The Murray-Darling: concocting crises to kill agriculture

Politicians on the left and some on the right are throttling the use of irrigation water to accord with myths spun by nihilists and to the great disadvantage of the nation’s interest as well as those of farmers and their suppliers.

Over the past century, the Murray Darling river’s naturally highly irregular flows have been transformed to convert it into the tranquil, ever-flowing waterway that has allowed the Basin it serves to become the source of 41 per cent of the nation’s agricultural output.

Green activists have however demonised irrigated farming by promoting myths about the river being under environmental stress.  Such claims were further amplified by fictitious and disproven claims that the precipitation into the catchment area will be much reduced due to supposed global warming.

As a result, one quarter of the water previously used for agricultural activities dependent on irrigation has been re-allocated to environmental targets, including transforming the mouth of the Murray from its natural salt-infused state into freshwater lakes.   Mismanagement of these environmental flows was critical in causing an unprecedented fish kill in 2019.

The cost of the Basin Plan in de-rating the region’s agricultural potential has been tragic, for the region. In aggregate terms this is likely to be in excess of $3 billion per annum at a time when agricultural export opportunities are promising. The measures adopted in the Basin plan were reactions to ill-founded and refuted concerns about human damage to the environment.

The Commonwealth should cease incurring costs in preventing water use for irrigation and should re-sell the water it has banked to those willing to pay for it.

See more at the Spectator

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36 Responses to The Murray-Darling: concocting crises to kill agriculture

  1. John Constantine

    If we considered the mouth of the Murray to be where it enters lake alexandrina, and stopped calling the bit where the estuary meets the ocean a rivermouth, that might change things.

  2. John Constantine

    Their Wentworth group of concerned scientists come out today to preach that so far it was all for nothing.

    No improvement in river outcomes.

    Therefore, we must now do rewilding of the industrial agriculture of the Murray darling basin properly.

    Mass water grabs to be taken from productive use for degrowth.


  3. Miltonf

    Rather frightening too that canbra now fully owns snowy hydro. What bad idea canbra was.

  4. Confused Old Misfit

    Entirely too much attention is paid by too many “journalists” to too many “activists”.
    The media attention magnifies their positions disproportionately.
    Were the media balanced in their presentations this would not be so serious.
    But the media is sensation-seeking.

  5. Squirrel

    Perhaps one of the consequences of having gone the better part of three decades without a (technical) recession is that we now have a deeply ingrained and widespread cargo cult in this country – many millions, predominantly in the cities, who think that their lovely materialistic lifestyle, with most of it imported, is the natural state of affairs.

    If we had more politicians (Barnaby Joyce does at least try to make this point when given the chance) who took every opportunity to explain that all the imports have to eventually be paid for with exports (we don’t have that much left to sell off) we might have a few more voters who understood that we can’t afford to keep shutting down productive export industries just because some virtue-signalling loud-mouths have taken a dislike to those industries.

  6. RobK

    The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands.[2] It is also known as the Convention on Wetlands. It is named after the city of Ramsar in Iran, where the Convention was signed in 1971.
    Conference of the Parties (COP)

    Conference of the Parties (COP) is the Convention’s governing body consisting of all governments that have ratified the treaty. This ultimate authority reviews progress under the Convention, identifies new priorities, and sets work plans for members. The COP can also make amendments to the Convention, create expert advisory bodies, review progress reports by member nations, and collaborate with other international organizations and agreements.

    Our Government.

  7. Beachcomber

    So the government releases stored water to flow out unused into the ocean, not because the dams are too full but because it is somehow good for the ‘environment’; i.e. a water sacrifice to Gaia. When fish in the river die-off because of a lack of fresh, oxygenated water, the ABC-TASS media carefully avoid discussing the government’s water wastage, and imply that the die-offs must be caused by evil crop irrigators and global warming.

    Thank you John Howard, Malcolm Turnbull, Greg Hunt etc. for the deep-state disaster that is the Murray-Darling Water Authority and further ensuring that Venezuela is our destination.

  8. Miltonf

    Spot on beach . Another canbra Marxist attack on our economy and productive people

  9. Pyrmonter

    ‘Productivity’ destroyed the Aral Sea.

    The Feds have already spent over $10bn over the past decade, little of it on ‘buy-backs’, most of it on producer subsidies to prop up marginal farming at the expense of higher downstream use values. How much more business welfare do you want?

  10. Davefromweewaa

    The Wentworth group of confirmed misanthropes needs taking down a peg or two. When the late professor Peter Cullen was around they demanded 1500 gigs or the river dies. Now it’s 4000!

  11. Davefromweewaa

    Alan, do you have a figure on how many human beings have to stop consuming (eating, drinking and wearing) irrigated produce for each gigalitre taken out of production?
    It would be a handy statistic.

  12. Snoopy

    most of it on producer subsidies to prop up marginal farming at the expense of higher downstream use values.

    Interesting. Please tell us more.

  13. Davefromweewaa

    Are you suggesting that productivity in the MDBA might destroy the southern ocean?

  14. egg_

    ‘Productivity’ destroyed the Aral Sea.

    Death by Gummint?

  15. Alan Moran

    The figure would be the lost production as a result of the water loss as a share of the global production times world population. Back of the envelope, the output from losing one quarter MD water might be loss of 20 per cent output or 8 per cent of Australian output; that might equate to 0.18 per cent of world output hence about 14 million people!

  16. Bruce of Newcastle

    Of course if the wets hadn’t caved to the Greens on “environmental flows” in the Snowy River that water would be environmental flows in the Murray. I wonder which river needs it more – one emptying into the Tasman Sea or the other one? Basically the Riverina was screwed for the sake of a few platypi.

    Also if the Gaia-progressive Victorian Government of John Brumby* (PBUH) had not built the North–South Pipeline all that water would also still be in the Murray, instead of the Peoples Republic of Yarragrad. (*Might’ve been Steve Bracks (PBUH also) as the pipeline got its marching orders in 2007.)

    In short this whole thing is a confected crisis caused by the very people who are screeching about it.
    Utter hypocrites.

  17. Ivan Denisovich

    From Alan’s Spectator article:

    Similarly, there was a massive, probably unprecedented fish kill in 2019 due to the draining of the Menindee Lakes in 2016 and 2017 to save on evaporation; that excessive release meant the low inflows in 2018 could not be supplemented, bringing about a later diminution of the water’s oxygen levels in the Darling. It is a bitter irony that the management of flows under the Basin Plan targeted at environmental improvements have had the opposite effect.

    Chris McCormack:

    So, complying with the MDBP’s “water savings” policy is not only having a detrimental effect upon the residents and agricultural producers around Menindee but would have led to the mass fish-kill. Water normally held in the lakes would have enabled the fish to swim to more oxygenated waters when the decaying blue-green algae caused an oxygen deficiency in the dwindling Darling River.

    Wakool River Association chairman John Lolicato said that some of the dead fish could have been up to 60 years old and that this shows that water extraction from the Darling for irrigation alone could not have been the culprit as fish had been able to survive in the river for the last 60 years. The difference in recent times was that a decision to drain the Menindee Lakes had been made, jeopardising the breeding habitat of many fish species in the Darling.

    “During drought it is not uncommon to have a few fish deaths,” Mr Lolicato said. “But looking back over 100 years of records, which is backed up by anecdotal evidence, there were never any major recordings of massive native fish kills until 2009 [after the 2007 Water Act was introduced]. Since then, there have been four major hypoxic blackwater events in the Edward/Wakool River systems, of which two spread throughout the Murray and Murrumbidgee River systems, killing hundreds of thousands of native fish on each occasion.”

    Other MDBP “water savings” measures that the NSW Government is taking include the construction of the Wentworth-Broken Hill pipeline, which will redirect water from the Murray River to Broken Hill. It is due for completion in April. This will replace the Menindee Lakes as Broken Hill’s main water supply; which may strengthen the MDBA’s case to drain the lakes continually, which will destroy the tourism drawcard of the lakes, result in more mass fish-kills and decimate local agricultural production.

    Contrary to the Greens’ contention that higher “environmental” flows would have prevented the fish-kill, it seems the MDBA’s obsession with emptying the Menindee Lakes in order to push more water to the Southern Basin to “help the environment”, combined with low flows from the drought, enabled the perfect circumstances for the mass fish-kill.

    Green theology is a calamity not only for humans but also the environment (think firestorms, for example).

  18. Pyrmonter

    @ Alan Moran

    That sort of ‘back of the envelope’ calculation (and disregard for either the direct environmental economic costs that flow through the market; or any other environmental costs (there are incomplete markets for the future enjoyment of ‘environmental services’) is the sort of engineering analysis which properly trained economists have historically had fun debunking.

    The proper approach for measurement of the ‘cost’ is to consider the alternative land values: they can be assumed to capture the ‘surplus’ value after the value of other inputs. That means setting off against the ‘gains’ from upstream irrigation the losses to downstream uses – environmental and human, whether ‘directly productive’ or hedonic (and don’t under-estimate the value people place on environmental values – they’re hard to measure, but non-trivial). Against that, you have to set the ‘value’ of enterprises such as Cubbie – which was, famously, placed into voluntary administration a decade ago.

    That an enterprise like Cubbie failed meant it got a price signal: it isn’t productive (even ignoring water scarcity). But for the sunk nature of the investments in it, it would have been closed. As it is, its creditors bore massive losses.

  19. Alan Moran

    Your faux perfectionist proposals look to be a way of obfuscating what the true costs are and diverting any attempt to make them intelligible to any but an elitist environmentalist.

  20. Davefromweewaa

    Hey Pyrmonter,
    Who do you think should go without irrigated produce?

  21. Pyrmonter

    @ Dave

    Irrigated produce has a market price and it costs things to produce. Those inputs can be used elsewhere; and if necessary, the products imported. We are a trading nation: if we lack for produce in some area, we can import it readily, as we always have.

    We spent the better part of a century supporting irrigation boondoggles with tariff protection, now thankfully gone, soft agricultural loans, freight subsidies and remote area support. Most of that has stopped, but the Commonwealth has still squandered billions in the last decade dealing with an environmental problem using about the most inefficient means possible. Yet one could be fooled for thinking some Cats have just met the Chaffey Brothers and think this new-fangled irrigation malarkey will make us all rich; that irrigation was the key to perpetual motion. It isn’t.

    Lest this sound like a screed entirely against agriculture, it isn’t. Agriculture is an economic activity; it’s one at which many Australians have been very good: we have some of the most innovative and productive non-irrigated agricultural sectors on the world. Irrigation however, wherever it has been tried, has involved government support of one sort or another – whether it was the Chaffeys in NW Victoria; the dubious schemes promoted by the Kingston government in South Australia (there was a commune on the lower Murray in the late 19C run along similar lines to the labour movement’s frolic in Paraguay that yielded the early PM, Watson); in the mid 20th century the white elephant of the Ord River scheme; or, over the past decade, the waste of billions in seeking to solve a scarcity issue with technological conservation. For the same reason ‘technical standards’ don’t deal with fuel shortages, tech changes weren’t going to overcome what is, essentially, a government failure in the irrigation sector: there is no adequate market in water, and the creation of a market (which would reveal the exchange value of the uses of water) is fiercely resisted by those who get a ‘better deal’ from governments. At the expense of general taxpayers.

  22. max

    The real solution is as described by world class authority, the late Prof. Lance Endersbee. And that is a dam on the Clarence from which water is pumped over the range by night, “black Power” and then when demand for power is high, generates Electric power in a Hydro scheme, as the water runs into the Darling River. It not only solves the water problem, but according to Endersbee, has the capacity to double agricultural production.
    A similar scheme known as the Kaprun Scheme has been operating in Austria for over 50 years. They have been pumping water uphill using excess power at night, and generating peak power during the day for industry use (white power). They been doing this for over 50 years.

  23. Pyrmonter

    @ Alan

    ‘Elite’ is the insult du jour of the populists of Left and Right; it isn’t an argument. It isn’t so long ago that the ‘Right’ used to cavil at the Left’s desire to ‘level down’ (remember Robert Doyle’s activism against the VCE?); and when aspiration for better things was the hallmark of the good citizen.

  24. Pyrmonter

    @ max

    You reminded me that Bert Kelly said so much of what I try, haltingly, to convey, so much better:

  25. RobK

    I found your (and Maxs) link interesting.
    This bit stood out for me.
     But he said that he was sick of the blind acceptance that storing water was automatically good, just because nice speeches can be made about it.
    The other night we were discussing pumped hydro. You seemed quite keen to prop up low energy density renewables, concentrate and store them in pumped hydro. This cannot be done at todays energy prices but you wanted to have a go anyway. Maxs link discusses increasing flow with an innovative engineering project that would provide a surge storage for electricity and water to irrigate. The government would be involved in any major works such as this. Im not familiar with the area nor the project, just commenting in general as to where is the place for government involvement in this and that you seem to have one view for irrigation, another for electricity. Endersby’s scheme seems to do both.

  26. Davefromweewaa

    you do come across as elitist.
    You won’t tell us who you think should go without irritated produce but it sure as hell is not you.
    Would you have poor people starve to save the Southern ocean from going the same way as the Aral sea?

    It seems our sanctimonious river savers believe that taking water from production improves the environment and the more that is taken the better the environment will be. It’s the classic Bob Carr wedge. That is; you don’t have to improve any environmental problems to win green preferences, all you have to do is hurt producers until they complain.

  27. Pyrmonter


    There is one unifying principle: a desire to see markets solve problems they’re good at, in particular, sorting out high value and low value uses of scarce resources, without a priori intervention by people who ‘know’ that a particular technology will or won’t work.

    The rider (at least in the case of irrigation) is that you need some idea of the allocation of those resources. The assumption made by many in the up-stream MDB lobby is a bastardised form of ‘riparian water rights’ – an idea that you can impound all water falling on, or running past, ‘your’ land. It’s an unhistorical approach to the way water law has worked in Australia; it also ignores important qualifications to the rights of downstream users that exist in most systems that recognised ‘riparian’ rights. If we recognised prior appropriation, we could, I believe, find market solutions – but they’re blocked by politicking.

    The other is a bit more controversial here, but not in the wider population: that’s the idea that it is right to be concerned about the collective goods we bundle together and call ‘the environment’. Whereas many of the arguments the left espouse about ‘market failure’ are rightly dismissed as special pleading (or, increasingly, simply the left wanting to call anything it doesn’t like a ‘market failure’) there are sound reasons to think that the sort of universal, non-rivalrous nature of ‘environmental goods’ (‘clean’ air; the climate; continued existence of rare species of flora and fauna) create very hard to solve collective action problems. The only viable way to solve those problems on a large scale is the use of the state; yet whenever the state gets involved, it starts to pick winners and losers and rarely uses markets and prices to sort problems out; by doing so, the state becomes a problem as well as a solution. This has always been something of a problem; though in the 1990s there did seem to be a time when the ideologues of left and right were both over-ridden by pragmatic, market-oriented policy that worked, much more cheaply and far better than either of the groups on the extremes thought likely. Probably the best example is the way the US severely curtailed the ‘acid rain’ problem using a ‘cap and trade’ model for SO2 output. See, eg:

  28. Mon

    So called environmental watering of the river red gums in the Barham forest show no common sense.
    Three trees are very old, the watering could actually drown them.
    The little people running around waving placards should find themselves a real job

  29. old bloke

    Flood Lake Eyre*, the resulting evaporation would increase rainfall west of the Great Dividing Range in NSW and Queensland, i.e., greater flows into the Murray – Darling river systems.

    *This could be done by either, or both, a canal from Port Augusta and implementing viable portions of the Bradfield Scheme.

  30. Tim H

    With reference to recent “unprecedented” fish kill.
    I read recently of similar fish kills in Bourke and Northern New South Wales in 1928 and 1932.
    Is this correct?

  31. Pyrmonter

    @ old bloke

    Won’t work. (The presence of a large body of water – the Indian Ocean – off comparable latitudes of WA hasn’t done much to moderate the climate)

  32. RobK

     (The presence of a large body of water – the Indian Ocean – off comparable latitudes of WA hasn’t done much to moderate the climate)
    Em, youve noted rainfall distribution of WA?
    Have a read of:
    Water for the Recovery of the Climate – A New Water Paradigm › download

  33. max

    We must get politicians out of our water. Their pricing system is wasteful, their compulsory acquisition of dam sites is intolerable and the quality and cost of their product is generally sub-standard. And their love of centralisation will make these problems worse, not better.

    Who should own and manage our water? Maybe we should turn it over to Coca-Cola or Power Brewing — they never seem to run short, on even the hottest day.

    what the Government COULD do which would really help?

    the Government could serve us best by facing us with the realities of our situation rather than by feeding us the myths about our greatness and importance that we like to hear.

    governments would serve us better if they encouraged the self-reliance on which we must ultimately depend.

    We cannot go on indefinitely producing goods for which there are no profitable markets.

    We cannot continue meeting the high and growing subsidies needed to keep relatively few producers profitable.

  34. old bloke

    #2937169, posted on February 18, 2019 at 12:10 pm

    @ old bloke

    Won’t work. (The presence of a large body of water – the Indian Ocean – off comparable latitudes of WA hasn’t done much to moderate the climate)

    I’ve heard the same regarding the lack of rainfall on the Sahara Desert despite its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, similarly he Saudi deserts despite their proximity to the Red Sea. I’m not claiming that a large body of water in central Australia will greatly benefit the area surrounding Lake Eyre, nor is there any reason to do so, but the evaporation together with the prevailing westerly winds will increase rainfall through the whole of NSW and southern Queensland, on the western side of the Great Dividing Range, i.e., the Murray-Darling catchment area.

  35. old bloke

    I’d also like to take my boat to the Birdsville Races, I’ll moor it at the Diamantina Marina.

  36. RobK

    I agree simply flooding lake eyre is insufficient to have a big impact on the climate far from the lake. It would require more.

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