Dam nation: tough road to water reform on the world’s driest continent

Aerial view of the Cataract Dam and Reservoir, NSW. 1999. (Source: Gregory Heath, 1999).

In a speech to the National Press Club this week, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack pledged to bring in a new era of dam building across the country.

“We know the key to unlocking the potential of regional Australia is simple – just add water,” the Nationals leader said.

If the Coalition is re-elected on May 18, a new statutory authority called the National Water Grid will be set up to plan and manage new water infrastructure. Its decisions will be based on science, taking the politics out of water, McCormack said.

But water policy is never simple and always political on the world’s driest inhabited continent.

Just ask former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, who has been forced to justify his approval in 2017 of an $80 million government buyback of overland flood water from two Queensland farms.

That purchase – part of the $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan – was made without an open tender and has had no demonstrable benefit to the environment, but delivered a $52 million profit to Eastern Agriculture, the company that sold its water rights.

Questionable buybacks and a million dead fish in the Darling: these two events have made water one of the defining issues of the 2019 election and dashed public confidence in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which was hatched almost 10 years ago to put a stop to the over-extraction for irrigation that was killing Australia’s most important water source.

The plan was negotiated during the Millennium drought, the worst in living memory, and signed off by the Commonwealth and four basin states – NSW, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia – in 2012, after the drought had finally broken.

Nine years later, with $8.5 billion spent and much of south-eastern Australia gripped by severe drought again, the Murray-Darling looks as sick as ever.

What happened?

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As a recent report by the Productivity Commission makes clear, virtually all major water reform in Australia has been driven by the inconvenient truth that there is not enough of it to slake the thirst of industry and agriculture without taking a heavy environmental toll.

According to the January report, for most of the 20th century Australian water policy was characterised by a frontier mentality, where what was there was there for the taking.

New dams were built, riverbanks cleared and irrigation channels carved out across dry land with little regard for the environment, until the environment inevitably returned serve, delivering toxic algal blooms, saline soils and enough sedimentation to close the Murray’s mouth.

Old habits die hard

By the 1980s governments were talking about the need to deliver a national plan for water and to reform wasteful habits.

In 1994 the Commonwealth, states and territories agreed on a framework for water reform that would tackle decades of over-extraction, allocate water to the environment and set up a system of water trading.

But it would take 18 more years for those jurisdictions to sign off on a plan to save the Murray-Darling, often called Australia’s food bowl, producing on average $24 billion a year in primary product.

Karen Grogan is director of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, an independent scientific group that tracks the health of the basin.

She says the plan was agreed to in a spirit of necessary compromise, but that compromise has continued to define its implementation, to the river’s detriment.

“I don’t think anyone would say that the water that was agreed to in the initial basin plan was enough but if you were being politically pragmatic, you would say that it was all that could be achieved at the time,” she says.

Scientists first recommended that at least 3000 gigalitres, and as much as 7600 gigalitres, should be returned to keep the river from dying.

But the recommendation stirred fury in basin communities.

Irrigators in the NSW town of Griffith built a pyre from a large bundle of copies of the draft version of the plan and burnt it in the street, in a 2010 protest that gave vent to community fears that basin-dependent townships would be obliterated.

Governments eventually signed off on a target of 2750 gigalitres in 2012.

Last year it was shaved down to 2075 gigalitres – almost a third less than what scientists initially set as a minimum recovery target – as state and federal governments agreed on a series of “offset projects” that will return water to the environment by making irrigation more efficient.

One former senior figure in the authority that manages the plan argues that in practice the plan is more about the subsidised modernisation of the irrigation sector than saving the river.

Jason Alexandra was a senior executive with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority between 2008 and 2013. These days he runs an organic farm in west Gippsland.

The basin plan is “an irrigation efficiency scheme dressed up as an environmental project”, he says.

“The $13 billion the government injected was the capital cost of all that irrigation water; show me another sector that gets a handout of that size to modernise,” Alexandra says.

But he also describes it as an internationally groundbreaking initiative for which Australia should be commended.

“To get 20 per cent reallocation from extractive water into environmental water, as far as I know that hasn’t been done anywhere in the world,” he says.

“You can argue about how well it’s been done but the first line should be, Australia had a go at dealing with over-extraction in a basin system.”

Expenditure figures bear out his description of the plan, showing government has prioritised projects to modernise irrigation infrastructure ahead of water buybacks, in an effort to reduce the impact on rural communities and industry.

By late last year the Commonwealth had spent $4 billion on infrastructure modernisation programs – near half of the $8.5 billion spent so far – and this was credited with returning 676 gigalitres to the basin. It had spent $2.6 billion buying back 1226 gigalitres of water.

5766582-3x2-largeWhere is the water?

Already more than 2000 gigalitres of water have been returned from irrigation to the environment since the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was launched, enough to fill Sydney Harbour four times over. Yet incredibly, no report has been released about whether this water has delivered the environmental improvements intended in the plan.

The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists sought to fill this gap in public knowledge by releasing their own report in February. It analysed river flows at two key points in the basin; the Chowilla floodplain near Renmark in South Australia and Wilcannia in NSW, just upstream from Menindee, where up to a million dead fish bobbed up on the Darling’s surface last summer.

The group’s findings were damning. The review found that between 2010 and 2018, annual average flows at those locations were between 40 per cent and 60 per cent less than expected under the plan.

In fact, there was even less water flowing through the basin than before the plan was launched.

“In general, observed flows are similar to or less than the baseline (pre-Basin Plan) model results, revealing that instead of an increase, there has actually been no improvement or even a decline in water flows since the implementation of the Basin Plan,” the report concluded.

More worryingly, the years the Wentworth Group analysed were mostly wet years.

“As there has been a relative abundance of water in the Basin, the analysis has been undertaken under more favourable water availability conditions compared to droughts,” the report said. “If the last nine years were under drought conditions the results from this analysis would likely be much worse.”

The Wentworth Group argues the targets in the plan must be reset to compensate for climate change. The plan has been criticised for not taking account of its effects, which scientists predict will mean more frequent and severe droughts, less rainfall and smaller streamflows.

“If we make an assumption based on our old understanding of rainfall, without understanding that the ground is drier, the air is drier, the temperature is hotter and that all of those things have an impact, then we are making poor assumptions about how much water is flowing down the river,” Grogan says.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority rejects suggestions it ignored climate change in its modelling, but in February it released a discussion paper on climate change and the basin.

The paper pointed to research that projected the average volume of available surface water in the basin could decline 11 per cent by 2030 due to climate change.

Could our cities run dry?

Agriculture claims the lion’s share of water in Australia. About 70 per cent of harvested water goes to farming and industry, 20 per cent goes to urban use (mostly households) use and 10 per cent is returned to the environment.

But cities are not immune from droughts or climate change. Twelve months ago, Cape Town in South Africa came close to running out of water. The city had been gripped by a severe drought that had almost completely drained the six dams it relies on for water.

Analysts pondered if the same thing could happen here, given the similarities to South Africa’s climate.

In fact, one Australian capital, Perth, already has run dry.

For most of the 20th century, Perth saw an average 338 gigalitres of rain flow into the city’s dams.

Between 2010 and 2017 it received just 46 gigalitres a year on average, a drop of almost 90 per cent.

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But unlike Cape Town, the city has invested in desalination and recycled water, which provide the vast majority of its water. Rainfall provides just a fraction of Perth’s annual water supply now.

The way Australian cities source their water has changed markedly this century.

Every mainland capital city has a desalination plant now – although some are mothballed. A major dam has not been built since the 1980s.

Water consumption is also rising in Australia’s cities in line with population growth, but our growing urban population is still overwhelmingly reliant on rainfall for water.

Other sources, such as desalination and recycling, provide just a fraction of supply, meaning the growing thirst of our major cities is putting the environment under increasing pressure.

The Productivity Commission’s report on water reform suggested this situation was unsustainable.

“While the need for major supply augmentation has reduced following the Millennium Drought, it is likely that pressure on potable water supply will increase over time as a result of climate change and pressure from ongoing population growth, and that significant augmentation will be required in the future,” it wrote.

The Bureau of Meteorology National Performance Report 2017-18, published last month, revealed that Australia’s total urban water consumption jumped nine per cent in a year.

The surge in consumption corresponded with one of the hottest years on record, and one of the driest in many parts of the country, particularly the eastern states where 75 per cent of Australians live.

Maximum temperature ranges were either very much above average or the highest on record in almost the entire continent.

McCormack lamented on Wednesday that politics was holding back dam construction even when science said it was feasible.

But the scientists at the bureau took the other view in their report, stating that opportunities to boost urban water supplies by building more dams are virtually exhausted.

“Financial, environmental, and social factors reduce the feasibility of developing additional traditional sources of water,” the report states. “In response to this situation, utilities and bulk water authorities across the country are developing non-traditional supply sources — such as desalinated and recycled water — while continuing to explore options for harvesting stormwater and rainwater.”

Urban water expert Dr Peter Coombes argues the heavy focus on desalination has insulated urban dwellers from Australia’s chronically dry climate, and the fact that water scarcity is being exacerbated by population growth and climate change.

“Desal says ‘We are not resource scarce, we don’t have climate change, use as much as you like and you’ll end up with the bill later on’,” Coombes says. “It’s created a disconnect with reality; we are a dry country and we do need to have those connections with the country we live in.”

The Bureau of Meteorology released its latest drought report on Friday. April rainfall over the south-eastern quarter of Australia was below to very much below average, in keeping with a dry weather pattern that “has been a dominant feature for many months”.

Rainfall deficiencies have increased in extent and severity for more than a year, in what has also been the warmest start to the year on record in Australia.

The Australian formula for prosperity may, as Michael McCormack puts it, be as simple as “just add water”, but Australia looks headed for a future in which water is more elusive than ever.

Original article published by The Age, 5 May 2019.