Lifeblood Alliance calls for water buybacks now to save rivers

June 1, 2020
Menindee Lake in July 2019. While water has started to flow again the drought is not over. Photo: Coral Wynter

An alliance, representing communities from the Murray-Darling Basin, is calling for the urgent buyback of water to revive the river system. They argue that water buy-backs would minimise water trading by putting it back into the rivers and river communities where it is needed. It is also a better solution for farmers.

The Lifeblood Alliance involves Traditional Owners, landowners, farmers, irrigators, commercial and recreational fishers, nature tourists, local government representatives, ecologists, townspeople and conservationists. All are committed to keeping the rivers, wetlands and aquifers of the Murray-Darling Basin healthy for current and future generations.

The Murray-Darling Basin has suffered because of the over-extraction of water; it needs the water allocations to be reduced if the damage is to be repaired.

Rivers, floodplains, wetlands and aquifers of the Basin are rapidly declining because they are being drained or polluted by the mining industry, and the demands of corporate cotton and nut orchards. In some places, they are on the verge of ecological collapse due to prolonged drought and water over-allocation.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a $13 billion federal-state initiative aimed at restoring the health of this important river system.

The plan was legislated in 2012 after unprecedented fish kills led to a public outcry. Its primary aim is to reduce the over-allocation of water by setting sustainable diversion limits on the amount of water the Basin had available for use. It also sets out valley-by-valley targets for water recovery to protect the long-term health and sustainability of the whole river system.

Water shortfalls

July 1 last year, the plan was activated after it was agreed by the federal government along with the state governments of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. But the national environmental water recovery target it set has not been met. Three states have fallen short in achieving their targets.

The federal government took responsibility for the water recovery to bridge the gap between the agreed amount of water needed for the river and the allocation of reductions to meet the diversion limits. To find this water, it set aside $3.1 billion to purchase water from willing sellers (“buy-backs”) and $5.8 billion to recover water through measures such as building dams and funnelling floodplains into them, and by increasing irrigation efficiency such as covering canals.

In 2015, however, the government introduced a 1500 billion litre cap on buy-backs, and prioritised funding private infrastructure projects after having been lobbied by corporations. In practice, however, recovering water through infrastructure and better irrigation is not returning much water to rivers, and is much more expensive than buybacks.

Last March, Glyn Wittwer from the Centre of Policy Studies at Victoria University showed that buy-backs are a more effective use of public funds to secure water, and that it is less expensive to create jobs by increasing spending on services for regional communities. More people benefit. He said that “public funding of human services within Basin regions will create many more regional jobs than upgrades” and that the contrast between spending on infrastructure rather than on buying back allocations to get more water back into the rivers “is significant”. “In the infrastructure upgrade scenario, $4 billion of public spending results in a welfare loss of $1.1 billion, much greater than the welfare loss ($0.74 billion) from the alternative scenario.”

Increasing water buy-backs means that the water is not being traded, instead being bought back for rivers and river communities. It is a better solution for farmers struggling to survive with low farm gate prices because it keeps more water in the rivers. It also means less water is made available for the corporate speculation that drives up farm water prices.

The water recovery target to bridge the gap is now 47.5 billion litres. This volume is still available under the 1500 gigalitre cap on buy-backs, as are the allocated funds to buy it back. It just has not been bought.

The Basin Plan required that the water recovered to bridge the gap to the sustainable diversion limits be completed the time the plan came into effect last year. This did not happen and urgent action is needed as drought conditions continue to stress ecosystems.

Lobbyists louder than science

When the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was developed, the science indicated more than 7000 billion litres of water should be recovered for the environment to ensure its long term health.

However, after intervention by politicians and corporate lobby groups, the legislated plan set a total surface water recovery target of just 3200 billion litres. This water has not only not yet been recovered, it falls short of the 4000 billion litres, the volume scientists estimate is the minimum required to prevent further decline.

Subsequent negotiations over the plan have reduced the volume of water by a further 675 billion litres on the promise of “equivalent environmental outcomes”, as defined by the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment. The department also said that the outcomes from “environmental works, changes in river operations, and works to reduce evaporation losses” do not have to be delivered until 2024.

“Reducing evaporation losses” is the spin behind the federal plan to fund the pumping of river water into large private and public dams at the northern (upstream) end of the system, rather than reduce water allocations.

The rationale is to stop the water from evaporating as it flows down the river system. Deep water storage with a smaller surface area does minimise evaporation. However, natural small river flows keep the rivers and wetlands alive — the purpose of the Basin Plan — and evaporation simply puts the water back into the normal local rainwater cycle.

Unspent funds

Since 2015, water buy-backs have purchased just 1230 billion litres from a cap of 1500 billion litres. There is a shortfall of 47.5 billion litres from the reduced 2075 billion litre target to meet the water recovery targets set by the Basin Plan.

There has been no progress on delivering the additional 450 billion litres needed to provide water to floodplains and habitats in the Southern Basin, and flows to the Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth. Nor have there been flushing flows to export salt from the Basin.

Analysis by the Lifeblood Alliance has found that an estimated $100 million would buy back enough water to throw a lifeline to Murray-Darling Basin Rivers and get the Basin Plan back on track.

The Alliance has launched a public campaign to pressure the federal government to adopt voluntary water buy-backs from farmers, particularly in the northern end of the Basin, as the fastest, cheapest and most effective way of meeting the Plan’s outcomes.

Target shortfall

A number of Life Blood Alliance members spoke to Green Left. Bev Smiles said: “The Basin Plan is currently 47.5 billion litres short of the legal water recovery target, a volume that could easily be bought using unspent money from the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

“For about $100 million, we could go a long way to reviving the river system — the lifeblood for thousands of people and many regional economies.

“In the context of the billions being spent supporting the community through the coronavirus pandemic it is small change, and the money has already been put aside. People from all walks of life want the water buy-back program to be reinstated as soon as possible.”

“They know that recovering water from infrastructure projects is far more expensive and will take too long to deliver the results our rivers urgently need.”

Many rural communities have run out of water, despite some restored river flows from good rain in the north over January and February.

But extractions by northern corporate irrigators, despite the NSW pumping moratoriums, have prevented the floods that should have resulted from the rain and which would have rejuvenated the floodplains and wetlands downstream.

Northern Basin valleys account for about two thirds of the water still needed to meet the Basin Plan water recovery targets.

NSW Nature Conservation Council spokesperson Chris Gambian said: “Water purchases in the north will provide more reliable flows into and along the entire Barwon-Darlingg River. This will not only benefit the environment, but also riparian landholders and river communities all the way to where the river joins the Murray at Wentworth and then downstream to the Murray Mouth.

“Buying back water licences in the northern basin will ensure water security along the Darling and into the Murray River. This, in turn, will alleviate pressure on the Murray to provide the balance of environmental, community and industry needs through to the South Australian border.”

Pastoralist Kate McBride said: “While water has started flowing into the Menindee Lakes the drought is by no means over. Many parts of the Murray-Darling Basin missed out on recent rainfall, and drought conditions continue to stress basin communities and ecosystems.

“We need to buy back more water now to reduce those stresses, build resilience and ensure we never repeat the horrific 2019 failures to meet critical human water needs ever again.”

Smiles said: “Public opinion is shifting rapidly. The severe drought and fish kills, diabolical bushfires and, now, the coronavirus pandemic, has heightened public awareness of how important a healthy environment is to society and the economy. We are very vulnerable to environmental and health crises.

“Australians want effective solutions to solve problems, not spin and denial of scientific realities to protect certain vested interests. Buying back more water from willing sellers through open, transparent tenders is clearly the best and cheapest way to revive our rivers and restore natural flows to support a healthy environment and communities. This new campaign aims to convey this message.”

[Elena Garcia is a regenerative grazier and a member of Water for Rivers.]

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