Doomed Planet

Green Myths of the Murray-Darling

m-d basinTen years ago, almost 40% of Australia’s agricultural production, worth $15 billion, came from the 14% of the continent that is the Murray-Darling Basin.  The productivity of the region owed a great deal to the 2%-or-so of its area that was irrigated.  But in recent years governments have reduced the availability of water for irrigation, leading to a decline in agricultural output. 

In broad terms the average – though highly variable – annual flow along the Murray-Darling river system is about 24,000 gigalitres.  About half of this until recently was used for irrigation, though only 7,000 gigalitres was “high security”, offering irrigators a reasonably certain availability.

The irrigation and the controls introduced tamed a river system that once periodically flooded a great deal of its basin — floods that were followed by a river reduced to a trickle as drought replaced torrential rainfall.  For most of us the thriving agricultural-based environment must surely be regarded as a great improvement on the area’s natural state.

However, this is not the view of the activist green lobby hostile to modern agriculture and its use of water.  Salinity and increasing the flow to the sea to prevent the mouth closing were the original causes around which the activists recruited broad support to mount their attack on farming.  Ironically, in seeking increased flows to the sea, environmental activists were striving to modify the natural state of the river. Barrages were built to keep out the sea and convert a brackish river mouth into one of fresh water.

With regard to salinity, in a series of reports in the early 1990s, groups like the ACF and WWF alleged that salt intrusion as a result of irrigation was doing irreparable damage to the Basin’s environment and future farm output.  The ambit claim was to reduce annual irrigation usage by some 7,000 gigalitres.  In 2001, an official government report claimed that salinity brought costs of $294 million, setting in train the present Basin Salinity Strategy under which 2,700 gigalitres of irrigation water is to be “returned to the environment”.

The reports on which these various claims were made presented no evidence of increased salinity.  Instead, the public was confronted with alarmist assertions and fabricated numbers forecasting a dire future. In fact, the record clearly shows salinity declining steadily from the 1970s.  Salinity in the region is caused by natural outcrops of salt — the Darling itself was originally named Salt River by the explorer Charles Sturt in 1829.  The salinity itself is readily reduced by engineering works and little is now heard about this as a rationalisation for curtailing irrigation.

Instead, without skipping a beat, those targeting irrigated agriculture morphed their case within the global climate-change scare.  The contention was that global warming would mean sharply reduced rainfall within the region and less would be available for irrigation.  Those claims appeared to be corroborated by the “Millennium Drought” which ran from 1997 to 2007.  The infamous Garnaut Report claimed that half the Basin’s agricultural production would be lost by 2050 as a result of global warming.

That drought having broken, it is now recognised as having been just another example of the normal, inconstant nature of the Australian climate.  There is no evidence of a long-term decline in rainfall across the Basin.  Meanwhile, we have policies in place that, on some estimates, have reduced the region’s output by 20 per cent.  The irrigators themselves have been compensated in the purchase price they received and the associated lift in the value of their on-going water rights.  But the program has had a devastating effect on once prosperous local communities, and this at a time when Australian agriculture is well placed to take advantage of increased export demand. Yesterday (January 30) came an announcement of partial closures of rice mills in the region, one outcome of this diversion of water from irrigation.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority and its associated regulatory machinery, like other such bodies, once in place develops an inertia that, even when it has a negative value, makes it difficult to dismantle.  But at least we should make a start by stopping further purchases and expenditures in the Basin, and by starting to re-sell the water that has been purchased from irrigators.  The “high security” water the Commonwealth has bought would command some $4 billion if sold back to the farmers.

Such a start must be made or Garnaut will have been proven correct (but for the wrong reasons) when, in his eponymous report,  he claimed that global warming would mean the end of irrigated agriculture.  Unless we abandon the present strategy of constraining irrigation water supplies, the hysteria generated by claims of global warming risk will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Alan Moran is a Director of the Australian Environment Foundation and was the main author of its submission to the Senate Select Committee Murray-Darling Basin Plan

8 thoughts on “Green Myths of the Murray-Darling

  • Jody says:

    I have relatives who live in the Riverina on farms and they are at the pointy end of all this. Most complain about shocking bureaucracy as well as “greenies”. It’s as though there is a conspiracy afoot in this country to stop people owning and operating viable farms. The bush needs to become far more activist and aggressive – like their French counterparts.

  • pgang says:

    It’s the same in mining Jody (and ironically it’s often the Nationals and farmers who are the biggest enemy). Green and red bureaucracy has run riot with this industry, and now that we have a catastrophic collapse in resource prices the effects of such interference are being felt ten fold, particularly in mining communities. I am one of 500 or so who have just been (or are about to be) put out of work (for me it’s the third time in 3 years) as a result of a clearly corrupt PAC ‘planning’ process which refused to sanction the development of Anglo Coal’s Drayton South project, which was to continue the life of the current mine for another twenty years or so. This is going to devastate Muswellbrook in particular. There is simply nowhere else locally to find work.

    I’ll bet you didn’t read about those job losses in the newspapers, or of the many other thousands of jobs lost to the mining industry. Nor is there any call for a royal commission into a corrupt NSW government.

  • Lawrie Ayres says:

    I used to live near Denman until Centennial bought our farm at a mutually acceptable price. my son is a self employed contractor and has recently built a house in Muswellbrook. Apart from the horse studs very few, if any, farmers regretted selling to the miners and I should add many of those farmers work in the mines. Why bust a gut earning a pittance providing food to a thankless nation when you can have a high paying 38 hours per week? I look around Muswellbrook and see acres of new homes and a prosperous community while a few hours away there are small towns dying because they rely on an unappreciated agriculture industry. The Nationals at both state and federal level are doing absolutely nothing to reverse the stupidity of the MDB plan nor the native vegetation laws introduced because John Howard wanted a cheap way of looking good.

    At least we know that Labor and the Greens hate farmers and will do all they can to cripple them but our so called Nationals speak one language and do the opposite. The NSW NV laws were supposed to be gone in the Coalitions first term but they are still in place. Barnaby was going to fix the MDB plan but it is relatively unchanged. What bugs me most is the harping on how much trade we can generate from agriculture whilst taking away water and making land management more difficult.

  • Jody says:

    Windsor has threatened to unseat Barnaby at the next election, primarily over that mine approved near Tamworth. At least the mines in the Hunter are on infertile land which is pretty degraded (the greenies just don’t get that). I live in the lower Hunter so am well acquainted with the problems of agriculture, mining and conflicts of land use issues. The Hunter land is dry and the mines are about the only thing much of it is useful for (so my wine-maker son tells me). Driving up to Bulga the other day I could see that the place will be soon swallowed up by a mine, but how can this be in the current downturn? I felt they’d been given a reprieve. But I use the word ‘reprieve’ cautiously, especially given the comments by pgang!!

    Nobody in politics cares about “the bush”. Simple fact. Not enough votes. Windsor didn’t do anything in his time; too busy shoring up Gillard and company. And I’m told the regional services are being cut back by the ABC. Oh, goodie; just what we need – more urban ABC.

    The politics of water should be the most significant politics in this country, but I’m afraid it’s all lopsided when people can trade in water and never get behind the wheel of a tractor.


  • Rob Brighton says:

    The green movement have much to answer for, they have over the years twisted the dialogue to a framework that suits their goals. They will lie either outright or by obfuscation without a blush as they are lying for the environment it’s all ok.

    The livelihoods of others are not of consideration, only what they perceive as the righteous path is worthy.

    This is the underlying truth of the green movement, they are dangerous to us all. Living in Northern NSW makes this as clear as day.

  • ian.macdougall says:

    At the last federal election, the Greens got about 14% of the overall vote. They have no power unless one of the other major parties supports them. So talk of the power of ‘greenies’ is a bit shallow IMHO, and I speak as a primary producer. The Greens only got political traction thanks to the unsustainable practices then prevalent.
    We know very well what unregulated capitalism leads to in the bush: after all we saw it until about the start of the 1970s:
    1. A free-for-all on the elimination of animal and plant wildlife. (Green consciousness began in the 1920s, when that national icon, the koala, was virtually shot out completely for the fur trade. Even now its future is in doubt.)
    2. Artesian water let run out of flowing bores as if it was in endless supply.
    3. Sub-artesian aquifers in drought times pumped down too far below their standing water levels, resulting in wells drying up: same as in California today.
    4. Pumping licences for rivers being far too optimistic, resulting in the schemozzle of overpumping and buy-backs.
    5. Over-cultivation of soils and resulting wind and water erosion. One article I read in The Land quoted an authoritative source as saying that for every tonne of wheat harvested, three tonnes of topsoil was lost. That meant that we were effectively mining each crop out of our soil as non-renewable resource.
    The Greens are hopelessly naive on vital issues like border protection and refugee policy. But they sprang into being because of unsustainable practices.

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