Winter 2019, Vol. 16, No. 2

A thirst for certainty: 
irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin

Irrigated agriculture has been one of the most contentious issues of 2019. Calls for a Royal Commission into the management of the Murray-Darling Basin are an indication of just how high emotions have been running on this issue. While it is arguable that when no-one is happy it is probably close to the correct outcome, it is nevertheless disappointing that the policy settings which deliver certainty to all stakeholders do not seem to have emerged. 

To a casual observer it would appear there is an obvious lack of agreement on Australian water policy, yet in the middle of this highly charged environment there is an agreed plan that dictates policy and regulation for all stakeholders. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a triumph of negotiation, bringing together disparate interests, sectors and multiple jurisdictions to lay out a path forward for water extraction and use in the Basin that satisfies the needs of industry, communities and the environment. So, what has gone wrong with the Plan if such angst still exists?

The Winter edition of the Farm Policy Journal investigates whether it’s possible to reduce the uncertainty around irrigation in the Basin through policy, adaptation or engineering solutions. 

Water insecurity and Australian agriculture – the policy and climate risks

Jason Alexandra, RMIT

Irrigated agriculture is the major water user in Australia. Reliable high-value production enabled by irrigation contributes significantly to the value of agricultural production yet there are deep uncertainties about how future water availability will be affected by climate change, with repeated warnings about drier futures for southern and eastern Australia. This paper explores issues of water insecurity in Australian irrigated agriculture from the perspective of the policy and climate risks. For example, Australia’s National Water Initiative aims to increase water security for water entitlement holders but also assigns risks to water security arising from climate change and changes in policy settings. Focusing mostly on recent reforms to water policy, it looks at how issues of security are defined and addressed in the Murray-Darling Basin. The paper outlines ideas about water security through supply-side engineering before exploring how climate and policy reforms have altered ideas about water security. However, with climatic sources of water (rain) the key but uncontrollable variable, in future water security, it seems that learning to adapt, may be the best responses to the eradicable uncertainty and irreducible risks induced by a changing climate. 

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Thirst for certainty: the urgent need for a water audit of the Murray-Darling Basin

Professor R Quentin Grafton and Honorary Professor John Williams, ANU

Water management in the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) has generated much public controversy and also widespread distrust in state and federal authorities. A general failure to apply transparent processes from policy development to monitoring, water accounting and compliance has led to a high level of uncertainty with respect to water security across the diversity of community interests within the Basin. There is large uncertainty over what the current and future level of water diversions within the MDB are, and especially in the Northern Basin. Water planners and water users need to know where, how and when water is diverted and returned to aquifers and streams, and how this might be altered with climate change. 

A water audit is required to make the best use of the water accounts being developed by BOM and state agencies. Without transparent and audited water accounts that include measures or reliable estimates of recoverable return flows, floodplain water harvesting and climate change, large unmitigated risks will remain for all water users. These risks jeopardise the successful implementation of the current Basin Plan, future levels of Sustainable Diversion Limits, and also the reliability of water entitlements within the MDB. 

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Seizing water research opportunities – a necessary grand challenge

Associate Professor Guy Roth, USYD

Our farmers are world leaders in terms of water productivity. The use of water drives regional economies. The centrality of water to our livelihoods, its finite stock, increasing demands on its use and a challenging climate means there is an immense need to improve how we use water through innovation. Infrastructure and engineering solutions alone will not provide long-term outcomes of producing more from water’s finite status.

Water, climate, energy, labour and soil are widely agreed as interrelated priorities with plenty of short-term research challenges. However, it’s time to tackle some long-term holy grails that would lead to the next wave of water efficiency and productivity gains. For example: evaporation from farm dams during summer is the major water loss pathway of the farm water balance and is an international problem requiring new innovations for solutions. Could we harness more water from the atmosphere or more cheaply from the oceans? Can we develop new sensors that measure soil water changes in robust environmental conditions at paddock scale down the soil profile – a geo-spatial moisture sensor? 

Water is the major limiting factor to regional Australia’s productivity, yet we do not have a long-term strategic research and development investment for it. It’s time for a decade of water innovation to springboard Australia to the forefront. This will require venture capital that targets solutions with commercial outcomes, as well as philanthropic and government investments given the centrality of water to livelihoods in both developed and undeveloped nations. It’s a necessary grand challenge. 

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Murray-Darling Basin water reform – reaching the delta

Les Gordon, NFF

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) last wrote for the Farm Policy Journal on reform in the Murray-Darling Basin. Water policy by its very nature is very complex, contested and based on compromise. A key concern identified in 2013, is the 605 GL efficiency gains known as ‘downwater’. The priority to deliver consumptive water may have compromised the objectives of environmental watering. This has been seriously exacerbated by the drought. The overriding limitation is the capacity of the channel, made worse when there are unseasonal dry conditions, and not supplemented by other delivery sources.

The Productivity Commission (PC) five-yearly review commenced during 2018, with the final report published in January this year. The report’s recommendations are not all perfect and, in a vacuum, NFF would probably not support them all. However, given the circumstances, the political and community unrest and the untimely intervention of a pernicious drought, we support the recommendations in full to provide an unequivocal pathway to sensible reform. 

NFF and the National Irrigators’ Council, and all our members, are broadly on the same page; namely to implement the Plan as sensitively and sensibly as possible and to not be distracted by calls for further inquiries and commissions beyond what is required to deliver the PC recommendations. Further, as a strong industry, we must work together to identify ongoing areas of consensus improvement for the delivery of the Plan for basin communities, irrigators and the environment. 

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