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Author: J. Le Feuvre
Source: ABC
Date: 17 July 2015

Much is said and written about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan that is simply wrong. Sorting myth from reality is half the challenge of understanding the river system.

NO ONE SETS out to ruin a river system. Yet decisions made about water use over the last century have had the cumulative effect of bringing the mighty Murray River to the brink of ecological collapse. Turning this decline around requires decisive action to give the river — and its communities — any chance of returning to health. Prime Minister John Howard made this crucial realisation in 2006 when he and then Water Minister Malcolm Turnbull set in train the course of events that lead to the development of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

The $10 billion dollar original plan has grown to a $13 billion plan.

Parliamentary Secretary Bob Baldwin has proudly announced that the government is investing $2.5 million a day in improved infrastructure for irrigation communities. It’s hard to think of any industry sector, let alone an agricultural sector, that is receiving this level of tax payer support.

This massive investment seems to have been forgotten in recent weeks with a renewed outcry over the impacts of the Basin Plan on irrigation communities. While some communities are undoubtedly doing it tough and facing challenges, blaming it all on the Basin Plan is an easy get-out. Commodity prices, weather conditions, exchange rates and terms of trade all influence farming. It’s time to separate myth from reality and check out what the impacts of the Plan really are.

Myth:

The Basin Plan is destroying irrigated agriculture in the Basin.

Reality:

To implement the Basin Plan, the Commonwealth government is investing more than $2.5 million per day in “the future of irrigated agriculture” every day for the next 4 years. This money is going into making irrigation infrastructure more efficient so that more value can be created from less water.

Myth:

The Basin Plan is pushing up the price of water to unaffordable levels.

Reality:

Water is in short supply due to drying conditions and drought in the northern Basin and high demand from new and existing users in the southern Basin. The price of water is subject to market forces just like any other commodity.

Myth:

The Basin Plan is stripping large volumes of water from agricultural production and reducing farm outputs.

Reality:

Overall the Basin Plan will transfer about 20 per cent of water entitlements from consumptive use to the environment. In 2019 there will still be 10,873 billion litres available for irrigation and other consumptive use, as compared to 2,750 billion litres available to the environment. In terms of farm productivity, the overall value of irrigated production is rising.

Myth:

Water is being ‘taken back’ from irrigation communities.

Reality:

All environmental water recovery is through purchase from willing sellers or by investment in more efficient irrigation infrastructure. No water has or will be ‘taken’ off anybody without compensation.

Myth:

The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder has more environmental water than it is able to use and has no plan for improving the Basin’s environment.

Reality:

Environmental watering is carefully planned and occurs within river operating rules designed to supply water to irrigators. Although the CEWH has been in operation for a few years, the science and practice of environmental watering is rapidly evolving and the benefits to red gums, fish and wetlands are obvious for all to see.

Myth:

Environmental watering under the Basin Plan will cause prolonged regular flooding of private property.

Reality:

The volume of environmental water will not be sufficient to cause more than brief, minor flooding even when the Basin Plan is fully operational. Environmental watering is designed to reinstate vital components of a variable flow regime, not major floods. The Commonwealth government has set aside $200 million to remedy the impacts so that environmental water can be delivered without causing hardship.

Final words

“This river is the most important thing we have in this country and it has to come first, everything else is secondary, whether it is about farmers making a living or growing food for the world.

“There can’t be two ways about this because if the river wasn’t here, or its ecology wasn’t healthy, then neither would they be; the Murray is truly the lifeblood of this land” — Mal Thompson, conservation project officer with the Mallee Catchment Management Authority, quoted in The Australian.

Juliet Le Feuvre is Healthy Rivers Campaign Manager at Environment Victoria.