Fixing water problems ‘once and for all’

This piece was originally published in the National Times 28 November, 2011

When the Federal Water Act was passed in 2007 both sides of politics offered support for it and proclaimed it would solve the problems of water over-allocation in the Murray-Darling Basin “once and for all”.  What is clear from the release of the Draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan is that the intractable policy problems associated with reallocating water amongst users are not about to go away forever.

Setting aside the proclivity of politicians to change their minds and water down objectives (excuse the pun), the challenge of reassigning water to meet environmental objectives was never going to be a ‘single shot’ exercise. 

This arises, in part, because the notion of ‘over-allocation’ is itself misunderstood.  A century ago it made sense to most people that food production should trump the preservation of indigenous flora and fauna, which were often characterised as pests.  It also made sense to that generation that flooding and drought were inconveniences to production and this spawned a rush of publicly funded engineering works to smooth out the variance in natural hydrology.  The water, thus harvested, was then generously allocated to support the social objective of populating the inland.

Since then, the luxury of increased wealth accompanied by greater understanding of the ecology of Australia’s inland rivers has led to calls for the reinstatement of natural phenomenon.  This can be done only in part by reducing water extractions and, in any case, it is neither feasible nor possible to revert to an undisturbed natural state.  The balance between a ‘natural’ river and a ‘working’ river cannot be set for all time and especially not in terms of Gigalitres.  As academics would say ‘over-allocation’ is a social construct – there is no definitive line that says there is too much water for one use and not enough for another, and this will invariably change over time as society changes. 

One of the major accomplishments of the Draft Plan is that it has made some progress in helping the citizenry understand the trade-offs between allocating water from one use to another.  Unlike the Guide to the Basin Plan, which focussed heavily on end-of-system flows, the current document does a better job of explaining what you can and can’t get with a given volume of water allocated to the environment. 

The science clearly shows that the suggested 2,800 Gigalitres will not deliver all of the environmental outcomes that were implied in the original Water Act.  Of course, this should not be that surprising because the Act also required the authors to come up with a compromise, and the public reaction to the Guide in 2010 was always going to result in backsliding on the environmental front.  It is now the task of this generation to decide if that compromise is reasonable and to assess whether the risks to the environment and/or agriculture are worth taking.

Another major shift in the Draft Plan is that it now openly admits that this is not the end of the story.  The rhetoric has shifted to ‘adaptive management’ which in layman’s terms means ‘let’s try it and see’. 

Undoubtedly the irrigation lobby will react negatively to this idea, arguing that they require certainty of water availability for production.  In contrast the environmental lobby will point to the paucity of water to meet environmental needs and the resultant uncertain environmental gains.

The irony of all this is that agriculture is inherently subject to uncertainty and environmental uncertainty is also the norm with most rivers.  Moreover, if these types of problems were solved ‘once and for all’ there would be few jobs for lobbyists on both sides of this debate and politicians would soon run out of problems that they could claim to have solved on our behalf. 

Lin Crase is Professor of Applied Economics and Director of the Centre for Water Policy and Management at La Trobe University