31 May 2011

Real Lives, Real Votes - But Not Real Science

By Ben Eltham
It's a public policy debate long on emotive politics and short on cold, hard science. Climate change? No: water. Ben Eltham on the fight over irrigation entitlements in the Murray-Darling Basin
As public protests went, it was small but telegenic.

Angered by cuts to irrigation entitlements proposed by a draft plan for the Murray-Darling Basin, a dozen or so farmers in Griffith gathered in October last year outside a consultation meeting and set fire to the draft report.

The images of the protest reverberated around inland Australia, reflecting an all too real conflagration in regional public opinion.

As townsfolk along the Murray-Darling gathered to hear the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's Chairman, Mike Taylor, explain the proposed cuts at a series of fiery meetings, irrigators and farmers' representatives predicted civil unrest and even riots if the plan went ahead.

The Gillard Government was taken completely by surprise. Water Minister Tony Burke had only just been sworn in with his new portfolio in Gillard's cabinet, and spent the following weeks relentlessly trying to untangle the imbroglio. An outbreak of regional unrest over the Murray-Darling was the last thing Julia Gillard's shaky government — dependent on the voters of two regional independents for its very survival — could countenance. Burke announced a parliamentary inquiry into the plan, chaired by independent MP Tony Windsor.

Soon afterwards, Taylor resigned. In a parting shot, he argued that in designing the cuts the Authority had acted in accordance with the letter of the Water Act. "The authority has sought, and obtained, further confirmation that it cannot compromise the minimum level of water required to restored the system's environment on social or economic grounds," he said in December.

It is often stated that Howard government's Water Act 2007 forces the Authority to consider environmental outcomes ahead of social and economic ones — but in fact the Water Act has always provided for a balance of "economic, social and environmental outcomes". Where the act does leave little room for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to wriggle is in its explicitly defined object of "the return to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction for water resources that are over-allocated or overused".

In January, Burke decided to apply an old-fashioned political fix. He brought in an old NSW Labor headkicker, Craig Knowles, as the new Chair of the Authority. Knowles wasted little time in establishing the new political reality under which the Authority would operate. He pointedly let it be known to the ABC's Marian Wilkinson, investigating the issue for Four Corners, that the Authority's key management and other Board members did not enjoy his confidence. This is what he told Wilkinson:

"I want to be very accurate, and the board members listening know what I'm saying, I asked them bluntly to consider whether their alignment and association with the history of this exercise, this enterprise to date, was such that they were so tangled in it, so much perceived as being part of the problem, that they couldn't be part of the success for the future."

In Wilkinson's Four Corners episode, the Authority's Chief Executive Rob Freeman insisted he was not being pressured to resign. Other board members certainly were. Board member Diana Day had already left, while Barry Hall told Wilkinson, "Yeah there's pressure. Look, it's extreme."

By May this year, Freeman too was gone and the Authority was suddenly telling parliamentarians that restoring 2800 gigalitres to the system might be enough, rather than the nearly 4000 litres previously recommended as a lower limit.

It is this new figure of 2800 gigalitres, obviously cooked up under orders from Burke and Knowles, that has sparked the Wentworth Group's walk-out. The Wentworth Group of scientists were advising the Authority on how much water needed to be taken from irrigators' entitlements and returned to the river.

The reasons are simple enough. 2800 gigalitres is not enough to save the Murray-Darling, especially in the context of a continent rapidly drying under the influence of global warming. Prominent Wentworth Group scientist Peter Cosier has stated bluntly that "there's no point in us being part of a process if the process is fundamentally flawed, and unless there is an independent review of the science then we believe it is a fundamentally flawed process". 

According to Tim Stubbs, another Wentworth Group scientist, an environmental allocation of 4000 gigalitres "is the minimum that's in everyone's best interests. If we go below that, there's not much use in doing this reform really". 

The reaction of farm lobbyists and irrigators' groups was telling.

National Irrigators Council chief executive Danny O'Brien told Stock and Land's Alan Dick that science "should not and could not" be the sole arbiter of a decision on the Murray-Darling Basin plan.

"We're not sure what it is that the Wentworth Group of scientists is upset about," O'Brien continued, "but throwing a tantrum and walking away from a process before it's even concluded only reflects poorly on them."

"Frankly we don't think anyone will miss them."

New Chair Craig Knowles doesn't seem that worried. He told the ABC's Paul Lockyer that "science is important, but so are other things. This is not just about a science exercise for a whole lot of academics and scientists. It's actually about real lives, real people, real economies." But not, apparently, real science.

To understand the magnitude of the water allocation cuts, some context is needed — context that's been sorely lacking in this highly emotive debate. As the Wentworth Group's research makes plain, "before the development of industries which extracted water, the long-term average end-of-system flow of the Murray-Darling Basin was approximately 12,233 gigalitres. With the current levels of development, this has been reduced to around 4733 gigalitres ... This is less than 40 per cent of the flow before development."

This is why the draft plan suggested cuts in the 4000 gigalitres range: because this is the amount of water that will need to be returned if the Murray-Darling is to have a long-term future as an agricultural food-bowl. The real figure may even be above that — something close to 4400 gigalitres, as this Wentworth Group paper (pdf) suggests.

But "the best available science" was never going to be a winning argument in a debate as emotive as this. If ever there was a demonstration of the ability of politics to trump the scientific reality of what needs to be done in the national interest, it is the Murray-Darling Basin.

We're often told that the political problem with global warming is that its gradual and invisible nature means ordinary voters can't grasp it.

The Murray-Darling saga shows otherwise. Despite recent floods, the evidence of the dying Murray could not be starker: the Murray mouth has closed up several times in recent memory.

Nor is the scientific issue at stake here difficult to grasp. The Murray-Darling Basin is dying because Australian governments, farmers and irrigators are taking too much water out. Returning more water to the environment by buying up water allocations is not just scientifically credible: it's common sense.

But common sense matters little when money and jobs and the livelihood of regional towns are at stake.

And therein lies the issue. Because while everyone can agree that water rights are over-allocated, when push comes to shove, few want to give up their livelihood for the sake of the broader river system — not irrigators, nor the rural towns they support, nor even the governments of the states that the Murray-Darling system flows through.

This is why the Gillard Government is so determined to ram a scientifically unacceptable figure for water buy-backs through a now-compliant Authority. It's also why the science will be ignored. It's not a failure of political will. It's a triumph of sectional interest.


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Posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 13:36

Having spoken to farmers and people involved in CMAs in the Victorian region about the plan, what seems to come to the fore is the lack of consultaion and engagement with the comunities and farmers that obviously are to be effected.

Farmers are the funtional landmangers in the region. Any actions needed to be taken in this paridime needs to engage these people from the start. To not do this risks any important reform to failure.

Its interesting how Tony Burke is embroiled in this. Seems to indicate a cut of his jib. His population plan amounted to saying nothing and being a waste of paper that folded to big business lobby groups. This water plan seems to be heading in the same direction.

everything old
Posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 14:15

The Murray Darling Basin survived the greatest drought for the last 100 years; even with over-allocation of water.

I suggest the scientists have indeeed go it wrong. The drought did not last and neither will their predictions of ceaseless drying. We will go through cycles. Wet - dry - warm - cold.

I would have thought that powers of observation would help you and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists understand that the only factor that can ensure the Murray flows is rain.

In the meantime, we need to ensure the regional cities within the basin are maintained and their economies viable. After all, they are the ones that keep you well fed Ben.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. jnightin
Posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 15:12

everything old,
I guess you were saying that to the Roman emperors when a bunch of theorists were examining the entrails as their North African wheat bowl was drying up: shut up and stop threatening all those towns in the hinterland of Carthage and Hippo, Leptis, Oea and Sabrata. All this crazy talk about the desert taking over.

If only they'd listened to that Roman 'everything old', all would be well and we'd still be ploughing the fields and plucking the grapes and nothing would have changed.

Posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 15:16

everything old,
First you said [The Murray Darling Basin survived the greatest drought for the last 100 years; even with over-allocation of water.]
Did it really?
Try telling that to Adelaide and lower Murray residents I'm sure they wouldn't agree. In reality it depend where you are and how you measure it. I think you'll find it may never recover properly....salinity and acidification in the the lower area.
By the way the southern end supports more people that the Qld/NSW does.
Next you said [....... powers of observation would help you and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists understand that the only factor that can ensure the Murray flows is rain.]
That's the problem scientific measurement's don't support your assertions.
And no the rain alone or lack thereof the the only problem.

The issue is a Ben said the lifetime observations aren't enough .....The concern is that with the events changing i.e. more droughts etc it IS going to get worse than it current denuded state....

Thirdly they don't keep us well fed, unless we all eat wheat and cotton wool and rice etc did I mention grapes and beef. This is a myth the farmers and their lobby group likes to spin.
In the final analysis our farmers are small businesses and in a Capitalist state No one has the RIGHT to business continuation. Capitalism as it is is survival of the biggest and most ruthless .

Lifestyle are options not rights.

Posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 15:25

The Murray Darling Basin survived the greatest drought for the last 100 years; even with over-allocation of water.

---The ecosysems in the basin were in clear decline in that period and the over-allocation of water did not help. If this is not addressed with concideration then further droughts will occur with more frequency and more intensity becouse of climate change scenarios then there is a real possibility of desertification of setting in that will impact entire farming regions.

I suggest the scientists have indeeed go it wrong. The drought did not last and neither will their predictions of ceaseless drying. We will go through cycles. Wet - dry - warm - cold.

---I suggest we listen to scientists and try to enact what they say in culturally sensitive ways so that farmers can adapt to a future with less and diesel costing more.
As for the drought, it was one of the worst and when it broke and the rains fell there was also negative impacts - Farmers and farming need to better adapt becouse the public purse does have limits when hard times come.

I would have thought that powers of observation would help you and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists understand that the only factor that can ensure the Murray flows is rain.

--I would have thought that powers of observation showed that the famous statement of droughts and flooding rains meant that farming practices need to fit in that paridime. Remember most of agriculture is sub economic (CSIRO JVAP report).

In the meantime, we need to ensure the regional cities within the basin are maintained and their economies viable. After all, they are the ones that keep you well fed Ben.

--I agree but economically viable also means more suited production bases and processes that also include energy production, like oil mallee trees and other agroforestry systems that are not artificailly water dependent - pity parties like the Greens seem to be idiologically opposed to more environmentally suited production bases and processes.

--In regard to well fed Ben and other urbanites there is a opertunity that is being hapered by population growth urban sprawl ( and lack of planning vision) of intensive food production being situated near cities.
Having food bowls so far from city markets will lead to further inflationary driven food pressures linked to the increasing price of fuel.

Posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 15:39

Thirdly they don’t keep us well fed, unless we all eat wheat and cotton wool and rice etc did I mention grapes and beef. This is a myth the farmers and their lobby group likes to spin.

--One part of why we have a high standard of living in this country IS becouse of our agricultural sector - NO MYTH and the diverse amount of food and materials DOES come from places like this and you and me are better for it.

Posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 17:02

thanks for your comments Mark71 and Examinator

Posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 17:16


At the risk of getting between Ben and his much discussed dinner, I'm not sure what you mean when you say "The Murray Darling Basin survived the greatest drought for the last 100 years; even with over-allocation of water."

Yes the geological structure of the basin is still there, but the vegetation in many many places is not, neither the fish nor the birds. They are gone. The mouth of the Murray is a tragic salted wasteland. Large stands of ancient River Red Gums have died.

It was not the drought that did this Mark... these trees have seen countless droughts - but in previous droughts there was more water subsurface water around. That's how they've coped with 400-600 years of regular serious droughts. No more.

Yes the floods have put it all off for a few more years, but if we continue to strip mine the water out of the system like we have been, the network loses its ability to bounce back and recover from the endless cycles of flood and drought.

No one wants the regional cities of the Basin to be shut down. But we do want them to use every drop of water efficiently. And we want the water to be shared fairly along the whole length of the basin. At the moment, this isn't happening.

Hopefully the rain has taken the heat out of the issue and given us a bit of time to continue making improvements and working out a better system. But we can't just sit back and let nature take its course again. The next drought will in all likelihood be worse, because the system is poorer and less able to cope than in used to be.

Dr David Horton
Posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 17:33

Ben - as this sequence of events shows it is no longer possible to enact conservation measures. Those who profit from the status quo, their enablers in the media, and the responsive politicians, have learnt the techniques (also adopted in relation to the mining tax) to put a stop to any recognition of ecological concerns (http://davidhortonsblog.com/2011/03/27/disturbing-the-peace/).

A similar process has swung into action to prevent, once again, any actions to stop live animal exports. Those of us on the side of the angels have to get better at this.

Posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 17:41

Ditto climate change. I'm afraid a very similar scenario has been developing - everyone pays lip service to the need for action, but when it comes to actually putting money where the mouth is ...

Witness how easy it was to whip up fear and resistance just with the (imaginary) threat of increased electricity prices from the carbon pricing.

The future is bleak.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. deonantipo
Posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 17:56

well if the science is correct the first to be affected will be the farmers and settlers in the region, and hooray for that, give them what they want i say -

they're all right jack and no doubt they'll let us all know when they want any compo

Posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 18:06


The post i made was to Everything Olds post. My response is below next to -- (i guess i need to make it clearer)

Posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 18:18


well if the science is correct the first to be affected will be the farmers and settlers in the region, and hooray for that, give them what they want i say -

--which then effects the society (increasing food prices, lost export revenue) and the environment, so every one loses. Your not an island deonantipo.
And by the way what they want is the same as what you want and that is to make a living.

Posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 18:21

Unfortunately the defining characteristic of the Gillard Government appears to be its complete inability to implement good governance of anything, instead repeatedly giving in to lobby groups / sectional interests. The Murray-Darling Basin is turning into a very sad example.

Of course communities and existing farmers need to be looked after but there are many more imaginative ways of doing that than just handing them back water that should never have been granted to them in the first place. Setup costs and technical assistance for dryland farming is a good possiblity. Straight subsidies is another but would need to assist the service townships as well as the farmers. Decentralising some government controlled employment to these areas would provide more economic turnover to compensate for economic losses from less water. Obviously too, there are economic benefits from all the capital works that will be undertaken to reduce evaporation. Even better, a bit of imagination could dream up some wonderully productive solar and other green power research and production projects to be based in the area. Win - win.

As for the thoughtless comment that "The Murray Darling Basin survived the greatest drought for the last 100 years; even with over-allocation of water." Good grief! The author really should a) read the science, b) go and look at reality for themselves, and c) consider what that level of 'survival' would mean in the long term for the towns he is claiming to protect.

Posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 18:46

Mark 71

Yes sorry about the confusion... the comment didn't sit well with your other stuff which was thoughtful...should have realised you were talking to "everything old" ... a most apt handle.

The Murray Darling process has been a complete balls up... It was ill-considered and ill-conceived - arguably set up to fail by Howard. The challenge now is to find some way of bridging the science (the needs of the river) with the needs of the people that use it... and that is going to be bloody difficult now. Difficult but not impossible.

The main thing to remember is that no one wants to - can afford to - kill the river. That at least is some sort of starting point.

Posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 20:45

Whichever way it's looked at, the river and the climate issues represent crunch time for the affluent world. We are gonna PAY. We'll pay wisely if we join the advance guard & start now, big-time, with lots of sharing the pain... or we'll pay in a nasty denouement, squealing like stuck pigs as conflict & chaos in one form or another confronts the lucky survivors. Our grandkids will reckon the MD challenge was like a mere cloud across the sun.
While we send soldiers to foreign parts to sell democracy, it's proving way short of adequate as a vehicle for our global salvation.

Posted Wednesday, June 1, 2011 - 01:58

rather than the nearly 4000 *giga*litres previously recommended as a lower limit

Posted Wednesday, June 1, 2011 - 08:09

Burke and Knowles? Burke and Wills - dead in the desert within coee of water. Strewth these suits are dumb. Like being popular is more important than being alive.
And the discussion is pointless if it fails to consider the whole ecological system.
Whatever plan they come up with must preclude any compensation for future lack of rain and over-use of water - the small group of people who are pretending to speak for the majority can be remembered thus for their foolishness and selfish lack of vision.

Posted Wednesday, June 1, 2011 - 09:05

Ben's article itself was informative but misses the point that in between science and action there must be politics - aka. democracy and consideration of human factors. It is OK to be 100% behind implementing the pure science science if it aligns with your interests (ie. environmentalism and contempt for people living in the regions), but this sets a dangerous precedent for when science might suggest something contrary to one's individual beliefs, for example, that the blonde haired blue eyed Aryan race is superior and the gene pool would be best served by eliminating Jews and the disabled. In the same vain, legislation that unilaterally places environmental needs above human ones seems wrong.

The best outcome would be that some buybacks are made (even 2800GL is a step in the right direction), some water savings are made by utilizing the innovation of farmers, engineers & scientists, and investment is made in less-water-intensive industry & government employment to lessen the impact on regions. We must not be heartless or glib about the devastating impact of massive water buybacks (as originally proposed) on our fellow Australians, nor should we give up on food production without making every effort to preserve it in a sustainable way.

PS. Sustainable is a loaded word - we, as a nation, need to decide what balance of virgin environment and agriculture we want to try and sustain - once again, it is a values question as well as a science question.

Posted Wednesday, June 1, 2011 - 09:41

Top comment Mr Freedom.

Sustainable isn't a loaded word... I suspect it's rubbish... and that's after 20 years or so of trying to understand it and apply it at both a personal and policy level. I don't use that word any more.

The only society I've seen come close to being long-term sustainable was our local indigenous mob... a few sharp sticks and stones, some good rock art and a very thin population density will get you 40,000 years or so. I don't think we would - or can - settle for that. It's just not an option.

But maybe we can learn to tread as lightly as possible and stretch things out a bit.

The trick is to start the process, to recognise the value of water, the need to keep a viable river, and to work out how to use as little water as possible for the best result. I think that process has started. But some people, some industries, maybe some regions are going to lose out. And they must.

Posted Wednesday, June 1, 2011 - 10:23

Mr Freedom et al.

My problem with some of the underlying (myopic) thinking that underpins a number of the responses.
Re myths - The contribution of the MURRAY- DARLING (especially by the good ole family farmer, to our economy has been dropping as a percentage of GDP for 40 years.
Most of our vegies actually comes from other areas including O/S.

Add to that the AUSTRALIA is an old continent and as such the average depth of top soils in that area is actually inches deep (as opposed to meters in Europe) we are precariously positioned.
-Then consider the Billions of tonnes/ hectares that is/has been leeched, eroded, salted, (denuded to the point of marginal or worse) as a result of clearing, broad acre farming and trench irrigation.
-Then the raising of the ground water level and therefore salt that have been exacerbated by the death of the centuries old trees.
-then add to that the addition of feral grasses that die back exposing the soil in drought to be blown away or its productiveness destroyed.
- then amortise the costs of years of super rebates, diesel rebated, special bonds subsidies, not to mention sending country children to upmarket schools .
- then the cost of the infrastructure against the profit to the country over this time and there is an overall deficit. By the way the list goes on.
I haven't started on issues like losses to a greater number of people at the bottom of the system nor have I factored in the accounting(used on farms) opportunity cost.
Let's not forget my previous statement of fact that(under conservative revered Capitalism) farms are a business and no other business has the RIGHT to guaranteed continuation. Likewise you enter a business with the risks as a CONDITION of entry. In some cases the losses can be extreme and seemingly unfair but that is the risk one (knowingly) take on.

BTW once I owned a medium business with several employees but for circumstances beyond my control and unfairly I lost the lot houses cars etc.( I can't explain the upheaval distress it caused). I just got over it (albeit not as quickly as would have be optimum. ) Life went on.
They are the FACTS hard cold reality.

Notwithstanding, I do accept the human element and the misery that this is causing. For that reason I support in theory I support the buyback of water
and no I'd buy back 4000GL ) It's simply a matter of numbers.
As I said, there are more people dependent on the river's lower reaches .A bean counting exercise, which is less expensive to pay?and where does the most benefit.
One must also factor in the risk V probability on ongoing losses etc .
Sometimes myopic emotional interest groups just SHOULD BE kept advised and allowed for but this country is a democracy that means the greater (longer time) good has preference over a lifestyle discretionary choice of a minority. (after all Mob rule is the antithesis of democracy).
I feel deeply empathetically for the individuals affected .

Posted Wednesday, June 1, 2011 - 15:12

Great comments as usual mate. Just wanted to throw my two cents in and expand on your points about business continuation and "risk as a CONDITION of entry".

While agreeing with your feelings about the misery this is causing the people involved I find it almost impossible to believe they could not see it coming, even if only in the "Worst Case Scenario" column of their 5 (or so) year business plan. We all know what assumptions are the mother of and it sounds like many of them have been caught in that trap. This type of thinking seems rampant throughout all parts of society...the inability to plan for the worst case scenario.

Like your former self, I am a small business owner with 2 partners and several staff. We do a lot of work on construction, mine and industrial sites and although time consuming and a pain we have to submit a Work Method Statement (WMS) and a Job Safety and Environmental Analysis (JSEA) for every project. From almost the first one we had to do years ago we thought what a great idea it would be to use the WMS as part of our business plan and renamed a version of such as our Business Method Plan.

When we discuss the plan, which is at least weekly it is almost entirely about risk. We ask, what is the likelihood of such risk, the consequences of such risk and have a Low to Extreme risk level code. If we deem liklihood plus consequences equals extreme risk, our method states "Do not undertake. Modify idea, process or design". It is this type of thinking that would help people in all forms of business, right from day 1. And I do say help, not protect, as of course there can always be unforseen circumstances which knock you about (this is my second business, lost the first due to exactly above).

That said I really do fail to see how water (supply, quality, usage, availability) would not be at the forefront of the farmers risk assessments in any area, not to mention the other natural problems our continent faces that you mentioned.

They are misdirecting their energy. The scientists are merely identifying a hazard, which is a verifiable risk with dire consequences. The government needs to listen to the scientists and the farmers need to pour their energy into doing what they can to keep going with the sustainable (I use the word hesitantly) formula that has been put before them. If they cant adapt they may well face the same fate as the hundreds and hundreds of businesses that go down the toilet here in Australia each year. Very sad, but as you say very succinctly, "no one has the right to business continuation". Unfortunately it is the way of the world.

You are spot on.
Well written again Ben.

Posted Wednesday, June 1, 2011 - 20:41

CSIRO SPRS (retired)

It would be nice if a way could be found to overcome what Ben describes so well as "a triumph of sectional interest".

There are all too many examples of this (resources rent tax, global warming etc) in recent years. The major parties ignore the science or national interest, they are irrelevant to short term electoral popularity. Perhaps our only hope is a continuation and expansion of minor parties. Germany and Italy seem to be doing OK this way and Britain may be too!

Posted Thursday, June 2, 2011 - 08:42

Excellent batch of comments on an excellent article... overwhelming sense of sadness though.

I must admit I am disgusted at the whole buy-back strategy to be honest... brings out the economist in me. I am appalled that Australian taxpayers must buy these allocations which were handed out gratis (gratuitously) by pork barrelling state governments to their rural voters without any regard for climate, water availability or outcomes. (Some, like Queensland were doled out quite recently.) But I can't think of any other way to do it. Windfall superannuation for farmers.

Soft loans for capital investment and some help with tearing out orchards and vineyards and switching to cropping would also help I guess... yet more featherbedding of our "efficient" farming sector.

The problem so far has come from a completely apolitical approach based on factual science rather than ambit claims. By putting forward a realistic number at the outset (a bottom line), the science had nowhere to go other than backwards in the face of entrenched opposition from vested interests. It was a process designed to fail at its outset.

Still just getting the states to shut up in the back seat is a big victory. At least that's on lot of sectional interests neutralised. It will be interesting to see how Lib/Nat Governments in the states behave. If they're half smart they'll keep well out of it.

I'm sure we'll get there in the end - and have something like a viable river system at the end of the process, but it will take decades. I hope we've got a couple of decades to play with. Pray for rain regularly.

The one thing we have to watch is the pollyanna view expressed above by the aptly named "everything old" that all we need is a decent dump of rain and she'll be apples. She won't. We'll be slapping reffos from Adelaide into mandatory detention somewhere.

I hope the scientists have learned something about politics from this and don't get suckered again. Politics is a dangerous place for people who like facts.

Posted Thursday, June 2, 2011 - 09:21

Examinator, I admire the conviction in your writing and I agree with most of it (exceptions below).

Ultimately, I support the buybacks because it is correcting government mistakes when the water market was established, neither of which are the fault of farmers:
1. Environmental flows and groundwater replenishment were not taken into account when setting up the MDB water market.
2. The different state jurisdictions (and maybe optimistic assumptions about long-term rainfall) led to a general overallocation of guaranteed water allocations. Another interesting fact about over-allocation is that it was masked for a long time because of 'water leakage' from farms back into the system, effectively allowing 'double-accounting' of the water - efficiency improvements that stop the leakage to increase production or deal with drought have exposed the fundamental over-allocation problem moreso.

The points where I believe your examination is missing the point a bit:

- Australia (and MDB in particular) is a tough land for food production:
> agreed, but that it no reason to give up. Also, I believe farmer's are moving toward more sustainable methods of their own accord because it is in their own interest - BTW, by sustainable I mean the fertility of their land should not decline over the years. A lot of the problems you mention (salinity, erosion, etc.) are the result of the slow evolution of farming techniques from British to something more appropriate to our country - this is understandable and I think it is happening.

- declining percentage of GDP:
> true, but it is still massive and, importantly, is something we export, so is needed to balance our terms of trade. Also, if mineral commodity prices fall back to historical levels, this will be even more important.

- agriculture is a big drain on the productive city folk, always wanting subsidies and not contributing, they should be allowed to fail just like any other business:
> I doubt your assertion is correct, agriculture exports is a big earner for Australia
> Food is no normal commodity, it is critical for human life - aka the need for 'food security'. Just witness the rice producing nations ban exports when the prices went crazy a few years ago. For this reason, combined with the inherent variability of weather, subsidies to ensure food production are common worldwide.
> Related to both points above, if I were to crystal ball gaze 1-2 decades into the future, I would predict the iron ore price will fall as wordwide production increases and China begins to level off its massive infrastructure boom, at the same time as world population explodes and becomes more affluent, demanding more food and especially meat. Our agriculture may well become central to Australia's wealth again.

- farmer's don't know how to manage risk
> If I was a farmer I would be very insulted, as risk management is obviously far more central to their business than just about any other. I cannot imagine anything more harrowing than managing the massive capital outlay for planting in the face of weather unpredictability. You only need to listen to ABC Landline to get a glimpse of how farmers use every scientific method possible to manage this.

Very interesting discussion.

PS. I had a read of the MDB Plan website this morning and it is well written and informative.

Posted Thursday, June 2, 2011 - 12:52

Mr. Freedom,
Thank you for your response and expanding your perspective.

To clarify my stance a little more I'll add a few point/comments.

Please don't misunderstand me or my motives. I am particularly on vital topics like this one Examinator by name, by nature by intention, regardless of my often questionable prose.
What I definitely didn't intend is any emotional judgement between urban V bush.
What I did sought to do is to put the MD issue into proportion and point out real facts. As opposed to other rural areas and the real food bowls and the Country as a whole interests.

As I read the facts and the opposition to the original MD plan in that it is , publicly anyway, presented on emotional terms i.e. 'the poor picked on family farmer and the supporting population' (thanks to the media and the abusively emotional disproportional response to the first plan. In order to assert their minority, unscientific opinion). The facts haven't changed just the politics.
I have consistently argued that the disproportional pressure group power, the commonly accessed source of information and the vulnerability of the party system is the root cause of what ails this country.

Factually speaking the 'family export farm' is a slowly dying anachronism.
The family farm contribution to the export numbers has been reducing dramatically since the champaign days of the 50/60's. They are being replaced by the corporations many of which are owned in part by O/S or the rich.
One only needs to look at who owns what. i.e. Qld dairy industry.
They are cynically allowing the the family farmer et sec to emotionally argue their case ....emotional appeal to the other Aussies.
Meanwhile they are bullying the political parties behind the scenes. Make no mistake that these corps are friends of the small entrepreneur and the people.
They don't care for anything that doesn't serve their interests.

The reality is that we live in a feral (Malthusian) Capitalist system as opposed to an evolutionary Capitalist system. Naively the bush tend to support the party coalition that is the sock puppet for the feral version.
NB I'm no fan of Labor either (see my opposition to the current political party system).

My crystal ball is more savage than yours. I see the mining boom crashing nearer 7-10 than 20 years.
Likewise I see the rural exports slowly decreasing in the 20 year time frame too if for different reasons (ACC by directly and indirectly).

I reason that it is a fools paradise to have our economy based on primary industry exports. Taught business practice is that no more than 20% of a sustainable business should come from one primary source in Australia's case it's primary industries e.g. farms, trees, mineral, fishing.

>NOW< we get to my conviction bit
WE ARE SO EXPOSED it's not funny. if Aust was a business I'd want to spread my capital risk. WE HAVE NO ABILITY TO BE SELF-CONTAINED/SUPPORTING .
Meanwhile we're all so obsessed with our consumerist toys we don't notice the signs on the horizon. This is NATION stuff >END<

What it isn't is about a small minority of victims (of change) living along a stretch of a river system.
I did note a complete absence of countering the impacts sthn end of the system.

I would suggest that it will take decades if not centuries to return this river system back to sustainability as a living river system draining the already exposed salt etc.
The latest plan is all about politics not science fact.

Dr David Horton
Posted Thursday, June 2, 2011 - 16:14

The release (http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2011/06/02/3233832.htm) of the Windsor parliamentary report today signals the death of the Murray Darling river system. Two phrases sum up the doom of the rivers - "the health of the river system can be protected without the cuts" "all non-strategic water buybacks be put on hold". If you had a glimmer of hope left, this would put an end to it - "National Irrigators Council chief executive Danny O'Brien has welcomed the findings. He says irrigators are finally being listened to."

I look forward to Ben's review. Well, no I don't really, I find the whole thing unutterably depressing. It also probably signals the end of any scientific involvement in any environmental issues in Australia.

Posted Thursday, June 2, 2011 - 20:49

Requiescat in pace. Science and The River. A phyrric victory for the irrigators.

Posted Friday, June 3, 2011 - 11:51

How come the 'science' did not include an evaluation of the barrages at the end of the River Murray? Not even a mention.

Does anyone seem to care about the fact that 7km of barrages were built across the River Murray Estuary (Lake Alexandrina) in the 1940's. This created two freshwater lakes behind the barrages and left just the Coorong, or 10% to be the remnant River Murray Estuary.

If the barrages were not there, then seawater would keep the lakes at sea level and not produce any acid sulphate soil problems. Problem with that is the cows can't drink it.

'The Lakes', (Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert) were originally estuarine in nature and during periods of low flow (drought) seawater would come in. This is documented in the history of the area if you look beyond the popular fiction version written by the farmers who are the local 'activists'.

The current 'science' has been generated by farmers and fishers of the region who have a vested interest in keeping the Lakes fresh. By keeping the lakes freshwater only and by not restoring the Lakes estuarine nature, the requirement for freshwater is huge. Keeping the lakes fresh benefits the cattle farmers, carp fishermen, and real estate marina developers of the area.

Look at a map of the Lakes and ask yourself if in this day and time would anyone build the barrages again?

We have lost much in this pursuit of a 'freshwater' lake system. We have lost a great mulloway fishery, and habitat for wading birds. We have lost plenty by pretending in this charade of freshwater lakes and by not looking very hard at the facts.

Check out www.lakesneedwater.org

Posted Friday, June 3, 2011 - 12:34

Another excellent comment.

Given recent developments and the reduced flows implicit in the new plan, I think your approach will inevitably form part of the future management of the lower system.

The important thing to realise - for even the pessimists among us to realise - is that all is not lost.

Managing the MDB will require substantial structural economic and social changes and some interests, some regions will lose out and need help. It's a process, not an overnight miracle.

As a big fan of Mike Young over his career, I have always been impressed by his holistic approach to integrating economics and ecological issues. Clever chap. Wish we could clone him. I hope his dealings with this exercise have not taken too great a toll.

Posted Friday, June 3, 2011 - 13:04

The political climate in South Australia makes it impossible for anyone clever, including Mike Young, to speak out or even dare to debate the common myth that the 'the Lakes have always been fresh'.

I you were to clone Mike Young, it would be wonderful to do that in another state so that his wisdom was not wasted.

Posted Friday, June 3, 2011 - 14:46

Your point about the lakes being estuarine is well made.
However, the there is the reality to deal with. The mud there has changed in nature and chemistry. It is according to research I've seen is such that it is so saline and acidic it won't support the way it was circa 1946 . To do that it would take a mammoth regeneration project that the state could never support.
Federally I can't see the project getting legs either.

My favourite Young quip was about Alexander Downer being 'the idiot son of the establishment'.
NB Alexander is a nice man but a statesman he wasn't .

Posted Friday, June 3, 2011 - 17:25

G'day Ex,

An idiot son, but great legs.

Worth a good look that Lakes Need Water site ... some very good stuff that goes directly to your question.

I think it's an option that gives the MDB a bit of scientific wiggle room and may well be a low-cost option for a small part of the problem. It depends what sort of economy the remaining agriculture down your way can still support. Not much by the look of it. It becomes a cost/benefit question and there are some definite ecological benefits I'd reckon, for possibly a relatively low economic and social cost.

Be interested in your comments. I don't know that neck of the woods at all.
Willing to be corrected.

Posted Monday, June 6, 2011 - 12:47

Yo exile,

OMG fishnet stockings and every thing! that was taking slut walk Tooo far!
Not crazy about your choices either what ev...ver ;-o
I'm a long time gone from SA, but I do have a contact or too from my volunteer involvement in the research down there.
One needs to remember the problem isn't only the Darling arm.
Particularly with salt. the areas both sides are increasingly affected by salt leeching from the soil ruining arable land, turning farms into unusable waste land.
I was originally referring to the areas below say Mildura/Sea Lake. That includes Adelaide whose water is supplemented by the Murray.
Keep in mind, that the Hume weir stores water from the Murray and despite The dam higher up it has almost dried out to the river bed. And it feeds other lakes and rivers and mostly inefficient irrigation all the way down. not unlike much of the Darling.
Now we have gas frackers wanting to use squillions of gigalitres , polluted it with chemicals? Side effects who knows? I don't like Senator Heffernan generally but long live his enquiry.
When you have the paper mill in Albury dumping Tonnes of salt daily into the Murray.
Tree clearing, irrigation etc raises the water table to where it leeches salt into the top soil to the point where some farms have channels to sort of "hold" the salt. In fact there is large scale salt mining not far from the Murray....(Much of which goes to de ice US roads).
Given almost the entire centre of Aust was a salt water sea one can understand how hyper sensitive SA is about .
a. the source of its food (vegies, fruit and far more importantly wine)
b. oh yes and their water consumption
many river towns drink the Murray water.
in real terms no Murray no SA.

Now to the mouth, on the surface maybe removing the barrages MIGHT provide wiggle room for the lakes.
However, part of the problem is that the Murray doesn't always flow to the mouth. The problem is how much further would become tidal and thus polluting drinking water and agricultural ground.
My limited understanding is that the sea water would do almost as much damage to the soil given the banks and the are no longer has the appropriate vegetation to stop silting, erosion and excessive salt flowing down would have the potential effect of making it a foetid swamp not a biological productive wetland. In short as I remember the billy tea conversations it would require the afore mentioned regen process. The area effected is huge . The idea while on the surface sound I'd require CSIRO to do massively more research before we try unscrambling the proverbial breakfast....toast not included.
Notwithstanding, this is based on previous work I've read the occasional article but I'm not what I would call competent other than to raise new perspectives.

We're all prone to "there's a technological solution so it must be right" without properly thinking it through. Take your pick of examples from history
NB I'm not saying do nothing but 'measure twice cut once makes sense to me'.