Irrigation water restraints about to become more harmful

There is a considerable interest in water in the Murray Darling, an issue that I have written about over the two decades during which concerted attacks on irrigation took place.

Most of my articles and reports, including my latest piece in The Spectator, drew attention to the effect of taking water for environmental and other reasons from irrigators. Recent activity by farmers has given the matter some considerable profile and Alan Jones addressed it as did Peta Credlin.

The truth of the Murray Darling is that the highly irregular river flow became a working river during the twentieth century and the previously low productivity region was transformed into producing 40 per cent of the nation’s agricultural produce.

Then came claims by a group of environmental activists, the Wentworth Group including David Karoly, Tim Flannery, Anna Skarbek, who said that salt infusion caused by irrigation was crippling the region.  Naturally the ABC uncritically adopted and magnified this absurdity, which nobody now takes seriously.  An outcome was John Howard establishing federal intervention, taking some 450 gigalitres off irrigators, designed to placate the activists’ demands for 1,500 gigalitres. Irrigators’ water comprised 11,500 of the average flow of 34,000 gigalitres.

The bureaucratic infrastructure was in place to expand this. Then came the global warming scare, with the 2008 Garnuat report claiming that the area was certain to run out of rain and water generally so we’d better get used to it and stop all irrigation.  The Garnaut report was in fact written by a Treasury officer, David Kennedy, who Josh Frydenberg has recently appointed as Treasury Secretary.

Under radical environmentalist Tony Burke, the stakes were raised and 2750 gigalitres were to be either bought from irrigators or created (by water saving expenditures). Taking 20 per cent of a vital input into farming means less of the output at a time when the government was proclaiming a new dawn in demand for farm produce from the burgeoning Asian economies.  Naturally, the environmental activists cared not a jot for this.

The squeeze on supply brought a tenfold escalation of prices. Unfortunately, the farmers are blaming the “speculators” for the price surge.  They are joined by the ACCC, ever on the lookout for more areas where they can inject some regulatory intrusion, and by the utterly incompetent Minister David Littleproud desperate to find a culprit.

The water has formally been made tradeable (it actually always was but in an informal way) so that the water and land rights are separated.  This clearly irks the established farmers but, as their leaders grudgingly admit, can lead to a more efficient use of the water.

The upshot of farmer agitaion and political backside covering is likely to be various restraints on trade and attacks on the speculator.  These will not alleviate the underlying problem caused by government action to restrict supply.  Indeed, by inhibiting water trade the new measures are likely to aggravate the problem.  But they will leave many parties with a smug satisfaction that something has been done while the basic bureaucracy to continue eroding the productive use of water remains in place.

So we have yet another regulatory measure that once created cannot easily be undone and is likely to grow to the detriment of the nation’s productive activity as well as the well being of the community most directly involved.



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20 Responses to Irrigation water restraints about to become more harmful

  1. RobK

    The UN wetlands policy has far reaching effects….along with Agenda 2030 and many other prescriptions of technocrats.

  2. Win

    Word of mouth said that Premier Peter Beattie when he nationalised water became the bureaucratic laughing stick when he and his water person decreed that cows were permitted to drink 25 litres of water per day and farm dams could only hold the prescribed water per beast ; just before the 10 year drought started.

  3. Davefromweewaa

    Might have your Gigs and Megs mixed up Alan.

  4. Davefromweewaa

    Very good perspective Alan.
    Another underlying myth is that the lower lakes were always fresh. This was always false and known to be false. Before the barrages went up 100 families were making a living from the Mulloway fishery. No Mulloway, only carp now!
    If most of the water taken out of production was put back into production, there wouldn’t be a problem.

  5. Roger

    An outcome was John Howard establishing federal intervention…

    Environmental flows, immigration ponzi, renewables targets; verily, the father of contemporary Australia.

  6. Roger

    …land clearing laws to placate the UN.

  7. I_am_not_a_robot

    … the 2008 Garnuat report claiming that the area was certain to run out of rain and water generally so we’d better get used to it and stop all irrigation …

    Models based on models: the Garnaut report models for the M-D are based on the IPCC model ‘scenarios’ where the ‘business as usual’ scenario predicts a temperature rise of 4.5C by 2100; that is impossible due to CO2 alone at the current rate, more like ~1C, all else remaining equal.
    The historical rainfall record for the M-D basin since 1900 is very variable but with a slightly increasing trend, if that is at all meaningful.

  8. Richard Standley

    As I understand it, back in around 1828 the explorer (Sturt??) followed the river, to find much of it a dry bed because of drought…
    No outflows, therefore, into what is now considered a “fresh water” lake at the end of it all… subject, therefore, to the sea water pouring in from the south…
    along with his discoveries, Sturt also discovered the bodies of Aboriginal people who’d died of both thirst and starvation because of a lack of water and food…
    When the Snowy River scheme came online back in the mid-2oth century things changed to turn this once unpredictable region into a food bowl for Australia…
    The thing we learn from history, is that we never – ever -seem to learn from history…

  9. John Constantine

    The Barmah Choke is the limit on how much water per day cab flow from upstream to downstream.

    Water can be paper traded, but not physically fit through the choke.

    Even now in blisteringly dry times, the choke is running so full that the banks are seen to be eroding and slumping.

    The demand for water from the downstream almond forests is locked in to increase as they reach full production.

    Steps are being taken now, but it is too late to avoid the major risk of an overloaded Barmah Choke, that erosion will significantly cut the flow capacity of the river.

    Rationing then makes things interesting.

  10. Kurt

    It seems restricting usage is a big problem but do we really need to financialize EVERYTHING? Once corporates get involved lobbying seems to always win out over the consumer/producer. Just look at immigration and energy.

  11. Bruce

    So, steadily? slashing agricultural water usage to force the collapse of inland agriculture is contrary to eco-nazi policy in what way?

    Depopulate the “bush” and destroy food supplies? Check!

    Sounds like a plan, a very nasty plan.

    Add to that the steady financial and regulatory assaults on mining and the situation becomes clearer.

    Totalitarian sociopaths come dressed in ragged denim AND Zegna.

    You have been warned.

  12. Pyrmonter

    @ Alan

    This figure of ‘40% of the nation’s agricultural produce’ is repeated again and again, here and elsewhere. Where does it come from? Does it mean ‘value added’; is it a revenue-based figure, or is it some sort of quantitative measure (adding the weight of almonds to the weight of cotton, say)?

    As a general proposition, should we not expect water to be used in those activities which are, in the long run, the most productive, including non-market environmental values? The idea that ‘the environment is valueless’ is the sort of thing I thought had died when the communists stopped dissolving the heritage of Krakow to produce electrical power, and when the disaster of the effect Soviet central planning and its demand for ‘cheap’ cotton had on the Aral Sea was exposed.

  13. Rex Mango

    Never understood this concept of irrigators taking warter away from the river. If you irrigate inside the catchment, that water will make it’s way back to the river eventually, or evaporate. Also, when is the 25km pipe from Wivenhoe Dam to the Condamine going to be built? That is the first thing that should be done to help the Murray Darling.

  14. Pyrmonter,

    There are many sources for the 40 per cent figure – try googling.

    The question on non-market values is a tortured lone. Almost everyone ghinks the Murraly as a placid ever-flowing river is preferable to the torrent that sometimes had 100,000 gigs a year and sometimes 7,000 but that is achieved by environmental intervention. There is no evidence that the trees have suffered from irrigation water but doubtless there has to be some effect if one third of he average flow is taken. The system was transferred into a working river but done so with sensitivity.

  15. Rex Mango

    Isn’t there geologic evidence that at some point the Murray flowed into Spencer Gulf, rather than the Southern Ocean. That change in flow must have been acheived with quite a bit of environmental intervention.

  16. Dr Fred Lenin

    Rex ,the developers who shifted the Murray probably had permission from the aboriginal federal government in Canberra ,and the aboriginal federal department of tucker . Maybe even had to sling a few beads and mirrors to senior politicians and and public servants , wonder what they used in place of Aldi bags in those enlightened days ?

  17. Kneel

    Totalitarian sociopaths come dressed in ragged denim AND Zegna.

    You have been warned.

    It’s more likely that these “enviros” are “anywheres”, whereas the farmers, miners etc are “somewheres”.
    An “anywhere” is someone who works in an office, and who could easily do the same job in pretty much any place (therefor “anywhere”) in the world. “Somewheres” have a tie to a specific place (eg, the farmers’ farm, the miners’ mine and so on).
    “Somewheres” care about their area, their “where”.
    “Anywheres” care naught for individual places and more for “doing the right thing” by the “environment”.
    It is obvious that the greens are full of “anywheres” – Bob Brown (of the “Wind! Wind! Wait – not THERE, it spoils MY view of nature!” infamy) being typical.
    It is also obvious that “somewheres” actually try to leave the place better than they found it, whereas “somewheres” want govt to “fix it” with laws and regulations.

  18. Pyrmonter

    @ Alan

    It’s a figure you used. I’m sceptical: much of our ag product isn’t irrigated. But it could be right.

    In the world of deliberately confusing statistics related about the MDB, there is a tendency to compare physical outputs or carefully chosen ‘productivity’ measures, rather than measures of profit, which really is the only guide to whether a market-based activity should be undertaken.

    If (as is possible) much irrigated activity is marginally profitable, requires substantial capital outlay (some billions from the Feds in the last decade or so, for starters) and very much dependent on uneven rainfall patterns, I wonder whether the whole idea is quite what it’s made out to be? It wouldn’t be the only exercise in irrigation that had failed – just look at the contemporary criticisms made by Bert Kelly of the Ord fiasco.

  19. gowest

    Hey Rex,

    If you can get a topographic map with m above/below sea level you can make some really interesting discoveries about the central “lowlands” (Lake Eyre and the Great Artesian Basin GAB). I’m no expert, but it doesn’t take much to figure that not that long ago creeks used to join the lowlands to Spencer gulf – probably forming an inland sea of some sort. Meanwhile the GAB and Murray darling overlap and are both being restricted in bore extraction now that govt has got involved during our normal 11 year drought period – 2 million public servants and not one smart enough to predict the current drought and do something positive about it.
    I guess they will all have to take a pay cut for their failure now the economy is failing as well – serves them right!

  20. Alistair Watson

    Pyrmonter is right. The 40 per cent figure is misleading. I have told you several times that it includes dryland production between the rivers which is not germane to water policy including the ill-conceived Murray-Darling Plan, a Howard-Turnbull election stunt of 2007 gone seriously wrong. In fact, you are following both the Wentworth Group and the irrigation lobby in over emphasising the economic importance of irrigation in the MDB.

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