Morrison government plan to scrap water buybacks will hurt taxpayers and the environment



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Quentin Grafton, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

The Morrison government today declared it will axe buybacks of water entitlements from irrigators, placating farmers who say the system has damaged their livelihood and communities.

Instead, Water Minister Keith Pitt says the government will scale up efforts to save water by upgrading infrastructure for farming irrigators in the Murray Darling Basin.

The move will anger environmentalists, who say water buybacks are vital to restoring flows to Australia’s most important river system. It also contradicts findings from the government’s own experts this week who said farm upgrades increase water prices more than buyback water recovery.

The government has chosen a route not backed by evidence, and which will deliver a bad deal to taxpayers and the environment.

A farmer stands in the dry river bed of the Darling River
The government will no longer buy water from farmers for the environment.
Dean Lewins/AAP

A brief history of water buybacks

Farmers along the Murray Darling are entitled to a certain amount of river water which they can use or sell. In 2008, the federal Labor government began buying some of these entitlements in an open-tender process known as “buybacks”. The purchased water was returned to the parched river system to boost the environment.

In 2012, the Murray Darling Basin Plan was struck. It stipulated that 2,750 billion litres of water would be bought back from irrigators and delivered to the environment every year. The buyback system was not universally supported – critics claim buybacks increase water prices, and hurt farmers by reducing the water available for irrigation.

The Coalition government came to office in 2013 and adopted a “strategic” approach to water buybacks. These purchases were made behind closed doors with chosen irrigators.




Read more:
Recovering water for the environment in the Murray-Darling: farm upgrades increase water prices more than buybacks


In a review of these buybacks released last month, the Australian National Audit Office found many of these taxpayer-funded deals were not good value for money.

The federal government ordered the review after controversy involving the 2017 purchase of water from two Queensland properties owned by Eastern Australia Agriculture.

The government paid A$80 million for the entitlements – an amount critics said was well over market value. The deal was also contentious because government frontbencher Angus Taylor was, before the purchase, a non-financial director of the company. The company also had links to the Cayman Islands tax haven.

Keith Pitt speaks in Parliament as Prime Minister Scott Morrison watches on
Water Minister Keith Pitt, pictured during Question Time, is the minister responsible for the new approach.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Infrastructure subsidies: a flawed approach

The Coalition government is taking a different approach to recover water for the environment: subsidising water infrastructure on farms and elsewhere. This infrastructure includes lining ponds and possibly levees to trap and store water.

The subsidies have cost many billions of dollars yet recover water at a very much higher cost than reverse tenders. This approach also reduces the water that returns to streams and groundwater.




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Australia, it’s time to talk about our water emergency


The justification for water infrastructure subsidies is that they are supposedly less damaging to irrigation communities. But the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) concluded in a report published this week that on-farm water infrastructure subsidies, while beneficial for their participants, “push water prices higher, placing pressure on the wider irrigation sector”. This is the very sector the subsidies purport to help.

So why would the government expand the use of water infrastructure when it costs more and isn’t good value for money? The answer may lie in this finding from the ABARES report:

Irrigators who hold large volumes of entitlement relative to their water use (and are frequently net sellers of water allocations) may benefit from higher water prices, as this increases the value of their entitlements.

Farmers with limited entitlement holdings however may be adversely affected, as higher water prices increase their costs and lowers their profitability.

In other words, the “big end of town” benefits – at taxpayers’ expense – while the small-scale irrigators lose out.

Missing water

Adding insult to injury, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists released a detailed report this week showing the basin plan is failing to deliver the water expected, even after accounting for dry weather. Some two trillion litres of water is not in the rivers and streams of the basin and appears to have been consumed – a volume that could be more than four times the water in Sydney Harbour.

The Wentworth Group says stream flows may be less than expected because environmental water recovery has been undermined by “water-saving” infrastructure, which reduces the amount of water that would otherwise return to rivers and groundwater.

This infrastructure, on which taxpayers have spent over A$4 billion, has not had the desired effect. Research has found those who receive infrastructure subsidies increased water extractions by more than those who did not receive subsidies. That’s because farmers who were using water more efficiently often planted thirstier crops.

Dusk at Menindee Lakes in the Murray Darling Basin
The government took a strategic approach to water buybacks in the Murray Darling Basin.
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We deserve better

It’s clear taxpayer dollars are much better spent buying back water entitlements, through open tenders, rather than subsidising water infrastructure. We can, and must, do much better with water policy.

Today, the federal government has doubled down on wasteful spending at taxpayer expense – in a time of a COVID-induced recession.

So what is on offer from the Morrison government? Continuing to ignore its own experts’ advice and delivering yet more ineffective subsidies for water infrastructure. Our rivers, our communities, and all Australians deserve much better.




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The Conversation


Quentin Grafton, Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

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

Recovering water for the environment in the Murray-Darling: farm upgrades increase water prices more than buybacks



Murray Darling Junction, Wentworth NSW.
Hypervision Creative/Shutterstock

Neal Hughes, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES); David Galeano, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

It’s been 13 years since the Australian Government set out to develop the Murray-Darling Basin Plan with the goal of finding a more sustainable balance between irrigation and the environment.

Like much of the history of water sharing in the Murray-Darling over the last 150 years, the process has been far from smooth. However, significant progress has been achieved, with about 20% of water rights recovered from agricultural users and redirected towards environmental flows.

One of the most difficult debates has been over how the water should be recovered.

Initially most occurred via “buybacks” of water rights from farmers. While relatively fast and inexpensive, opposition to buybacks emerged due to concerns about their effects on water prices and irrigation farmers and regional communities.

This led to a new emphasis on infrastructure programs including farm upgrades in which farmers received funding to improve their irrigation systems in return for surrendering water rights.

While these farm upgrades are more expensive, it was thought that they would have fewer negative effects on farmers and communities.

However, new research from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences finds that – while beneficial for their participants – these programs push water prices higher, placing pressure on the wider irrigation sector.

Two types of water recovery programs

The Murray-Darling Basin operates under a “cap and trade” system. Each year there is a limit on how much water can be extracted from the basin’s rivers, based on the available supply.

Water users (mostly farmers) hold rights to a share of this limit, and they can trade these rights on a market.

To date 1,230 gigalitres of these water rights have been bought from farmers via buyback programs at a cost of about A$2.6 billion.




Read more:
Drought and climate change are driving high water prices in the Murray-Darling Basin


The other type of program is farm upgrades which offer farmers funding to improve their irrigation infrastructure in return for a portion of their water rights.

To date 255 gigalitres of water has been recovered through farm upgrades at a cost of about $1 billion.


Annual volume of water rights recovered for the environment since 2007-08

For infrastructure projects the financial year refers to the contract date. The actual transfer of entitlements may occur in a later financial year. The volume of water recovered is expressed in terms of the long-term average annual yield. The estimates do not include water recovered through state projects (160 gigalitres) or water gifted to the Commonwealth (15 gigalitres). Off-farm infrastructure includes water recovered through projects that are a combination of on-farm, off-farm and land purchases.
Sources: Department of Agriculture Water and Environment, Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder

Water recovery has increased prices

As would be expected, the dominant short-term driver of prices is water availability, with large price increases during droughts. The dominant longer-term drivers include lower average rainfall related to climate change and the emergence of new irrigation crops including almonds.

While water recovery has played less of a role, buybacks and farm upgrades have still reduced the supply of water to farmers and increased prices to some extent.




Read more:
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Our modelling suggests water prices in the southern basin are around $72 per megalitre higher on average as a result of water recovery measures, with the effects varying year-to-year depending on conditions.


Modelled water allocation prices with and without water recovery

Price refers to volume weighted average annual water allocation prices across the southern Murray Darling Basin. Water recovery reflects the cumulative volume of buybacks and farm upgrades at each year. Water recovery began in 2007-08.
ABARES modelling

Farm upgrades increase prices more than buybacks

Farm upgrades are often viewed as an opportunity to save water and produce “more crop per drop”.

But they can also encourage farmers to increase their water use as they seek to make the most of their new infrastructure: sometimes referred to as a “rebound effect”.

While there have been concerns about rebound effects for some time, there has been limited evidence until recently.

Less-wasteful irrigation can save water, as long as there’s no ‘rebound’

As would be expected, our study finds that upgraded farms have benefited in terms of profits and productivity. However, we also find large rebound effects, with upgraded farms increasing their water use by between 10% and 50%.

To get the extra water they need to buy it from other farmers, putting pressure on prices. We find the resulting price impact to be much more than the impact of buying back water. Per unit of water recovered, it is about double that of buybacks.

These higher water prices increase the risk that irrigation assets – including some newly upgraded systems – could become stranded as price sensitive irrigation activities become less profitable.

No easy answers

Recovering water through off-farm infrastructure is one alternative, however the most effective projects have already been developed, leaving cost-effective water saving schemes harder to find.

This brings us back to buybacks. Because buybacks are cheaper than farm infrastructure programs, there is more scope to combine them with regional development investments to help offset negative impacts on communities.

The challenge is that in a connected water market the flow-on effects on water prices and farmers can be complex and difficult to predict, making it hard to know where to direct development investments.




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


A potential middle ground is rationalisation, where parts of the water supply network are decommissioned, and affected farmers are compensated both for their water rights and for being disconnected from water supply. This approach has less effect on water prices and allows regional development initiatives to be targeted to the affected areas.

However, rationalisation can be hard to implement given it requires negotiating with all affected farmers and all levels of government.

Given the complexity of the Murray-Darling Basin, water policy is far from simple. While it is clear more water will be needed to put the basin on a sustainable footing, there are no easy options.

Further progress will require careful policy design to help ease adjustment pressure on farmers and regional communities.The Conversation

Neal Hughes, Senior Economist, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES); David Galeano, Assistant Secretary, Natural Resources, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Executive Director, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

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

New Zealand government ignores expert advice in its plan to improve water quality in rivers and lakes



Tracey McNamara/Shutterstock

Michael (Mike) Joy, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

New Zealand’s government has been praised for listening to health experts in its pandemic response, but when it comes to dealing with pollution of the country’s waterways, scientific advice seems less important.

Today, the government released a long-awaited NZ$700 million package to address freshwater pollution. The new rules include higher standards around cleanliness of swimming spots, set controls for some farming practices and how much synthetic fertiliser is used, and require mandatory and enforceable farm environment plans.

But the package is flawed. It does not include any measurable limits on key nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) and the rules’ implementation is left to regional authorities. Over the 30 years they have been managing the environment, the health of lakes and rivers has continued to decline.

For full disclosure, I was part of the 18-person science technical advisory group that made the recommendations. Despite more than a year of consultation and evidence-based science, the government has deferred or ignored our advice on introducing measurable limits on nitrogen and phosphorus.




Read more:
Polluted, drained, and drying out: new warnings on New Zealand’s rivers and lakes


Waterways in decline

The declining state of rivers, lakes and wetlands was the most important environmental issue for 80% of New Zealanders in a recent survey. It was also an election issue in 2017, so there was a clear mandate for significant change.

But despite years of work from government appointed expert panels, including the technical advisory group I was part of, the Māori freshwater forum Kahui Wai Māori and the Freshwater Leaders groups, crucial advice was ignored.

The technical advisory group, supported by research, was unequivocal that specific nitrogen and phosphorus limits are necessary to protect the quality of people’s drinking water and the ecological health of waterways.

The proposed nutrient limits were key to achieving real change, and far from being extreme, would have brought New Zealand into line with the rest of the world. For example, in China, the limit for nitrogen in rivers is 1 milligram per litre – the same limit as our technical advisory group recommended. In New Zealand, 85% of waterways in pasture catchments (which make up half of the country’s waterways, if measured by length) now exceed nitrate limit guidelines.

Instead, Minister for the Environment David Parker decided to postpone this discussion by another year – meaning New Zealand will continue to lag other nations in having clear, enforceable nutrient limits.

This delay will inevitably result in a continued decline of water quality, with a corresponding decline in a suite of ecological, cultural, social and economic values a healthy environment could support.




Read more:
New Zealand’s urban freshwater is improving, but a major report reveals huge gaps in our knowledge


The government’s package includes a cap on the use of nitrogen fertiliser.
Alexey Stiop/Shutterstock

Capping use of nitrogen fertiliser

The other main policy the expert panels pushed for was a cap on the use of nitrogen fertiliser. This was indeed part of the announcement, which is a positive and important step forward. But the cap is set at 190kg per hectare per year, which is too high. This is like telling someone they should reduce smoking from three to two and a half packets a day to be healthier.

I believe claims from the dairy industry that the tightening of environmental standards for freshwater would threaten New Zealand’s economic recovery are exaggerated. They also ignore the fact clean water and a healthy environment provide the foundation for our current and future economic well-being.

And they fly in the face of modelling by the Ministry for the Environment, which shows implementation of freshwater reforms would save NZ$3.8 billion.

Excess nitrogen is not just an issue for ecosystem health. Nitrate (which forms when nitrogen combines with oxygen) in drinking water has been linked to colon cancer, which is disproportionately high in many parts of New Zealand.

The New Zealand College of Public Health Medicine and the Hawkes Bay district health board both made submissions calling for a nitrate limit in rivers and aquifers to protect people’s health – at the same level the technical advisory group recommended to protect ecosystems.




Read more:
Drinking water study raises health concerns for New Zealanders


Our dependence on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is unsustainable, and it is adding to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas footprint through nitrous oxide emissions. There is growing evidence farmers can make more profit by reducing their use of artificial fertilisers.

Continued use will only further degrade soils across productive landscapes and reduce the farming sector’s resilience in a changing climate.

The irony is that for a century, New Zealand produced milk without synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. Instead, farmers grew clover which converts nitrogen from the air. If we want to strive for better water quality for future generations, we need to front up to the unsustainable use of artificial fertiliser and seek more regenerative farming practices.The Conversation

Michael (Mike) Joy, Senior Researcher; Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

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

Australia, it’s time to talk about our water emergency



Dean Lewins/AAP

Quentin Grafton, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Matthew Colloff, Australian National University; Paul Wyrwoll, Australian National University, and Virginia Marshall, Australian National University

The last bushfire season showed Australians they can no longer pretend climate change will not affect them. But there’s another climate change influence we must also face up to: increasingly scarce water on our continent.

Under climate change, rainfall will become more unpredictable. Extreme weather events such as cyclones will be more intense. This will challenge water managers already struggling to respond to Australia’s natural boom and bust of droughts and floods.

Thirty years since Australia’s water reform project began, it’s clear our efforts have largely failed. Drought-stricken rural towns have literally run out of water. Despite the recent rains, the Murray Darling river system is being run dry and struggles to support the communities that depend on it.

We must find another way. So let’s start the conversation.

It’s time for a new national discussion about water policy.
Joe Castro/AAP

How did we get here?

Sadly, inequitable water outcomes in Australia are not new.

The first water “reform” occurred when European settlers acquired water sources from First Peoples without consent or compensation. Overlaying this dispossession, British common law gave new settlers land access rights to freshwater. These later converted into state-owned rights, and are now allocated as privately held water entitlements.

Some 200 years later, the first steps towards long-term water reform arguably began in the 1990s. The process accelerated during the Millennium Drought and in 2004 led to the National Water Initiative, an intergovernmental water agreement. This was followed in 2007 by a federal Water Act, upending exclusive state jurisdiction over water.




Read more:
While towns run dry, cotton extracts 5 Sydney Harbours’ worth of Murray Darling water a year. It’s time to reset the balance


Under the National Water Initiative, state and territory water plans were to be verified through water accounting to ensure “adequate measurement, monitoring and reporting systems” across the country.

This would have boosted public and investor confidence in the amount of water being traded, extracted and recovered – both for the environment and the public good.

This vision has not been realised. Instead, a narrow view now dominates in which water is valuable only when extracted, and water reform is about subsidising water infrastructure such as dams, to enable this extraction.

The National Water Initiative has failed.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Why we should all care

In the current drought, rural towns have literally run out of fresh drinking water. These towns are not just dots on a map. They are communities whose very existence is now threatened.

In some small towns, drinking water can taste unpleasant or contain high levels of nitrate, threatening the health of babies. Drinking water in some remote Indigenous communities is not always treated, and the quality rarely checked.

In the Murray-Darling Basin, poor management and low rainfall have caused dry rivers, mass fish kills, and distress in Aboriginal communities. Key aspects of the basin plan have not been implemented. This, coupled with bushfire damage, has caused long-term ecological harm.

How do we fix the water emergency?

Rivers, lakes and wetlands must have enough water at the right time. Only then will the needs of humans and the environment be met equitably – including access to and use of water by First Peoples.

Water for the environment and water for irrigation is not a zero-sum trade-off. Without healthy rivers, irrigation farming and rural communities cannot survive.

A national conversation on water reform is needed. It should recognise and include First Peoples’ values and knowledge of land, water and fire.

Our water brief, Water Reform For All,
proposes six principles to build a national water dialogue:

  1. establish shared visions and goals
  2. develop clarity of roles and responsibilities
  3. implement adaptation as a way to respond to an escalation of stresses, including climate change and governance failures
  4. invest in advanced technology to monitor, predict and understand changes in water availability
  5. integrate bottom-up and community-based adaptation, including from Indigenous communities, into improved water governance arrangements
  6. undertake policy experiments to test new ways of managing water for all
The Darling River is in poor health.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Ask the right questions

As researchers, we don’t have all the answers on how to create a sustainable, equitable water future. No-one does. But in any national conversation, we believe these fundamental questions must be asked:

  1. who is responsible for water governance? How do decisions and actions of one group affect access and availability of water for others?

  2. what volumes of water are extracted from surface and groundwater systems? Where, when, by whom and for what?

  3. what can we predict about a future climate and other long-term drivers of change?

  4. how can we better understand and measure the multiple values that water holds for communities and society?

  5. where do our visions for the future of water align? Where do they differ?

  6. what principles, protocols and processes will help deliver the water reform needed?

  7. how do existing rules and institutions constrain, or enable, efforts to achieve a shared vision of a sustainable water future?

  8. how do we integrate new knowledge, such as water availability under climate change, into our goals?

  9. what restitution is needed in relation to water and Country for First Peoples?

  10. what economic sectors and processes would be better suited to a water-scarce future, and how might we foster them?

Water reform for all

These questions, if part of a national conversation, would reinvigorate the water debate and help put Australia on track to a sustainable water future.

Now is the time to start the discussion. Long-accepted policy approaches in support of sustainable water futures are in question. In the Murray-Darling Basin, some states even question the value of catchment-wide management. The formula for water-sharing between states is under attack.




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Even science that previously underpinned water reform is being questioned

We must return to basics, reassess what’s sensible and feasible, and debate new ways forward.

We are not naive. All of us have been involved in water reform and some of us, like many others, suffer from reform fatigue.

But without a fresh debate, Australia’s water emergency will only get worse. Reform can – and must – happen, for the benefit of all Australians.


The following contributed to this piece and co-authored the report on which it was based: Daniel Connell, Katherine Daniell, Joseph Guillaume, Lorrae van Kerkoff, Aparna Lal, Ehsan Nabavi, Jamie Pittock, Katherine Taylor, Paul Tregoning, and John WilliamsThe Conversation

Quentin Grafton, Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Matthew Colloff, Honorary Senior Lecturer, Australian National University; Paul Wyrwoll, Research fellow, Australian National University, and Virginia Marshall, Inaugural Indigenous Postdoctoral Fellow, Australian National University

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

Aren’t we in a drought? The Australian black coal industry uses enough water for over 5 million people


Ian Overton, University of Adelaide

Water is a highly contested resource in this long, oppressive drought, and the coal industry is one of Australia’s biggest water users.

Research released today, funded by the Australian Conservation Foundation, has identified how much water coal mining and coal-fired power stations actually use in New South Wales and Queensland. The answer? About 383 billion litres of fresh water every year.

That’s the same amount 5.2 million people, or more than the entire population of Greater Sydney, uses in the same period. And it’s about 120 times the water used by wind and solar to generate the same amount of electricity.




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Monitoring how much water is used by industry is vital for sustainable water management. But a lack of transparency about how much water Australia’s coal industry uses makes this very difficult.

Adani’s controversial Carmichael mine in central Queensland was granted a water licence that allows the company to take as much groundwater as it wants, despite fears it will damage aquifers and groundwater-dependent rivers.

Now more than ever, we must make sure water use by coal mines and power stations are better monitored and managed.

Data on total water use by coal mines is not publicly available.
Shutterstock

Why does coal need so much water?

Mines in NSW and Queensland account for 96% of Australia’s black coal production.

Almost all water used in coal mines is consumed and cannot be reused. Water is used for coal processing, handling and preparation, dust suppression, on-site facilities, irrigation, vehicle washing and more.

Coal mining’s water use rate equates to a total consumption of almost 225 billion litres a year in NSW and Queensland, which can be extrapolated to 234 billion litres for Australia, for black coal without considering brown coal.

About 80% of this water is freshwater from rainfall and runoff, extracted from rivers and water bodies, groundwater inflows or transferred from other mines. Mines are located in regions such as the Darling Downs, the Hunter River and the Namoi River in the Murray-Darling Basin.




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The other 20% comes from water already contained in tailings (mine residue), recycled water or seepage from the mines.

The burning of coal to generate energy is also a large water user. Water use in coal-fired power stations is even harder to quantify, with a report from 2009 providing the only available data.

Water is used for cooling with power stations using either a once-through flow or recirculating water system.

The water consumed becomes toxic wastewater stored in ash ponds or is evaporated during cooling processes. Water withdrawn is returned to rivers which can damage aquatic life due to the increased temperature.

No transparency

Data on total water use by coal mines is not publicly available. Despite the development of Australian and international water accounting frameworks, there is no reporting to these standards in coal mine reports.

This lack of consistent and available data means water use by the coal industry, and its negative effects, is not widely reported or understood. The problem is compounded by complex regulatory frameworks that allow gaps in water-use reporting.

A patchwork of government agencies in each state regulate water licences, quality and discharge, coal mine planning, annual reviews of mine operations and water and environmental impacts. This means that problems can fall through the gaps.

Digging for data

An analysis of annual reviews from 39 coal mines in NSW, provided data on water licences and details of water used in different parts of the mine.

Although they are part of mandatory reporting, the method of reporting water use is not standardised. The reviews are required to report against surface water and groundwater licences, but aren’t required to show a comprehensive water balanced account. Annual reviews for Queensland coal mines were not available.

Collated water use — both water consumption and water withdrawal – showed coal mining consumes approximately 653 litres for each tonne of coal produced.

This rate is 2.5 times more than a previous water-use rate of 250 litres per tonne, from research in 2010.

Using this rate the total water consumed by coal mining is 40% more than the total amount of water reported for all types of mining in NSW and Queensland by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in the same year.

By the numbers

NSW and Queensland coal-fired power stations annually consume 158,300 megalitres of water. One megalitre is equivalent to one million litres.

A typical 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power station uses enough water in one year to meet the basic water needs of nearly 700,000 people. NSW and Queensland have 18,000 megawatts of capacity.

Coal-fired generation uses significantly more water than other types of energy.

In total, coal mining and coal-fired power stations in NSW and Queensland consume 383 billion litres of freshwater a year – about 4.3% of all freshwater available in those states.

The value of this water is between A$770 million and A$2.49 billion (using a range of low to high security water licence costs).

They withdraw 2,353 billion litres of freshwater per year.


Author provided/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The problem with large water use

Coal mining is concentrated in a few regions, such as the Hunter Valley and the Bowen Basin, which are also important for farming and agriculture.

In NSW and Queensland, the coal industry withdraws about 30% as much water as is withdrawn for agriculture, and this is concentrated in the few regions.

Coal mining and power stations use water through licenses to access surface water and groundwater, and from unlicensed capturing of rainfall and runoff.

This can reduce stream flow and groundwater levels, which can threaten ecosystem habitats if not managed in context of other water users. Cumulative effects of multiple mines in one region can increase the risk to other water users.

The need for an holistic approach

A lack of available data remains a significant challenge to understanding the true impact of coal mining and coal-fired power on Australia’s water resources.

To improve transparency and increase trust in the coal industry, accounting for water consumed, withdrawn and impacted by coal mining should be standardised to report on full water account balances.




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The coal industry should also be subject to mandatory monthly reporting and a single, open-access point of water data must be created. Comprehensive water modelling must be updated yearly and audited.

Coal water use must be managed in a holistic manner with the elevation of water accounting to a single government agency or common database.

Australia has a scarce water supply, and our environment and economy depend on the sustainable and equitable sharing of this resource.The Conversation

Ian Overton, Adjunct Associate Professor, Centre for Global Food and Resources, University of Adelaide

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

Heavy rains are great news for Sydney’s dams, but they come with a big caveat


Ian Wright, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Western Sydney University

Throughout summer, Sydney’s water storage level fell alarmingly. Level 2 water restrictions were imposed and the New South Wales government prepared to double the capacity of its desalination plant.

But then it began to rain, and rain. Sydney water storages jumped from 41% in early February to 75% now – the highest of any capital city in Australia.

This is great news for the city, but it comes with a big caveat. Floodwaters will undoubtedly wash bushfire debris into reservoirs – possibly overwhelming water treatment systems. We must prepare now for that worst-case pollution scenario.

Reservoirs filled with rain

The water level of Sydney’s massive Lake Burragorang – the reservoir behind Warragamba Dam – rose by more than 11 meters this week. Warragamba supplies more than 80% of Sydney’s water.

Other Sydney water storages, including Nepean and Tallowa dams, are now at 100%.
WaterNSW report that 865,078 megalitres of extra water has been captured this week across all Greater Sydney’s dams.

This dwarfs the volume of water produced by Sydney’s desalination plant, which produces 250 megalitres a day when operating at full capacity. Even at this rate, it would take more than 3,400 days (or nine years) to match the volume of water to added to Sydney’s supply this week.

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The Warragamba Dam before the drought and after the recent heavy rains.

But then comes the pollution

Thankfully, the rain appears to have extinguished bushfires burning in the Warragamba catchment for months.

But the water will also pick up bushfire debris and wash it into dams.

Over the summer, bushfires burnt about 30% of Warragamba Dam’s massive 905,000 hectare water catchment, reducing protective ground cover vegetation. This increases the risk of soil erosion. Rain will wash ash and sediment loads into waterways – adding more nitrogen, phosphorous and organic carbon into water storages.




Read more:
Bushfires threaten drinking water safety. The consequences could last for decades


Waterways and ecosystems require nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen, but excess nutrients aren’t a good thing. They bring contamination risks, such as the rapid growth of toxic blue-green algae.

Drinking water catchments will always have some degree of contamination and water treatment consistently provides high quality drinking water. But poor water quality after catchment floods is not without precedent.

We’ve seen this before

In August 1998, extreme wet weather and flooding rivers filled the drought-affected Warragamba Dam in just a few days.

This triggered the Cryptosporidium crisis, when the protozoan parasite and the pathogen Giardia were detected in Sydney’s water supplies. It triggered health warnings, and Sydneysiders were instructed to boil water before drinking it. This event did not involve a bushfire.




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Better boil ya billy: when Australian water goes bad


The Canberra bushfires in January 2003 triggered multiple water quality problems. Most of the region’s Cotter River catchments, which hold three dams, were burned. Intense thunderstorms in the months after the bushfire washed enormous loads of ash, soil and debris into catchment rivers and water reservoirs.

This led to turbidity (murkiness), as well as iron, manganese, nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon in reservoir waters. The inflow of organic material also depleted dissolved oxygen which triggered the release of metals from reservoir sediment. At times, water quality was so poor it couldn’t be treated and supplied to consumers.

The ACT Government was forced to impose water restrictions, and built a A$38 million water treatment plant.

Have we come far enough?

Technology in water treatment plants has developed over the past 20 years, and water supply systems operates according to Australian drinking water guidelines.

Unlike the 1998 Sydney water crisis, WaterNSW, Sydney Water and NSW Health now have advanced tests and procedures to detect and manage water quality problems.

In December last year, WaterNSW said it was aware of the risk bushfires posed to water supplies, and it had a number of measures at its disposal, including using booms and curtains to isolate affected flows.

However at the time, bushfire ash had already reportedly entered the Warragamba system.

The authors crossing the Coxs River during very low flow last September.
Author provided

Look to recycled water

Sydney’s water storages may have filled, but residents should not stop saving water. We recommend Level 2 water restrictions, which ban the use of garden hoses, be relaxed to Level 1 restrictions which ban most sprinklers and watering systems, and the hosing of hard surfaces.

While this measure is in place, longer term solutions can be explored. Expanding desalination is a popular but expensive option, however greater use of recycled wastewater is also needed.




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Highly treated recycled water including urban stormwater and even treated sewage should be purified and incorporated into the water supply. Singapore is a world leader and has proven the measure can gain community acceptance.

It’s too early to tell what impact the combination of bushfires and floods will have on water storages. But as extreme weather events increase in frequency and severity, all options should be on the table to shore up drinking water supplies.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Senior Lecturer in Geochemistry, Western Sydney University

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

You can leave water out for wildlife without attracting mosquitoes, if you take a few precautions



Leaving water out for wildlife is important during droughts and bushfires but if it’s not changed regularly it can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Roger Smith/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Cameron Webb, University of Sydney

Australia is in for a long, hot summer. The recent bushfires have been devastating for communities and wildlife. Drought is also impacting many regions.

Understandably, people want to leave water out for thirsty birds and animals.

Health authorities generally warn against collecting and storing water in backyards as one measure to protect against mosquito bites and mosquito-borne diseases caused by, for example, dengue and Ross River viruses.




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But it’s possible to leave water out for wildlife – and save water for your garden – without supplying a breeding ground for mosquitoes, if you take a few precautions.

For some mozzies, any water will do

Mosquitoes often look for wetlands and ponds to lay their eggs. But sometimes, anything that holds water – a bucket, bird bath, drain or rainwater tank – will do.

When the immature stages of mosquitoes hatch out of those eggs, they wriggle about in the water for a week or so before emerging to fly off in search of blood.

While there are many mosquitoes found in wetlands and bushland areas, Aedes notoscriptus and Culex quinquefasciatus are the mosquitoes most commonly found in our backyards and have been shown to transmit pathogens that cause mosquito-borne disease.

The Australian backyard mosquito (Aedes notoscriptus) is quick to take advantage of water-filled containers around the home.
Cameron Webb (NSW Health Pathology)

In central and north Queensland, mosquitoes such as Aedes aegypti can bring more serious health threats, such as dengue, to some towns.




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Mosquitoes can also impact our quality of life through bites as well as the nuisance of simply buzzing about our bedrooms and backyards.

So how can you stop mozzies making a home in your backyard?

Empty water containers once a week

Mosquitoes need access to standing water for about a week or so. Reduce the number of water-filled containers available or how long that water is available to mosquitoes.

Emptying a water-filled container once a week will stop the immature mosquitoes from completing their development and emerging as adults.

If you’re leaving water out for pets or wildlife, use smaller volume containers that will allow for easy emptying once a week. You can tip any remaining water into the garden, as mosquito larvae won’t survive if they’re “stranded” on soil.

For larger or heavier items, such as bird baths, flushing them out once a week with the hose will knock out most of the wrigglers and stop the mosquitoes completing their life cycle.

Make sure garden water doesn’t slosh about

Be careful with self-watering planter boxes. These often have a reservoir of water in their base and, while it may seem like a water-wise idea, these can turn into tiny mozzie hotels!

A simple trick to keep water available to plants, but not mosquitoes, is to fill your potted plant saucers with sand. The sand traps and stores some moisture but there is no water sloshing about for mosquitoes.

If you’re collecting water from showers, baths, or washing machines (commonly known as grey water), use it immediately on the garden, don’t store it outside in buckets or other containers.




Read more:
How drought is affecting water supply in Australia’s capital cities


Gutters, ponds, tanks and pools

Make sure your roof gutters and drains are free of leaves and other debris that will trap water and provide opportunities for mosquitoes.

Ensure rainwater tanks (and other large water-storage containers) are appropriately screened to prevent access by mosquitoes.

Rainwater tanks can be a useful way to conserve water in our cities but they can also be a source of mosquitoes.
Cameron Webb (NSW Health Pathology)

A well maintained swimming pool won’t be a source of mosquitoes. But if it’s turning “green”, through neglect and not intent, it may become a problem. Mosquitoes don’t like the chlorine or salt treatments typically used for swimming pools but when there is a build up of leaves and other detritus, as well as algae, the mosquitoes will move in.




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For backyard ponds, introducing native fish can help keep mosquito numbers down.

But if you want your pond to be a home for frogs, avoid fish as they may eat the tadpoles. Instead, try to encourage other wildlife that may help keep mosquito numbers down by creating habitats for spiders and other predatory insects, reptiles, frogs, birds, and bats.

Avoiding excessive use of insecticides around the backyard will help encourage and protect that wildlife too.

Mozzies can still come

There isn’t much that can be done about those mosquitoes flying in from over the back fences from local bushland or wetland areas.

Mosquitoes are generally most active at dusk and dawn so keep that in mind when planning time outdoors. But when mosquito populations are peaking, they’ll be active almost all day long.

Applying an insect repellent can be a safe and effective way to stop those bites.




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Covering up with long pants, long-sleeved shirt and shoes will provide a physical barrier to mosquitoes. If you’re spending a lot of time outdoors, perhaps even consider treating your clothing with insecticide to add that extra little bit of protection.

Make sure insect screens are installed, and in good condition, on windows and doors. Mosquitoes outdoors can be bad; you don’t want them inside as well.The Conversation

Cameron Webb, Clinical Lecturer and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney

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

The sweet relief of rain after bushfires threatens disaster for our rivers



After heavy rainfall, debris could wash into our waterways and threaten fish, water bugs, and other aquatic species.
Jarod Lyon, Author provided

Paul McInerney, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, CSIRO, and Klaus Joehnk, CSIRO

When heavy rainfall eventually extinguishes the flames ravaging south-east Australia, another ecological threat will arise. Sediment, ash and debris washing into our waterways, particularly in the Murray-Darling Basin, may decimate aquatic life.

We’ve seen this before. Following 2003 bushfires in Victoria’s alpine region, water filled with sediment and debris (known as sediment slugs) flowed into rivers and lakes, heavily reducing fish populations. We’ll likely see it again after this season’s bushfire emergency.




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Large areas of northeast Victoria have been burnt. While this region accounts only for 2% of Murray-Darling Basin’s entire land area, water flowing in from northeast Victorian streams (also known as in-flow) contributes 38% of overall in-flows into the Murray-Darling Basin.

Fire debris flowing into Murray-Darling Basin will exacerbate the risk of fish and other aquatic life dying en masse as witnessed in previous years..

What will flow into waterways?

Generally, bushfire ash comprises organic carbon and inorganic elements such as nitrogen, phosphorous and metals such as copper, mercury and zinc.

Sediment rushing into waterways can also contain large amounts of soil, since fire has consumed the vegetation that once bound the soil together and prevented erosion.

And carcinogenic chemicals – found in soil and ash in higher amounts following bushfires – can contaminate streams and reservoirs over the first year after the fire.

A 2014 post-fire flood in a Californian stream.

How they harm aquatic life

Immediately following the bushfires, we expect to see an increase in streamflow when it rains, because burnt soil repels, not absorbs, water.

When vast amounts of carbon are present in a waterway, such as when carbon-loaded sediments and debris wash in, bacteria rapidly consumes the water’s oxygen. The remaining oxygen levels can fall below what most invertebrates and fish can tolerate.

These high sediment loads can also suffocate aquatic animals with a fine layer of silt which coats their gills and other breathing structures.

Habitats are also at risk. When sediment is suspended in the river and light can’t penetrate, suitable fish habitat is diminished. The murkier water also means there’s less opportunity for aquatic plants and algae to photosynthesise (turn sunshine to energy).




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What’s more, many of Australia’s waterbugs, the keystone of river food webs, need pools with litter and debris for cover. They rely on slime on the surface of rocks and snags that contain algae, fungi and bacteria for food.

But heavy rain following fire can lead to pools and the spaces between cobbles to fill with silt, causing the waterbugs to starve and lose their homes.

This is bad news for fish too. Any bug-eating fish that manage to avoid dying from a lack of oxygen can be faced with an immediate food shortage.

Many fish were killed in Ovens River after the 2003 bushfires from sediment slugs.
Arthur Rylah Institute, Author provided

We saw this in 2003 after the sediment slug penetrated the Ovens River in the north east Murray catchment. Researchers observed dead fish, stressed fish gulping at the water surface and freshwater crayfish walking out of the stream.

Long-term damage

Bushfires can increase the amount of nutrients in streams 100 fold. The effects can persist for several years before nutrient levels return to pre-fire conditions.

More nutrients in the water might sound like a good thing, but when there’s too much (especially nitrogen and phosphorous), coupled with warm temperatures, they can lead to excessive growth of blue-green algae. This algae can be toxic to both people and animals and often closes down recreational waters.




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Large parts of the upper Murray River catchment above Lake Hume has burnt, risking increases to nutrient loads within the lake and causing blue-green algae blooms which may flow downstream. This can impact communities from Albury all the way to the mouth of the Murray River in South Australia.

Some aquatic species are already teetering on the edge of their preferred temperature as stream temperatures rise from climate change. In places where bushfires have burnt all the way to the stream edge, decimating vegetation that provided shade, there’ll be less resistance to temperature changes, and fewer cold places for aquatic life to hide.

Cooler hide-outs are particularly important for popular angling species such as trout, which are highly sensitive to increased water temperature.

Ash blanketing the forest floor can end up in waterways when it rains.
Tarmo Raadik

But while we can expect an increase in stream flow from water-repellent burnt soil, we know from previous bushfires that, in the long-term, stream flow will drop.

This is because in the upper catchments, regenerating younger forests use more water than the older forests they replace from evapotranspiration (when plants release water vapour into the surrounding atmosphere, and evaporation from the surrounding land surface).

It’s particularly troubling for the Murray-Darling Basin, where large areas are already enduring ongoing drought. Bushfires may exacerbate existing dry conditions.

So what can we do?

We need to act as soon as possible. Understandably, priorities lie in removing the immediate and ongoing bushfire threat. But following that, we must improve sediment and erosion control to prevent debris being washed into water bodies in fire-affected areas.




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One of the first things we can do is to restore areas used for bushfire control lines and minimise the movement of soil along access tracks used for bushfire suppression. This can be achieved using sediment barriers and other erosion control measures in high risk areas.

Longer-term, we can re-establish vegetation along waterways to help buffer temperature extremes and sediment loads entering streams.

It’s also important to introduce strategic water quality monitoring programs that incorporate real-time sensing technology, providing an early warning system for poor water quality. This can help guide the management of our rivers and reservoirs in the years to come.

While our current focus is on putting the fires out, as it should be, it’s important to start thinking about the future and how to protect our waterways. Because inevitably, it will rain again.The Conversation

Paul McInerney, Research scientist, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, , CSIRO, and Klaus Joehnk, Senior research scientist, CSIRO

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

Bushfires threaten drinking water safety. The consequences could last for decades



Warnings about poor drinking water quality are in place in some areas affected by the bushfires.
From shutterstock.com

Stuart Khan, UNSW

Bushfires pose serious short- and long-term impacts to public drinking water quality. They can damage water supply infrastructure and water catchments, impeding the treatment processes that normally make our water safe to drink.

Several areas in New South Wales and Victoria have already been issued with warnings about the quality of their drinking water.

Here’s what we know about the short- and long-term risks.




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Short-term risks

Bushfires can damage or disrupt water supply infrastructure as they burn. And the risks can persist after the fires are out.

A loss of power, for example, disables important water treatment processes such as chlorine disinfection, needed to kill microorganisms and make our water safe to drink.

Drinking water for the towns of Eden and Boydtown on the NSW south coast has been affected in this way over recent days. Residents have been advised to boil their water before drinking it and using it for cooking, teeth brushing, and so on.

Other towns including Cobargo and Bermagui received similar warnings on New Year’s Eve.




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In some cases, untreated water, straight from a river supply, may be fed directly into drinking water systems. Water treatment plants are bypassed completely, due to damage, power loss, or an inability to keep pace with high volumes of water required for firefighting.

We’ve seen this in a number of southern NSW towns this week including Batlow, Adelong, Tumbarumba, and the southern region of Eurobodalla Council, stretching from Moruya to Tilba. Residents of these areas have also been urged to boil their drinking water.

Untreated river water, or river water which has not been properly disinfected with chlorine, is usually not safe for drinking in Australia. Various types of bacteria, as well as the parasites giardia and cryptosporidium, could be in such water.

Animals including cattle, birds and kangaroos can excrete these microorganisms into river water. Septic tanks and sewage treatment plants may also discharge effluents into waterways, adding harmful microorganisms.

Human infection with these microorganisms can cause a range of illnesses, including gastrointestinal diseases with symptoms of diarrhoea and vomiting.




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Long-term risks

Bushfires can damage drinking water catchments, which can lead to longer term threats to drinking water. Drinking water catchments are typically forested areas, and so are vulnerable to bushfire damage.

Severe impacts to waterways may not occur until after intense rainfall. Heavy rain can wash ash and eroded soil from the fires into waterways, affecting drinking water supplies downstream.

For example, bushfire ash contains nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous. Increased nutrient concentrations can stimulate the growth of cyanobacteria, commonly known as “blue-green algae”.

Cyanobacteria produce chemicals which may cause a range of water quality problems, including poor taste and odour. Some cyanobacteria can produce toxic chemicals, requiring very careful management to protect treated drinking water.

Boiling water will kill microorganisms, but not chemical substances.
From shutterstock.com

Many water treatment plants include filtration processes to filter small suspended particles from the water. But an increase in suspended particles, like that which we see after bushfires, would challenge most filtration plants. The suspended particles would be removed, but they would clog the filters, requiring them to be more frequently pulled from normal operation and cleaned.

This cleaning, or backwashing, is a normal part of the treatment process. But if more time must be spent backwashing, that’s less time the filters are working to produce drinking water. And if the rate of drinking water filtration is slowed and fails to keep pace with demand, authorities may place limitations on water use.




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Boiling water isn’t always enough

In order to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal and other illnesses, water suppliers and health departments may issue a boil water alert, as we’ve seen in the past week. Bringing water to a “rolling boil” can reliably kill most of the microorganisms of concern.

In cases where water may be contaminated with chemical substances rather than microorganisms, boiling is usually not effective. So where there’s a risk of chemical contamination, public health messages are usually “do not drink tap water”. This means bottled water only.

Such “do not drink” alerts were issued this week following bushfire impacts to water treatment plants supplying the Victorian towns of Buchan and Omeo.




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Impacts to catchments from bushfires and subsequent erosion can have long-lasting effects, potentially worsening untreated drinking water quality for many years, even decades.

Following these bushfires, many water treatment plant operators and catchment managers will need to adapt to changed conditions and brace for more extreme weather events in the future.The Conversation

Stuart Khan, Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, UNSW

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