Our Darling’s getting dearer

| May 8, 2018

Billions of dollars have been spent on improving irrigation efficiency in the Murray Darling Basin. However incentives have reduced the amount of water returning to the rivers because irrigators have adopted measures to capture and store ‘return’ water for re-use later.

This needs to be rectified so that increased water use efficiency results in more water being available for environmental management purposes. So obviously good intentions don’t necessarily translate to desired outcomes if the economic signals are wrong or misdirected.

There’s no doubt that some water users have been taking advantage of regulatory failure under the Murray-Darling Plan. But many are suffering because they can’t be sure that water will be available in accordance with their licences.

The ‘value’ of water varies depending on the catchment location but this is subject to change. It’s like changing the currency exchange rate. Pity help anyone who may have overcommitted or borrowed against an assumed water licence value.

The purpose of returning more water to the rivers is to restore and maintain ecological values. But the fact that stretches of the Darling River return to a degraded condition not long after flooding shows that minor flow increases per se, whether brought about by enforcement or other means, will not restore the river to good health and could actually be harmful.

Small, random ‘pulses’ of nutrient-rich irrigation return water into the rivers during the dry season when conditions are ideal for plant growth, might actually ‘trigger’ algae blooms.

Storing return water for later release in a coordinated way to imitate a minor flood would be better value for money than the present ad-hoc arrangements.

Should irrigation cease? Should regulators encourage or enforce widespread replanting of native vegetation and adoption of methods to increase soil organic matter and improve soil structure? No doubt some would advocate something like this but instead of increasing runoff, the amount of water running off the land into the rivers would decrease.

We have released ecological forces we cannot completely control but the importance of the MDB is beyond dispute and this fact should be seen by everyone as common ground. A workable solution will not be found if the problem is defined only in terms of who is to blame.

As we have seen, a relatively small increase in the quantity of water flowing in the river, without regard to its quality will, if anything, only increase the size of the problem.

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One Comment

  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    May 10, 2018 at 10:09 am

    Dear Darling, You’ve been showered with gifts of money and good intentions but like any other senior citizen, you’ve seen it all before. We stubbornly resist the lessons of history, but you’ll keep on flowing long after we’ve moved on. In the words of your great champion, Professor Joe Powell: ‘Let the past serve the present’.