“Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”
This quote is attributed to US writer Mark Twain in his observations about water disputes throughout in the western United States in the late 1800s. But it also sums up water fights around the world, including the Murray Darling Basin in Australia.
The Millennium Drought, which started in 2000 and lasted nearly the entire decade, slashed inflows into the Murray Darling Basin and led to increased friction among farmers, environmentalists and urban water districts over their share of the water supply. The government responded by passing the Water Act in 2007, and for which billions have been spent to buy back water rights from farmers and build water infrastructure projects intended to reduce water used by irrigators.
That’s when ANU College of Asia and the Pacific Professor Quentin Grafton started looking at the economics of water distribution. Research by Grafton and others forecast that water buybacks would be at least twice as cost-effective as lining irrigation channels, switching from sprinkler to drip systems or making other infrastructure improvements, yet the government continued to fund these projects.
“I had a problem with that right at the beginning. I said this doesn’t make economic sense,” Grafton said. “As I looked at the facts as I understood it, I became increasingly concerned about the public-policy direction.”
A decade on, the government has spent several billion dollars on water infrastructure projects in the Murray Darling Basin, the water lifeline that runs throughout south eastern Australia. But the water system’s ecosystem remains in very poor condition with species populations declining, according to the 2016 State of the Environment Report, a federal government-sponsored study.
Grafton has published numerous analyses on Murray Darling Basin over the past decade, including hydro-economic modelling that assessed the economic impacts of climate variability and water reforms. He was appointed chair of the Social and Economics Reference Panel for the Murray Darling Basin Commission in 2008 and joined the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, a public interest group that connects science with public policy on conservation issues.
Grafton and other researchers authored a report in 2010 that analysed various options for limiting water diversions in the basin to try to restore its environmental health after the Millennium Drought. The study evaluated the cost of water from the least valuable activities in 18 separate regions throughout the river system to determine how water could be recaptured for the environment at the lowest cost.
The Murray Darling Basin Plan was adopted in 2012 in an effort to reduce consumption by trillions of litres of water over a decade through the purchase of water rights and new infrastructure projects at a taxpayer cost of about $9 billion. Water recovery to increase stream flows supports the basin plan and is centred on farmers voluntarily selling their water rights or receiving money for infrastructure projects that would use less water that would result in additional water that would flow down the river for ecosystem restoration.
The basin plan was crafted as a compromise that was not universally loved but agreed to by Australian states as well as farmers, environmentalists and urban water consumers.
However, the agreement has frayed over the years. The Australian government reduced the amount spent on water buybacks, allegations of water theft have been made and water projects have been built to the benefit of farmers but may not have resulted in a net increase in stream flows.
Dissension over the plan came to a head in February 2018 when the Green and Labor parties joined to defeat a Senate measure to increase water usage by irrigators under the basin plan and further reduce water flow throughout the river system. In response, various states have threatened to withdraw from the plan, which could collapse.
During the same period, Grafton and other economic and environmental professors from several Australian universities made a declaration that the basin plan had failed to deliver adequate water supplies for the river’s ecosystem. They called for stopping any further irrigation infrastructure expenditures, establishing an independent scientific advisory body to monitor the basin and help to restore its ecological health, monitoring stream flows and conducting an audit of the water that was supposed to be recovered for the environment.
Key to this declaration is the finding that infrastructure projects, funded with taxpayer dollars, have not increased net stream flows through to the mouth of the Murray River in South Australia, Grafton said. Often these water projects resulted in moreefficient irrigation systems for farmers, but much of this ‘saved’ water to farmers was water that previously went to recharge aquifers and increase stream flows.
A major flaw of the basin plan has been that a lack of water monitoring, particularly in the northern part of the river system, Grafton said.
“The quid pro quo was that the government would provide taxpayer dollars and in return the government would get these water entitlements back,” he said. “That was the intent but what has happened is we’ve spent $4 billion on infrastructure subsidies and, as far as I and others can tell, there’s been no net increase in stream flows. But no one knows because it’s not being measured.”
Related website: Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists
Related research: Professor Quentin Grafton