David Leyonhjelm guest post on the Murray Darling Basin

The Millennium Drought at the turn of this century led some to conclude that drought was the new normal and the environment was facing catastrophe. They were wrong; it was the worst drought for a century, but it ended with widespread flooding. Dorothea Mackellar’s description of a land of droughts and flooding rains was never better demonstrated.

However, during the drought a plan was devised to remove water from agriculture to ‘save’ the environment. The plan calls for the ‘return’ of 2,750 GL of water to the environment with a further 450 GL to be returned subject to certain conditions. Substantial water rights have been purchased from farmers in Queensland, NSW and Victoria, plus a small quantity from SA.

In 2015/16 I chaired a Senate inquiry into the effects of the Basin Plan, with hearings in each of the participating states. We found there were farms no longer growing irrigated crops such as fruit or rice, thus requiring fewer inputs and generating less income. Workers had lost their jobs and moved away, and regional communities had fewer school children, volunteer fire fighters and customers in local shops.

We also found very poor understanding of the plan. Many people had an almost religious belief that the environment simply needs water, irrespective of whether it is in the right place at the right time, or in the right quantities. It was even worse in South Australia, where suspicion about the taking of water from the Murray, Darling and Barwon rivers borders on pathological.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect was hearing how 900 GL of the water, taken from productive agriculture in Victoria and NSW, evaporates annually in Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert in SA. If these lakes were allowed to remain open to the sea and subject to tidal influences, rather than being kept closed by man-made barrages, seawater could evaporate rather than precious fresh water. Preserving an artificial environment at the expense of farming and rural communities has somehow become a good thing.

Most of the water that reaches SA arrives via the Murray River. On average, only about 6% of the water in the Darling and Barwon rivers, which flow south from Queensland and NSW, reaches SA. This is important in the context of the mass fish kill in the Menindee Lakes area caused by blue green algae.

Such fish kills are not new; a series of blue-green algal blooms during the Millennium Drought killed thousands of fish and was influential in prompting the negotiations that led to the Murray Darling Basin Plan. Yet we are hearing the same old whines from the same old whiners – the environment needs more water, SA is being dudded, NSW farmers are stealing water, or big corporations, or foreign multinationals, or cotton growers, or [insert favourite scapegoat here].

As it happens, no water has been taken for irrigation in NSW for 18 months. The cotton industry, about which more lies are told than any other sector, has grown a tiny fraction of its normal crop.

For their part, governments are both blamed and expected to fix it. In fact, there is a specific contributor to the Menindee Lakes problem – water stored in the lakes was released by the NSW government and sent down the river to SA where the rate of evaporation is less. It has done the same thing previously, which is why Broken Hill ran short of water in 2016. If there was more water in the lakes, the algal bloom may not have occurred.

And yet, as with the lakes in SA, we are dealing with a man-made rather than the natural environment, where droughts are cyclical. The Menindee Lakes were originally ephemeral but deepened by humans to make them permanent.

The inquiry I chaired recommended the Murray Darling Basin Authority implement an environmental watering plan for the Menindee Lakes, notwithstanding their man-made history. Had this occurred, the fish kill might have been avoided.

But there are no guarantees; the Murray Darling Basin Plan can never hope to drought-proof the country even if its many flaws are corrected. There will always be occasions when rivers stop flowing, when algae blooms and fish die. And it’s nobody’s fault – Australia is indeed a land of droughts and flooding rains.

David Leyonhjelm is a Senator for the Liberal Democrats

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22 Responses to David Leyonhjelm guest post on the Murray Darling Basin

  1. duncanm

    Remember the days when civilisation used to drain the marshes, swamps and fens to make arable land?

    How did we end here?

  2. Entropy

    How did we end here? Generations living in cities with no idea how food gets to the table.

  3. DaveR

    If the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was devised in a drought period, shouldnt it therefore be reviewed now that we are back in more normal rainfall times, and the temporary effects of droughts are (hopefully) better understood?

  4. DaveR

    Who can forget the false claims of Tim Flannery and the Labor Climate Change Commission and others at the time wailing about permanent climate change? Look at the damage that group did to Australia’s power generation industry and electricity costs. Did they (and others) also unduly influence the Basin Plan drafting?

  5. Zyconoclast

    Another Howard/Turnbull disaster to placate the UN demons via obligations to the RAMSAR Convention.

    Any other reason given for the MDBA is deception via fake news..

  6. Bruce of Newcastle

    Lets not forget the crazy idea of returning water to the Snowy River as “environmental flows”.
    Greens are misanthropes.

  7. Charles

    It is also doubly concerning that the water being wasted in Lakes Alexandrina and Albert is not from a natural system but from an artificially man-made system. Prior to the barrages being installed in the 1930’s the lakes were estuaries, with tides washing as far up the Murray as Manus (some 70-80 km from the mouth at Goolwa).

    It is the ultimate irony that all that valuable water is being wasted on a man made environment, but this is what the Greens have managed to construct, and to ignore their stupidity is to undermine our future prosperity.

  8. stackja

    Urban Greens are the problem.
    ALP will never change while they need Greens preferences.

  9. 132andBush

    Still over 3,700 mgl/day flowing through lock 1, see here

    Enough water to keep 1 fair sized, family run, irrigation farm in full production for a year somewhere upstream.
    Just imagine if that had been so leading into this drought. There would’ve been a lot more fodder on hand for the starving stock north of the MIA and Murray areas.
    More fodder available would’ve meant slightly more sane prices and less desperate farmers with their hands out for government help.

    The greens as a political movement are a cancer.

  10. Tom

    The foundation of Green Lunacy 101 — which now runs federal and state agriculture policy unchallenged through the anti-agriculture Green-voting public service bureaucracy — is that 200+years of wisdom and experience managing our water resources must be set aside and that, because they’re far from the problem, gullible city folk will accept the destruction of whole agricultural regions to appease the green lunatics running policy.

    We got here by letting unelected Green bureaucrats run policy. The missing magic sauce that will allow us to return to pro-agriculture policy — and to declare the necessary war on unelected bureaucrats — is political leadership. Which requires more than the occasional op ed.

  11. Shelley

    The foundation of Green Lunacy 101 — which now runs federal and state agriculture policy unchallenged through the anti-agriculture Green-voting public service bureaucracy

    This +

  12. max

    If the water industry were free and competitive, the response to a drought would be very simple: water would rise in price. There would be griping about the increase in water prices, no doubt, but there would be no “shortage”, and no need or call for the usual baggage of patriotic hoopla, calls for conservation, altruistic pleas for sacrifice to the common good, and all the rest. But, of course, the water industry is scarcely free; on the contrary, water is almost everywhere in the U.S. the product and service of a governmental monopoly.


  13. DaveR

    one wonders whether Australia’s requirement to fulfil its “obligations” to the UN-based RAMSAR Convention had an undue effect on the outcome of the MDBP? The RAMSAR process certainly seems to be a close parallel to the UN Climate Change fiasco, trying to override national sovereignties with its rules and directives. More evidence of the unchecked spread of internationalism out of Europe, again with the UN at its core.

    But the bad news is the MDBP was developed under Rudd-Gillard and implemented in Nov 2012 by Gillard. But there is little doubt Turnbull was a strong supporter of anything UN and anything internationalist.

  14. Davefromweewaa

    Hi David.
    Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.
    Firstly get the MDBA out of Canberra. They are too remote and insulated from the damage they are causing.
    Put half of them in Griffith and the rest at Wentworth. If they got a horse’s head on their doorstep every time they do something stupid like sending water from Menindee to the sea they might change their views!
    Let’s make the MDBA mad then destroy it.

  15. JohnL

    Recently, I returned from 6 weeks trip from Orlando, Florida. I stayed with agricultural scientist and substantial citrus and vine grower, Carl Fabry. Amongst other things, he developed the brand of liquid fertiliser that increases the yield of plants by 25%. He showed me very substantial housing development around Orlando. Subdivisions are popping up everywhere – sensible people are escaping communist California and mowing to Florida. These developments – thousands of acres – are being undertaken on the former citrus grows. Due to escalating prices of land, and partially due to occasional frost around Orlando, citrus industry is mowing about 3-4 hundred km south to tropical part of Florida. My friend Carl has two citrus grows there. I visited one with him – 6,000 acres under oranges – all irrigated with drip irrigation system. All irrigated with “grey” wastewater, pumped 400 km down south from Orlando! And his is not the only one. There are hundreds of others, all irrigated with wastewater from Orlando. And citrus is not the only crop that is irrigated by wastewater. Pasture and other crops are also being irrigated with wastewater.
    As a side note, citrus grows manager was Mexican, pickers were Mexicans – all legal immigrants, all well awarded. A citrus picker can earn up to 150 $US a day!

  16. Roger

    We got here by letting unelected Green bureaucrats run policy.

    Educated by Marxists in the universities and ably aided and abetted by a mainstream media that seems to be incapable of uncovering the facts and conveying them to the public, i.e. doing their job.

    The long march continues.

  17. Dr zFred Lenin

    Typical political rubbish another jobs for the boys project ,paying huge salaries to maggots to stuff something that was working ,just as they did with the power industry. Preference chasing beats common sense if your miserable little career,what woukd a bunch of suburban conveyancing lawyers and union mafia crooks know about anything but themselves .

  18. Louis

    Here’s a simple rule of thumb for you David – will the answer proposed expand the Federal government? If yes, then don’t so it!

    The expansion of the Federal government since the 1990s has been a disaster for Australian’s freedoms and economic growth. All it does is create a duplicated beurocratic nightmare that is a black hole for tax dollars. Not to mention that 9 out 10 every new government employee is another tax funded Labor/Greens voter now immune to the economic realities facing tax payers.

  19. John Constantine

    Having to keep the murray mouth hosed out with australias fresh irrigation water is just the excuse the left use to destroy and rewild the murray darling agricultural foodbowl.

    Who would have seriously thought the left would have got away with borrowing money from the chicoms to buy dynamite to blow up our own power stations and replace them with peoples liberation army slave labour solar panels?.

    Who would have believed the left would get away with wiping out irrigated agriculture and importing food from chicom sewerage ponds instead?.

    Never making the left feel personally responsible for the economic genocide of australia Is Our Strength


  20. Tom:

    The foundation of Green Lunacy 101 — which now runs federal and state agriculture policy unchallenged through the anti-agriculture Green-voting public service bureaucracy — is that 200+years of wisdom and experience managing our water resources must be set aside and that, because they’re far from the problem, gullible city folk will accept the destruction of whole agricultural regions to appease the green lunatics running policy.

    It’s Lysenkoism. Nothing more, nothing less.
    It’s the final step before mass starvation of the kulaks.
    It’s Socialism done the right way, and with the predictable results.

  21. John Constantine


    Half a fish finger per day.

    Proles in the gulags will self critique for hours, then denounce their neighbors at show trials for half a fish finger per day.


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