Murray basin plan is nobody’s darling
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority Draft Plan, released yesterday, includes a reduction in water use of 2,750 gigalitres per year, compared to 2009 baseline diversions. So there will now be extra 2,750 GL/y in environmental flows. Does this give the right balance?
The candidates for the biggest loser are (1) the irrigators, (2) the Basin communities and (3) the environment.
The extra environmental flow is estimated to lead to a reduction in irrigated agricultural production of about 11%. But the irrigators won’t be the big losers because they will be compensated by the water buyback scheme.
Also it’s important to remember that the past over-allocation of water has meant that water has been devoted at the margin to inefficient uses. The cut-back to a normal allocation will cut-out these inefficient uses, at small cost in output.
An extra 2,750GL in environmental flows is estimated to lead to a reduction of about 1% in gross regional product across the Basin. The big losers could be businesses and smaller communities that are highly dependent on irrigated agriculture, but unable to capture the benefits of water buyback.
The most severely affected of this type of irrigation-dependent businesses are likely to be in locations where the climate will not allow adequate substitution of dry-land agriculture to substantially replace irrigated output.
However, even here the structural adjustment programs within the scheme provide substantial benefits for affected communities. It is likely that for the most part, Basin communities will not be the biggest loser.
So the answer to the biggest loser question is: Probably not enough is being provided for the environment. It would seem to be the biggest loser. The science is uncertain, but it does suggest that a minimum of 4,000GL would be required to get us to the threshold required to achieve minimum environmental benefits.
Certainly, the extra 2,750GL in environmental flows will need to be managed judiciously in key locations to garner the best return to the environment (and the least cost to the community).
It is this management aspect that is the critical part of the plan. It promises three important things. First, it brings the idea of close monitoring of the effect of increased environmental flows. It does this partly by hydrological assessment at 122 key sites across the Basin. All this is designed to ensure that the environmental flows have maximum impact, or, to put it another way, that the environmental objectives are achieved with the lowest transfer of water from irrigation.
Second, management will be devolved to local communities. It is well known that putting the resource in the hands of the local community in this way tends to produce conservation of the resource through sustainable management. This will ensure the best long-run economic returns and achieve our ecological goals.
Third, the management of the plan also has a whole-of-Basin perspective instead of being constrained, as in the past, by State boundaries. This means that the overall management will be on an ecological basis rather than along political lines.
To achieve these three management objectives will be an enormous step forward and, if achieved, will form the basis of a sustainable, healthy river system.
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