated to clarify the status of advice on Melbourne’s use of desalinated water.
Many people in Australia will head to the beach this summer and that’ll most likely include a dip or a plunge into the sea. But have you ever wondered where those ocean waters come from, and what influence they may have?
Australia is surrounded by ocean currents that have a strong controlling influence on things such as climate, ecosystems, fish migrations, the transport of ocean debris and on water quality.
We did a study, published in April 2018, that helps to give us a better understanding of those ocean currents.
Go with the flow: Indian Ocean
Our 15 year simulation indicates that water from the Pacific Ocean enters the Indonesian Archipelago through the Mindanao current (north) and Halmahera Sea (south).
It then enters the Indian ocean as the Indonesian Throughflow between many Indonesian Islands, with flow through the Timor Passage being the most dominant.
Most of this water flows west as the South Equatorial Current. Re-circulation of the SEC creates the Eastern Gyre that contributes to the Holloway Current. This in turn feeds the Leeuwin Current – the longest boundary current in the world (Ocean currents that flow adjacent to a coastline are called boundary currents)
The Leeuwin Current is the major boundary current along the west coast and as it moves southward. Indian Ocean water is supplied by the South Indian Counter Current increasing the Leeuwin Current transport by 60%.
The Leeuwin Current turns east at Cape Leeuwin, in Western Australia’s south-west, and continues to Tasmania as the South Australian and Zeehan Currents.
There is a strong seasonal variation in the strength of the boundary currents in the Indian Ocean with a progression southwards of the peak transport along the coast.
The Holloway Current peaks in April/May (coinciding with changes in the monsoon winds), the Leeuwin Current reaches a maximum along the west and south coasts in June and August.
Go with the flow: Pacific Ocean
In the Pacific Ocean, the northern branches of the South Equatorial Current are the main inputs initiating the Hiri Current and East Australian Current.
At around latitude 15 degrees south the currents split in two: southward to form the East Australian Current, and northward to form the Hiri Current which contributes to a clockwise gyre in the Gulf of Papua.
The East Australian Current is the dominant current in the region transporting 33 million cubic metres of water per second southward.
At around 32S, the East Australian Current separates from the coast and 60% of the water flows eastward to New Zealand as the Tasman Front. The remaining 40% flows southward as the East Australian Current extension and contributes to the Tasman Outflow.
The Tasman outflow is the major conduit of water from the Pacific to Indian Ocean and contributes to the Flinders Current, flowing westward from Tasmania and past Cape Leeuwin into the Indian Ocean.
Along the southern continental slope, the Flinders Current appears as an undercurrent beneath the Leeuwin Current and a surface current further offshore. The Flinders Current contributes to the Leeuwin Undercurrent directly as a northward flow, flowing to the north-west of Australia in water depths 300 metres to 800 metres.
Impact of the currents
Understanding ocean circulation is a fundamental tenet of physical oceanography and scientists have been charting the pathways of ocean currents since the American hydrographer Matthew Maury, one of the founders of oceanography, who first charted the Gulf Stream in 1855.
One of the first maps of circulation around Australia was by Halliday (1921) who showed the movement of “warm” and “cold” waters around Australia. Although some of the major features (such as the East Australian Current) were correctly identified, a more fine scale description is now available.
The unique feature of ocean currents around Australia is that along both east and west coasts they transport warmer water southwards and influence the local climate, particularly air temperature and rainfall, as well as species distribution.
For example, the south west of Australia is up to 5C warmer in winter and receives more than double the rainfall compared to regions located on similar latitudes along western coastlines of other continents.
Similarly many tropical species of fish are found in the southwest of Australia that hitch a ride on the ocean currents.
The Pacific Ocean is the origin of waters around Australia with a direct link to the east and an indirect link to west.
Ocean water from the Pacific Ocean flows through the Indonesian Archipelago, a region subject to high solar heating and rainfall runoff, creating lower density water. This water, augmented by water from the Indian Ocean, flows around the western and southern coasts, converging along the southern coast of Tasmania.
So next time you head for a dip in the coastal waters around Australian, spare a thought for where that water has come from and where it may be going next.
Charitha Pattiaratchi, Professor of Coastal Oceanography, University of Western Australia; Ems Wijeratne, Assistant Professor, UWA Oceans Institute, University of Western Australia, and Roger Proctor, Director, Australian Ocean Data Network, University of Tasmania
Continued logging in Melbourne’s water catchments could reduce the city’s water supply by the equivalent of 600,000 people’s annual water use every year by 2050, according to our analysis.
We calculated water lost due to logging in the Thomson Catchment, which is the city’s largest and most important water supply catchment. Around 60% of Melbourne’s water is stored here.
Since the 1940s, 45% of the catchment’s ash forests (including mountain and alpine ash forest) have been logged. There are plans to log up to a further 17% of these forests under the VicForest’s existing logging plan.
Past logging in the ash forests has reduced the Thomson Catchment’s water yield, which is the amount of water that flows through the catchment, by 15,000 megalitres (a megalitre is a million litres) each year. This equates to around 9% of water yield from ash forests across the catchment.
By 2050, continued logging in these forests at the current rates could increase this loss to 35,000 megalitres each year, or 20% of water yield. This will be equal to the water use of around 600,000 people every year, based on estimated water use of 161 litres per person each day.
Why forests are important for water supply
The city of Melbourne has some of the best quality water in the world. A key reason for this is that the city’s first water infrastructure planners closed many of the key water catchments to intensive human disturbance, such as logging.
But there also can be competition for water between different land uses in catchments that are not closed and open to logging. Indeed, it has long been known that logging can significantly reduce the amount of water produced from forests, especially those close to Melbourne.
Research on forest hydrology shows that the amount of water yielded from ash forests is related to forest age. Catchments covered with old-growth ash forests yield almost twice the amount of water each year as those covered with young forests aged 25 years. This is because evapotranspiration, the process by which trees transpire water into the atmosphere as well as evaporation from the surrounding land surface, is higher in young forests compared with older forests.
Up to 200,000 trees per hectare germinate following logging or an intense fire which burns the whole stand. Intense competition between young trees results in rapid growth rates along with increased evapotranspiration. As the forest matures, the trees thin out, and after 200 years, an ash forest can have less than 50 trees per hectare. These older ash forests release more water back into the catchment.
With logging occurring every 60-120 years, large areas of ash forest are kept in a high evapotranspiration stage of growth, therefore releasing less water back into the catchment.
Perhaps the losses in water yield could be justified if the value of the timber and pulpwood produced from logging exceeded the value of water. However, previous research has shown that the water in these areas is 25.5 times more valuable than the timber and pulpwood from ash forests.
What can the Victorian government do?
The ash forests in the Thomson Catchment are logged primarily for paper manufacturing. Under the Forest (Wood Pulp Agreement) Act 1996, the Victorian government is bound to supply Australia’s largest pulp and paper mills at Maryvale, owned by the Nippon Paper Group, with at least 350,000 cubic metres of native forest logs each year. The Thomson Water Supply Catchment is allocated for logging under this Act.
If logging was stopped in the catchment, what is the alternative for these paper mills? The answer is to source wood from current plantations. In 2017, Victoria produced 3.9 million cubic metres of logs from plantations. This could supply the pulp and paper mills at Maryvale several times over.
A challenge facing Victoria’s forest industry is the loss of jobs. One major factor in this is out-of-state processing. Australia tends to import lower volumes
of more processed and higher value wood products, including printing and writing paper. By contrast, higher volumes of less processed and lower value wood products, such as woodchips and unprocessed logs – largely from plantations, are exported.
Redirecting plantation sourced logs and woodchips from export markets to domestic processing can address some of these problems. In fact, detailed analysis suggests doing this would have an overall positive economic impact for Victoria.
Stopping logging in the Thomson Catchment and sourcing instead from well managed plantations could both boost water supply and create more jobs. Of course, some jobs would be lost for people who log from the catchment, but this would be more than compensated for by employment in the plantation processing sector.
The first Wood Pulp Agreement Act of 1936, which legislated supply of pulplogs from Victorian state forest to earlier paper manufacturers in Maryvale, featured a clause stating logging was to cease following the designation of the Thomson Catchment in 1967. This has clearly not occurred. In fact 63% of logging in the ash forests across the catchment has occurred since 1967.
The Thomson Catchment is the only one of Melbourne’s large water supply catchments open to logging. Given the critical importance of the Thomson Catchment, our work clearly indicates the Victorian government needs to cease logging and prioritise the supply of water to the people of Melbourne.
David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and Chris Taylor, Research Fellow, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack last week suggested the government would look at changing the law to allow water to be taken from the environment and given to farmers struggling with the drought.
This is a bad idea for several reasons. First, the environment needs water in dry years as well as wet ones. Second, unilaterally intervening in the way water is distributed between users undermines the water market, which is now worth billions of dollars. And, third, in dry years the environment gets a smaller allocation too, so there simply isn’t enough water to make this worthwhile.
In fact, the growing political pressure being put on environmental water holders to sell their water to farmers is exactly the kind of interference that bodies such as the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder were established to avoid.
The environment always needs water
The ongoing sustainable use of rivers is based on key ecosystem functions being maintained, and this means that environmental water is needed in both wet and dry years. The objectives of environmental watering change from providing larger wetland inundation events in wet years, to maintaining critical refuges and basic ecosystem functions in dry years.
Prolonged dry periods cause severe stress to ecosystems, such as during the Millennium Drought when many Murray River red gums were sickened by salinity and lack of water. Environmental water is essential for ecosystem survival during these periods.
But during dry years the environmental water holders receive the same water allocations as other users. So it’s very unlikely there will be any “spare” water during drought. During a dry period, the environment is in urgent need of water to protect endangered species and maintain basic ecosystem functions.
We should be cautious when environmental water is sold during drought, as this compromises the ability of environmental water holders to meet their objectives of safeguarding river health. When the funds from the sale are not used to mitigate the loss of the available water to the environment, this is even more risky.
Secure water rights support all water users
In response to McCormack’s suggestion, the National Irrigators’ Council argued that compulsorily acquiring water from the environment can actually hurt farmers who depend on the water market as a source of income or water during drought.
Water markets are underpinned by clear legal rights to water. In other words, the entitlements the environment holds are the same as those held by irrigators. If the government starts treating environmental water rights as barely worth the paper they’re printed on, farmers would have every reason to fear that their own water rights might similarly be stripped away in the future.
Maintaining the integrity of the water market is important for all participants who have chosen to sell water, based on reasonable expectations of how prices will hold up.
Can taking environmental water actually help farmers?
As federal Water Resources Minister David Littleproud noted this week, environmental water is only about 8% of total water allocations in storage throughout the Murray Darling Basin. In the southern basin, it is still only about 14%. This means that between 86% and 92% of water currently sitting in storage is already allocated to human use, including farming.
There are calls for the Commonwealth government to treat the drought as an emergency and to take (or “borrow”) water from environmental water holders. But the Murray-Darling Basin Plan already has specific arrangements in place for emergencies in which critical human water needs are threatened.
The current situation in New South Wales is not an emergency under the plan. Water resources across the northern Murray-Darling Basin are indeed low, but storages in the southern basin are still 50-75% full. Although many licence holders in NSW received zero water in July’s round of allocations, high-security water licences are at 95-100%. In northern Victoria, most high-reliability water shares on the Murray are at 71% allocation.
The situation can therefore be managed using existing tools, such as providing direct financial support to farming communities and buying water on the water market.
Environmental water is an investment, not a luxury
As Australia’s First Nations have known for millennia, a healthy environment is not an optional extra. It underpins the sustainability and security of the water we depend on. When river flows decline, the water becomes too toxic to use.
Water has been allocated to the environment throughout the Murray-Darling Basin to prevent the catastrophic blue-green algal blooms and salinity problems we have experienced in the past. If we want safe, secure water supplies for people, livestock and crops, we need to keep these key river ecosystems alive and well during the drought.
In the past decade alone, Australia has spent A$13 billion of taxpayers’ money to bring water use in the Murray-Darling Basin back to sustainable levels. If we let our governments treat the environment like a “water bank” to spend when times get tough, this huge investment will have been wasted.
Erin O’Donnell, Senior Fellow, Centre for Resources, Energy and Environment Law, University of Melbourne and Avril Horne, Research fellow, Department of Infrastructure Engineering, University of Melbourne