Doomed Planet

Mismanagement on the Murray

We are watching water policy and water management become ever more political and ever less practical as new tiers of bureaucracy are added to a system that has served us for ninety years. 

It was practical policy that allowed the development of thriving rural communities in the Murray Darling Basin. It meant that inland Australia could efficiently produce food and fibre for Australia and other parts of the world. 

We are not arguing against change. Some mistakes have been made and they need to be fixed. In essence, we need to apply more practical policy. 

The Federal Government and the Murray Darling Basin Authority have been busily arguing that we need to ‘fix’ the Murray Darling Basin. Unfortunately, they did not notice the obvious lesson we should have learnt from the recent crippling drought. That lesson was, quite simply, that population and production demands have surged way ahead of the ‘use by date’ of our water management systems. Many of them are over 50 years old and they definitely need upgrading so that they can continue to protect all Australians from our land of ‘drought and flooding rains’. 

We have also learnt much about being ‘environmentally responsible’ in the last 50 years and we need to upgrade in balance with that responsibility. 

It’s disappointing that all we are getting are theories, projective modelling and bureaucratic compliance. Irrigation farmers and their support communities are being manoeuvred into agreeing that the Murray Darling Basin needs to be managed by a bureaucracy in Canberra. We are watching farmers and their communities being slowly befuddled by hollow political rhetoric. 

The flexibility required to manage the Murray Darling Basin cannot be achieved from a centralised bureaucracy in Canberra. The present course of inaction and the emotional dialogue surrounding it is moving us backwards not forwards. 

Using ‘long term averages’ to determine what will happen in the future is ineffective. When did our land of ‘drought and flooding rains’ ever respect long term averages and projective models? Weren’t we quite recently told that the Murray Darling Basin would never flood again? 

Take a good look around and notice that the whole system has bounced back in a most spectacular manner.  Our water-dependant environmental assets are roaring back to life. They’re used to droughts and floods. They always have been. 

Ironically, the frightening amount of tax payer money that has already been spent on ‘fixing’ the Murray Darling Basin has not had anything at all to do with the spectacular return of our native flora and fauna or our natural wetlands. Incidentally, our highly adaptable native species are just as happy thriving in the dams and channels supplied by irrigation development as they are in the creeks and billabongs. 

We are wasting everyone’s time and wasting tax payers’ money trying to solve the wrong part of the problem. We are also using the wrong resources to do it. To many of us, the obvious missing ingredient is good old common sense. 

It is actually an extraordinary conceit to believe a bureaucracy in Canberra can manage nature better than nature or farmers can. Canberra’s baseline strategy to manage the Murray Darling Basin is to throw more money at it and just ‘flush it’. We all know that is not a good idea or even a practical solution. 

The engagement process is all about asking Murray Darling Basin communities to contemplate a future with less.  We should be getting asked to design practical policy which puts money into better water storage, on-farm conservation and world-class irrigation infrastructure. This is entirely achievable in balance with environmental responsibility. Why are we not asking ‘the best available science’ and ‘our brightest minds’ to exercise some vision and look at the possibilities of upgrading and progression? 

Then we wouldn’t have to contemplate a future which is threatening the survival of our vibrant Murray Darling Basin communities.  

Debbie Buller is a rice farmer, and president of the Murrumbidgee Valley Food and Fibre Association 

See also: Ron Pike’s “From food bowl to dust bowl” here…

Leave a Reply