Doomed Planet

The politics of water

With the release of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the inevitable squabbling that is already happening, it is appropriate that we take a more pragmatic and rational look at the implications and history of the Federal Water Act 2007.

The Water Act of Federal Parliament passed in 2007 was in response to a poorly researched media campaign waged by environmentalists that the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) was being badly managed, over regulated and as a result aquatic habitat and “the environment” were suffering. Sensationalist claims of “dying rivers, dead and dying species, water shortage and plundering inefficient irrigators,” abounded and were accepted as truth.

With an election looming the Howard government responded with the promise of billions of dollars and the then Water Minister Malcolm Turnbull began drawing up the legislation that is the basis of the Water Act. Following the change of government in 2007 the legislation was ultimately amended and passed by Water Minister Penny Wong.

Ironically, although these two politicians came from opposing political parties they exhibited remarkable similarities in managing the water portfolio. They were both inner city people with legal qualifications and neither had any practical experience with water, the environment or agriculture. Yet both quickly accepted without question the claims made by the likes of Tim Flannery, Paul Sinclair and the Wentworth Group, while showing a cavalier disregard for rational advice and wiser council from experienced, practical people who worked and lived in the Basin.

Both Water Ministers believed they knew best what needed to be done to “Save the Murray” and spoke as though “The Environment” was some Garden of Eden like place that uniquely existed somewhere down the Murray where all aquatic species went to procreate and prosper. In their minds this utopia needed extra water, regardless of the consequences for the rest of the Basin and the people and other species who lived therein.

Both recognised that the Commonwealth had no constitutional right to be involved in water management and were prepared to use international agreements as a dubious means of giving the Commonwealth control of one of the state’s most important and valuable assets.

This irrational approach and a failure to think through the consequences of their actions by both sides of politics resulted in the passing of the Water Act in 2007, with independent Tony Windsor being the only politician to vote against it; despite the fact that it was based on false premises. It was never correct to claim that the MDB was badly managed, because since man had intervened and conserved water in times of plenty for later release, the rivers had not run dry as they previously did and thriving rural communities had grown and prospered through both drought and flood.

Claims that irrigators were responsible for low river flow during the drought were irrationally shouted by environmentalists seemingly oblivious to the fact that most irrigators were not allowed any water during the drought years.

The total untruth that lack of flow in the lower Murray is responsible for hyper salinity in the Coorong is still being falsely claimed by both environmentalists and politicians. It is also a repeated fallacy that there have been less incidence of floods since we built dams. The well kept records of flood events on the major rivers of the MDB, for over 160 years show this to be false.

Nor is correct to argue that S.A. or Adelaide in particular are short of water. While the three State agreement that was put in place in 1915 to protect S.A. interests has been amended several times, it has always been to the advantage of that state and the present allocation of 1,850,000 megalitres of water per year (except in exceptional circumstances) makes a mockery of this claim.

We have now had three Water Ministers argue that putting some arbitrary annual cap on Basin wide extractions would some how solve these perceived but non existent problems. This course of action could not be more irrational and impractical because it fails to appreciate the climatic facts of the MDB. In summary these are that the availability of water varies from year to year. It also varies from month to month and from week to week. All of these variables also vary from valley to valley. There can be floods on the Namoi while the Lachlan has nil flow.

These unavoidable facts have been appreciated and managed successfully for over ninety years but now we have a Federal bureaucracy that is trying to rewrite history and destroy that which has proven to work for the benefit of man and other species in the MDB.

In general terms it was only when our much wiser and more practical forefathers built dams to conserve water in times of excess for release when inflows are low or absent that fresh water aquatic species have had permanent habitat and inland Australia has blossomed into thriving productive communities. The health and welfare of aquatic species has been enhanced by these activities. Not destroyed or put under stress as claimed by environmentalists. Both sides of politics, all politicians, Basin communities and their representatives need to step back from the Water Act and consider other options.

It is the Water Act that is the problem as there is a better way of managing our water resources to the benefit of all parties and all species, but it is impossible while the discussion is confined by this deeply flawed Act. Current argument and discussion pits state against the Commonwealth, state against state, irrigators against environmentalists, irrigators against Water Authorities, valley against valley and as a result is irrational, emotional, hugely wasteful of taxpayer money and does nothing for “the environment.”

Talk of compromise as to quantum of water to be returned to “the environment,” and “triple bottom line approach,” water saving plans and extended implementation all overlook the fact that most of the damage from this impractical (and likely unconstitutional if amended) legislation, has already happened. The Water Act has already decreased Australia’s productive capacity and as a result our nett worth. It has driven efficient productive farmers off the land and has truncated the capacity of those remaining to produce food and fibre, while vast volumes of water are being needlessly wasted to the sea. This has resulted in lowering returns to both state and Federal Governments at the same time as increasing their costs.

Because water supply authorities now have less volume of water to distribute but the same infrastructure to maintain, the cost of supplying water has increased. This has all resulted in less jobs in regional Australia and created an increase in taxpayer funded jobs in the bureaucracies of Canberra and Sydney. We can only wonder if this is the outcome that the politicians who supported the Water Act foresaw or were they simply blinded by media sensationalism.

For all of these negative outcomes there has been no environmental improvement that Nature wouldn’t do in her own good time as she so dramatically continues to demonstrate.

Sadly Politicians acted in response to media hyped claims by radical environmentalists and acted without any practical understanding of what they were dealing with, in a misguided rush to fix “the problem.” The result is wasteful, counter productive and has led to anger, distrust and disbelief that politicians could get this so wrong. To be persisting with this water and money wasting, bureaucracy building, course of action, is not in the national interest, especially when there is a better way.

Authorities must manage what is our most abundant renewable resource in a much more practical, flexible, economically responsible and nation building fashion and to do so we should once again do what our forefathers taught us and implement the following.

The Water Act should be shelved and all water buy-backs immediately halted.

All parties need to recognise that we cannot continue to have our population and economy growing without investing in more water conservation and power production. As a result we can achieve the best outcome for all who have an interest in this wonderful area of Australia which is also our food bowl. We must immediately implement a policy of building more dams and recognise that as a result we increase the area of prime aquatic habitat and produce clean hydro power as a by-product. These constructions should be prepared and implemented by Infrastructure Australia and could be paid for by the issuing of Government backed bonds sold to the superannuation industry. These bonds would be repaid by the sale of water and electricity in a similar fashion to how the Snowy Scheme was financed.

Much of the investigative work has already been done on appropriate sites for further dams in the lower MDB such as the Gateway dam on the Murray River that was to be built to hold the extra water releases from the Snowy Scheme but which was never proceeded with. There is ample run-off capacity and appropriate sites in the lower MDB on the Murray, Murrumbidgee, Kiewa and Buffalo rivers to increase storage by at least six million megalitres. That is an increase of 23% of the entire present storage capacity within the MDB including the Snowy Scheme and would have everlasting benefits for our nation, all species that live therein and produce on demand, clean hydro power. It should also be noted that if these dams were in place during the last twelve months they would presently all be full.

Also there is ample capacity to do similar in other river valleys within the MDB and elsewhere, but it will never happen while the Water Act 2007 is constricting vision and practical action.

A course of action that benefits all species and caters for Australia’s growing population makes more sense than continuing with a needless Canberra bureaucracy putting productive enterprises out of business wasting taxpayer dollars buying pieces of paper with some entitlement to water in some years, that the MDBA have no idea how to put to any worthwhile use other than flushing water down the rivers to the sea, but in the mean time hogging storage capacity and thereby destroying our capacity and flexibility to produce food in response to market needs. We cannot as a nation with a growing population and expanding economy fail to build more water storage and provide increased power.

Our forefathers knew this and this generation needs to recognise that the provision of water and power are integral to our nations growth and competitiveness for generations to come.

Our forefathers would be weeping a flood at the misguided nonsense that is the Federal Water Act.

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

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