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January 23rd 2014 print

Ron Pike

Sold Up The River

An earlier generation of politicians understood that water and power drive wealth-creation and modern life. Their successors seem more interested in preserving a bureaucracy whose priority is protecting its own interests, rather than those of the people it is supposed to serve

droughtWhenever the State or its instrumentalities and bureaucratic arms have been seen to fail, to cover up failure, or suspected of corruption, Australia governments have resorted to the proven British course of appointing a Royal Commission. The present Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse, likely be the longest and most expensive in our history, is the 130th  called by the Commonwealth. The first was in 1902 and investigated the transport of troops returning from the war in South Africa, one of whom was my grandfather, Light Horseman, Charles Pike Senior.

Since then Royal Commissions have looked into espionage, television, stripper harvesters and drills, powellised timber, the tobacco monopoly, drugs both legal and prohibited, and the numerous illegal activities of police forces, politicians and waterfront unions. Mostly these investigations uncovered the truth, or a close approximation of it, and delivered worthwhile outcomes. What may surprise readers is that the first-ever Royal Commission was appointed by the NSW Government in May, 1884, with its stated objective stated thus:

To investigate and make full enquiry into the best method of conserving the rainfall, and of searching for and developing the underground reservoirs supposed to exist in the interior of the colony and to determine a general system of water conservation and distribution aimed at averting the disastrous consequences of droughts.

The final report was delivered on May 9,  1887. Most of the recommendations were eventually implemented and, as detailed below, bestowed for a century ongoing and positive results on NSW, the nation as a whole and regional communities in particular. It was during this Royal Commission that the prospect of diverting water west from the Snowy Mountains was first proposed.

Supported by similar recommendations from Victoria and spurred by the devastation of the Federation Drought, the politicians acted, resulting in the building of Burrinjuck Dam on the Murrumbidgee (commenced 1907), Eildon Weir on the Goulburn River (commenced 1915), Hume Dam on the Murray (commenced 1919) and Wyangala on the Lachlan (commenced 1928). The building of these dams and other, later water-conservation works not only ensured that these rivers have never run dry, as they previously did, but fostered the development of thriving regional communities based on large areas of world-class irrigated agriculture, plus the secondary industries that blossomed as a result.

It should be noted that the environment was also a beneficiary, as the area of permanent wetlands dramatically increased, likewise aquatic life. Wetlands that previously spent much of their time bone dry have remained mostly hydrated, thanks to the practical control of water.

One of the first settlers to take up the opportunity provided by the blessing of plentiful, available water was the same Charles Pike Senior, who in 1912 settled with his wife and four sons near Yanco in the Riverina, there to play his part in the development of what is now Australia’s food bowl. His opportunity, and the security of the generations that followed, was made possible by the vision of practical politicians who appreciated that, like crops, one cannot grow wealth and commerce without reliable water supplies.

With the Second World War over and inspired by the enthusiasm of returning servicemen and the influx of migrants from Europe, all seeking a new start and better lives, politicians again demonstrated great foresight when they recognised abundant supplies of cheap power and water as the basics of modern life, growth and prosperity.

Hindered by power shortages, NSW was a willing partner in the Snowy Scheme. Australia also continued to develop its vast coal resources in order to provide reliable, efficient and cheap base-load power, also building further dams, particularly in the north of NSW. As a result, regional communities, at that time feeling the effects of the dramatic fall in the price of wool, adapted, produced and thrived. New towns emerged while others were proclaimed cities, their growth driven by abundant resources being put to practical and entrepreneurial use. Australia prospered and our standard of living dramatically improved.

So what has changed for these same regions, many now stagnant or dying?

Simply put, official policy has allowed the the two most essentials underwriters of modern life, power and water, to become no better than sources of tax revenue, sources maladministered by ever-growing and avaricious bureaucracies. Recent events demonstrate how vision and practical policy, as implemented by our forefathers, have been replaced with officialdom and costly, strangling tangles of “green tape.”

Only last week NSW Commissioner of Water David Harris announced an increase of 2% to the water allocations for general irrigators in the Murrumbidgee Valley, bringing their total entitlement for this irrigation season to 59%. This decision, coming as it did just six weeks from the seasonal end of irrigated water use, was handed down when it was far too late for growers to make use of the additional supplies by planting further crops.

The present situation with the two dams supplying the Murrumbidgee Valley sees the first,  Blowering Dam, still at 77% (1,256,000 megalitres) of capacity, while its sister catchment, Burrinjuck, holds 51% (523,000 megalitres) of potential capacity in storage.  These two dams, with their combined total of 1,779,000 megalitres, represent 65% of total annual water allocations of the whole valley.

Although the State and its authorities have plenty of water which might be sold to irrigators, growers are being forced onto the market, where they are paying between $80 and $100 per megalitre from water traders. Is NSW manipulating supply to drive up market prices? Whether or not that is its intention, there is no doubt that higher costs have been the result.

It should be noted that at the commencement of the irrigation season in mid-September, Blowering and Burrinjuck held a combined storage of 1,980,000 megalitres. Therefore, the total drawdown to date this irrigation season is only 201,000 megalitres, or just over 10% of the water held at the commencement of the season. Another way of viewing the water that has been made available: it is a scant 7.5% of total storage capacity.

NSW has forfeited massive revenue and regional communities are dying as a result of this unnecessary over-regulation. Under the present NSW Government, its Water Minister Katrina Hodgkinson and Commissioner Harris, we have seen the greatest increase in needless licensing and green regulations in the history of water administration. All of which is making impossible the flexible management of water in the best interests of NSW and its citizens.

Consider just one example of the depths to which the competent management of water in NSW has sunk: Hard though it may be believe, it is now illegal to dig a long-drop toilet in NSW without being a license from the Commissioner of Water! The Commissioner and his staff have argued that they are managing water in accordance with their “water-sharing plans,” which is true. But it is those same plans that are causing perverse outcomes and precluding any flexibility in water use to match conditions and availability.

For more than two years the counterproductive results of this policy have been concisely and repeatedly conveyed to NSW’s Deputy Premier, the Water Minister, the Parliamentary Secretary and their advisers, but all have failed to listen or act. Not only have they failed to heed the citizens they are supposed to represent, they continue to sit idle while green bureaucrats with an agenda contrary to NSW’s best interests make development very nearly impossible.

The foolish and dishonest rationale for such obstructionism is that we are short of water, therefore the tap must be turned off. The incompetence and stupidity of this unnecessary and supremely impractical stance defies explanation even as it needlessly drives up the price of water, our most vital and abundant renewable resource. Combine the consequences of this folly with the abject failure to adequately provide the efficient base power needed by a growing population and what we see is a compounded debacle that will continue to adversely affect NSW, Australia and, most of all, our struggling regional communities. It should come as no surprise that irrigators and residents of these towns regard the seven bureaucracies — yes, seven of them — that it takes to administer water in NSW as being staffed by fools and led by morons. To the man on the land, water management is no longer about water; it is the quest to raise the revenue to support the bureaucrats and their further, debilitating meddling.

So arrogant and cocksure have these bureaucracies become that they recently introduced Stalinist-type remuneration which demands their customers must pay to support them even if, for whatever reason, they fail to deliver the service. Yes, that’s right: Irrigators are now forced to pay water charges even when water cannot be supplied.

While we cannot predict the future in regard to rainfall and run-off, we can, with observance of history and a rational consideration of the present situation, confidently suggest that the following is likely to happen as a result of this maladministration: Given the very high level (for this time of year) of Blowering Dam, and in the knowledge that Snowy Hydro will have to keep using water from Eucumbene (half of which will flow into Blowering) to keep the lights and air conditioners on in Sydney, it is safe to guess that well before maximum seasonal run-off this year, Blowering’s excess water will be released.

Overlapping authorities are mismanaging this whole process and have been needlessly wasting water for the last three years, so much so that it is highly likely the next, inevitable drought cycle will see Eucumbene near empty, resulting in black-outs in Sydney and no stored water to sustain our food bowl — the original reason for building the Snowy Scheme, as called for in that first-ever Royal Commission in Australia.

All of the above highlights NSW’s failure to honour its most basic obligation to its citizens.

NSW did, and should still have, abundant supplies of cheap water and power capable of driving development and expansion for another century. Instead we have power that is near double the price in USA and two-and-a-half times that of Canada. Incredibly, we now pay more for electricity than Japan and Europe.

If he were still here, I am sure Charles Pike Senior would be passionate in calling for another Royal Commission into this nonsense. Still, I am glad he is not, as it would break his heart to see politicians destroying all that he and others laboured to build in an environment they loved, understood and nurtured.

While waiting for the investigation’s final report he also would have demanded in his no-words-wasted style that current water administrators and politicians be flushed from their their comfortable offices. His only caveat would be that they not end up in one of his beloved rivers, which don’t need the pollution of any more worthless rubbish.

Ron Pike is a water consultant and third-generation irrigation farmer