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White elephants roam free in the Murray-Darling Basin (Australian Options magazine)

In the Murray-Darling Basin, irrigation lobby groups are hoping big rains over the last few months will wash away memories of drought and the chronic and unresolved unsustainability of the Basin’s irrigation industries, writes Dr Paul Sinclair.

Australians are good forgetters. 

In the Murray-Darling Basin, irrigation lobby groups are hoping big rains over the last few months will wash away memories of drought and the chronic and unresolved unsustainability of the Basin’s irrigation industries.
The preparation of the new Murray-Darling Basin Plan – backed by $10 billion in taxpayers’ money – is coming to a head just as big floods sweep down from Queensland and New South Wales. The plan is supposed to set limits on how much water can be taken from the Basin’s rivers. The Australian Parliament will vote for or against the Plan sometime in late 2012. Time will tell if the rain dissolves political will in Canberra.
The Australian Conservation Foundation argues that a strong Murray-Darling Basin Plan is in Australia’s national interest. The benchmark for a decent Plan is one that flushes two million tonnes of salt out the Murray Mouth, is able to sustain the fertility of its wetlands and floodplains, and is strong enough to survive the next long drought.
The simple truth is Australians have a shared interest in making sure the fertility of the Murray-Darling is not further destroyed.  On the day the draft Basin Plan was released the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations issued a report alerting the world to land and water degradation threatening global food production. “No region is immune”, the FAO said. “Systems at risk can be found around the globe, from the highlands of the Andes to the steppes of Central Asia, from Australia’s Murray-Darling river basin to the central United States.”
Way back in 1947 a journalist travelled down the Murray River and was impressed with irrigation developments and the massive concrete dams transforming the river system into a water delivery and waste disposal machine. But even then he saw evidence of a river under intense pressure, so he wrote:
Man cannot overturn the balance of nature without paying the costs of large scale readjustment. If he tackles it with the same energy as irrigation, the equilibrium may one day be restored.
It’s easy to forget that the Basin Plan is the latest episode in the process of national water reform started by Australian Governments in 1994 when Bon Jovi topped the music charts and Paul Keating roamed the grounds of Kirribilli House.
The purpose of the 1994 reforms was to “arrest widespread natural resource degradation” and create an “efficient and sustainable” water industry. Since 1997 around $25 billion has been spent in the Murray-Darling to achieve these aims.  The last scientific audit of Murray-Darling catchment health found more than 80 per cent of the Basin’s rivers were in poor or very poor condition.
But it’s not all gloom and doom. There have been major advances.
About 1800 billion litres has been recovered for the environment, the vast bulk from irrigators willingly selling a percentage of their water entitlements.
Managed environmental water has been used to replenish internationally important wetlands on a scale never done before anywhere on the planet.
Catchment Management Authorities have improved their capacity, skills and experience to manage water and land and build community confidence at a regional scale.
The drought drove massive adaptation in irrigated agriculture so the economic value of production was maintained using a fraction of the water normally available.
And there was $10 billion earmarked to fix the problem.  But there is a risk history will repeat and this money will be wasted by Federal Water Minister Tony Burke bankrolling new beaut irrigation infrastructure that irrigators can’t afford to run.
The good rains could dilute the political will of Australian politicians as some in the irrigation lobby seize on a rare wet year to try to turn back the clock on water reform. 
The water buyback program that had been successfully adjusting the shares of water between irrigators and the environment is now under concerted attack by irrigation lobby groups. This is despite the fact that money from the water buyback program allowed many irrigators to survive the drought and generate capital to reinvest in their farms.
There’s a lot Minister Tony Burke can do to pull together a stronger Basin Plan before Australia’s parliament votes on it. First, he needs to remember Australian voters are unlikely to think spending $10 billion to get a low chance of a healthy river is good value for their money.
Second, he can make sure the plan is based to good science and returns enough water to give Australia a good shot at restoring a healthy river – a river with good quality water, fertile floodplains and wetlands and a genuinely sustainable irrigation sector – over the next couple of decades.
Minister Burke needs to remember he must act in Australia’s national interest.
Dr Paul Sinclair is ACF’s Healthy Ecosystems Program Manager