David Leyonhjelm on the Murray Darling basin plan

The Millennium Drought, the longest and most severe drought for a hundred years, prompted some people to panic about climate change and conclude that drought was the new normal, that water would always be scarce, and that the environment was facing catastrophe.

More sensible people knew, and others found out, that droughts always end. That occurred in 2010/11 with widespread flooding. Wetlands recovered, birds bred enthusiastically, frogs and fish proliferated and the cycle of life resumed as it has for thousands of years. Dorothea Mackellar’s description of Australia as a land of droughts and flooding rains was never better demonstrated.

However, during the drought, a plan was devised, first by the Howard Liberal government and then by the Gillard Labor government, to remove water from agriculture in order to ‘save’ the environment. Whether this would have occurred in the absence of the drought is uncertain; although water management was imperfect, with over allocation in some areas, the arguments at the time were all about equitably sharing between the states.

In 2007 the Howard government introduced the Water Act, which required the development of a plan to manage water in the Murray Darling Basin. The details of that plan were negotiated with the states by the Gillard government. Against the background of drought and state rivalry, it was 1% science and 99% politics.

The plan calls for the “return” of 2,750 GL of water to the environment, via both water rights purchased from farmers and water efficiency measures. A further 450 GL is to be returned subject to certain conditions.

Implementation commenced in 2012, with water rights purchased from farmers in southern Queensland, NSW and Victoria, plus a small quantity from SA.

In 2015 and 2016 I chaired a Senate inquiry into the effects of its implementation, with hearings in nine locations including each of the participating states. We also flew from the mouth of the Murray to Renmark in South Australia to allow us to have a good look at the lower lakes.

What the Senate committee found is that the loss of irrigation water was having a very significant impact on rural communities. Farms which previously grew irrigated crops, such as pasture for dairy cows, cotton, or fruit and vegetables, now grew dryland crops or ran a few sheep. They required far fewer inputs, such as machinery and fertilisers, and generated far less income. Farm and supplier workers lost their jobs and moved away, leaving communities with fewer school children, volunteer fire fighters and customers in local shops.

The committee also found there was a very poor understanding of the plan. Among environmentalists, for example, there was an almost religious belief that the environment simply needed more water. Indeed, this continues today, with claims that unless the full amount of water is delivered, environmental disaster will follow. This is despite the fact that water can do more harm than good unless it is in the right place at the right time, in the right quantities.

Lack of understanding runs particularly deep in South Australia. Its outrage over allegations that water is being misappropriated from the Darling and Barwon rivers in NSW is ridiculous, given only about 5-6% of the water in these two rivers ever gets that far. If anyone is entitled to be outraged it is downstream NSW farmers who cannot access water to which they are legally entitled.

There are also regular claims that Adelaide’s water supply, SA agriculture or even the state’s survival are at risk unless the plan is fully implemented. In fact, the plan guarantees SA a minimum of 1850 GL a year, which is not at the slightest risk.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect the committee heard was how a considerable amount of the water (around 900 GL according to witnesses) flowing down the Murray River to SA, much of it taken from productive agriculture in Victoria and NSW, is evaporating each year in Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert, also known as the lower lakes.

The point was made that, while evaporation is unavoidable, there is no need for it to be fresh water. If Lake Alexandrina was allowed to remain open, subject to tidal influences rather than closed by man-made barrages, it could be seawater that evaporates (or at least a mixture of fresh and seawater). Preserving an artificially created environment at the expense of Australian farming and rural communities seems very poor public policy.

But the bottom line is this – the Murray Darling Basin Plan was conceived in panic, negotiated with little reference to science and data, and is seriously imperfect. Its intentions – to preserve the natural environment – are laudable, but it should not be treated as holy writ. There is enormous scope for improvement.

David Leyonhjelm is a Senator for the Liberal Democrats

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17 Responses to David Leyonhjelm on the Murray Darling basin plan

  1. Entropyty

    More constructive thought than that stupid GST free electrickery policy/brain fart from earlier today.

  2. H B Bear

    Another zombie from The Father of Middle Class Welfare. Perhaps IT might care to offer his opinion on his government?

  3. 132andBush

    Good post, DL.
    Now let’s see you argue the point on breakfast TV and then the evening current affairs.

    Won’t happen, will it?

    *Not a criticism, merely trying to highlight that one of the most important policy screw-ups of all time, made under the umbrella of the greatest scam of all time (CAGW), will never rate a mention in their media.

  4. IRFM

    The good senator needs to remind himself and the population at large as to the reason for the Murray Darling Basin Commission forerunners in the first place. It had nothing to do with the environment rather with the supply of water for drinking and for irrigation. The environment was always an afterthought brought to prominence by the Wentworth Group whose knowledge only extends back to 1934. They are not interested in what transpired naturally before then. In there own quixotic way they have bench marked the need for environmental flows post dams when it is clear that before the dams the entire Basin had to deal with nil water flows for in excess of 10 years. The so called wetlands are now subject to continuous water inflows. The nature of these areas are for sporadic inflows of water interspersed with long periods of nil inflow. So the re hot gospellers from the Wentworth Group are hell bent on ruining the early good work done by our founding fathers. The humbuggists are ignorant once it again. Lets have a return to sanity and rid the Murray Darling Basin of these troublesome priests of the altar of environmental flows.

  5. DaveR

    Good article. It prompts the question what role did that misguided, ideological congregation of environmental fanatics in the Climate Change Commission have in the formulation of this misguided plan? The CCC is probably the government organisation that has caused the most economic damage to this nation in the modern era.

  6. Davefromweewaa

    How much wiser were our politicians? Ben Chiffley thought it a good idea to capture water that was otherwise wasted out to sea and use it to make the inland productive and prosperous. Tony Burke thinks it a great idea to take the water that made the inland productive and prosperous ….
    Davefromweewaa

  7. feelthebern

    It was like herding cats to get the current plan in place.
    Does the good senator want 5 years of horse trading for a plan that is marginally better than the one in place now?

  8. Dianeh

    The MDBA plan does not preserve the natural environment. The Lower Darling is dry, Broken Hill is short of water. All due to overallocation if the Darling river system. There should never be a transfer of licenses from the Murray to the Darling. It is simple. Too many licenses and not enough water. Also, when water is surrendered from agriculture, it should not be used for environmental flows, which pump water out of the main channel into shit like wetlands and billabongs, it should be left in the river to keep it flowing.

    But for the biggest failure of all, look up the Greater Anabranch of the Darling River. It was cut off from the Darling by the MDBA. They have killed off a whole river and replaced it with a pipeline. Where are the environmentalists complaining about this. Why has water been taken from the Anabranch and used to fill up man made lakes and water dry billabongs? I’ll tell you why? Too far from Sydney and only used by a handful of farmers. And people wonder why the farmers and towns along the Darling don’t want a pipeline. We have seen what happens when there is one. It would be the death of the lower Darling.

    Clearly the new environmentalists at the MDBA know f**k all about how to keep the river healthy. And politicians know even less. The river was healthier before this shit started.

  9. Herodotus

    “The MDBA plan does not preserve the natural environment. ”

    Quite right. It’s a typical rection to enviroloony pressure groups, amplified by complicit media and rammed home by lefty politicians – who don’t care how many farmers they damage in the process.

    National Parks don’t help either. They are breeding grounds for feral pests and create bushfire hazards while locking upnvast tracts of land.
    Banning dams doesn’t help either. Fortunately there was an era when dams were built for flood mitigation and to provide some storage for use in dry times. This was for the most part before 1980.

    We live in a time when common sense is being supplanted by ideological idiocy in every direction. It will not end well.

  10. Boambee John

    Was in SA recently, and heard a talk on an aboriginal heritage site on the Murray between Murray Bridge and Blanchetown.

    Rock carvings demonstrated clearly that the food chain for the aboriginals who lived at the site for thousands of years included salt water dolphins. In times of low fresh water flow, tides came further upstream, bringing salt water species further upstream.

    Any genuine “environmental flows” must include tidal flows in dry periods. This means opening the barrages. If the SA lobbyists for “environmental flows” do not include this they are ignoring reality.

  11. Tel

    The concept of taking good fresh water and tipping it into the ocean never made a whole lot of sense to me.

    I would get it if the tree huggers planted a bunch of saplings and put the commandeered water on the trees to make them grow. Then at least you end up with a bunch of big trees which would no doubt be useful for something. I can sort of deal with the idea that some people think swamps are great so you make a levee and channel the water into the swamp, and you get some frogs and stuff.

    Instead they demand the water gets dumped into the ocean. They did the same in California, and other than pure bloody mindedness I just can’t get a mental grip on what’s going on here. It’s not even like the ocean somehow benefits… it’s just an all round lose/lose situation.

  12. Tel

    Banning dams doesn’t help either. Fortunately there was an era when dams were built for flood mitigation and to provide some storage for use in dry times. This was for the most part before 1980.

    You would think that dams would be great for all parties. Even if they said that each new dam requires a pocket of trees and some space for wildlife refuge… at least the critters have a place to go for a drink. What the heck is the point of attempting to maximize runoff and soil erosion? WTFFFFFFF??!?!?

  13. John Constantine

    Their penny yin yeng wong is a political animal.

    Given control of their Murray Darling Basin Plan, she did what political animals do, purged the racist settler oppressors from the irrigation farms of the Basin and took the water as War Reparations for Colonial Aggression.

    Politically, imposing the ‘Highland Clearances’ upon the basin, purging the proles and clearing closer irrigated settlement so broadacre dryland sheep grazing could take over was a masterstroke for the left.

    Safe rural Basin tory seats had big enough population drops so that the leftist occupyed electoral commission could redraw electoral boundaries, wipe out tory seats and take the seats to the new vote plantations imported into the urban suburbs to elect leftists.

    Next time the left win by a seat, it will be their Murray Darling Basin plan in action, and the gloating of penny yin yeng wong will be Caligula level.

  14. John Constantine

    Zimbo-stralia, thanks to penny yin yeng mugabe and howard, the tony blair of this once great country.

  15. old bloke

    The good Senator politely doesn’t name Howard’s Enviroment Minister responsible for this tradgedy, hint: he’s the same bloke who brought us the curly-wirly dim lightbulbs.

    This episode demonstrated just how useless the National Party had become, Turnbull would have been physically ejected with a bleeding nose from the Cabinet Room if he’d tabled this monstrosity if Black Jack McEwen was still around. The only political organisation who campaigned against this idiocy was Memory Vault’s mob, the CEC.

    The LDP would do well if they could enlist or merge with Ron Pike of the United Australia Party, Ron has been campaigning on behalf of the irrigated farmers for a long time.

  16. .

    If you read Peter Andrew’s books (and they have forewards by well-accredited limnologists), you will see that Tel has outlined the madness.

    Dumping water as fast as possible through dirt channels into the sea helps nothing in the environment (and hence agriculture), nor does it help the economy.

  17. old bloke

    Topher’s “Unpopular View #5” demolishes the “science” behind the MDBA’s plan.

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