November 30th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Can we put the 'care' back into aged care?

EDITORIAL Bushfires: One step forwards, one step backwards

ENVIRONMENTALISM Activists and courts give sharks the last laugh

CANBERRA OBSERVED ALP's self-examination will entice no one back

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal to go to the High Court

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Deaths after Fukushima due to excessive caution

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Geopolitics, oligarchs and the Moldova miracle

ENVIRONMENT Into the unknown: Should we prepare for climate change or climate variability?

LAW AND SOCIETY Crime and punishment: Are we de-civilising?

WATER POLICY Drought relief still leaves too much water going to waste

ASIAN AFFAIRS Destination Oz: Flood of Hong Kong emigres may restart

HUMOUR MacStuttles, me ol' China

MUSIC Subliminal workhorse: An art takes the backseat

CINEMA Dr Sleep: Kubrick 'shined' from his rest

BOOK REVIEW Science and religion, with mutual respect

BOOK REVIEW A borrowed term for a socialist recipe



FOREIGN AFFAIRS Hong Kong voters reject Beijing and its proxies

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Drought relief still leaves too much water going to waste

by Neil Eagle

News Weekly, November 30, 2019

It seems at last that it has been recognised that there are two droughts impacting the eastern states at the same time – both resulting from an extended low-rainfall pattern over several years.

The first is in Queensland and north of the Lachlan River in New South Wales, where the devastating impacts have been magnified by the failure of successive governments (state and federal) to build any new dams in the past 40 years. Dartmouth Dam was commissioned in 1979 and the Burdekin in Queensland in 1987.

NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro is to be commended for bringing the issue to the fore with his recent announced commitments. In addition to raising Wyangala Dam on the Lachlan River, there are many other well-researched and costed projects (that is, the Clarence Diversion Scheme) that would have a major beneficial impact for northern NSW and the Darling River. The hydropower and water supplied would pay for the capital cost in just one or two years.

As economic commentator Terry McCrann has noted in The Australian: “Governments right now can borrow billions of dollars at 1 per cent interest locked in for 30 years. Why aren’t we doing these infrastructure projects for Australia’s future prosperity right now?”

Other cost-effective projects have already been identified – Murray Gates on the Jinjelic arm of the Murray River, the Bradfield Scheme in Queensland, to feed the Darling River, the Buffalo enlargement in Victoria, and others.

The Menindee Lakes’ draining was a fiasco. After the lakes filled in the 2016 flood, they were drained supposedly to prevent the loss of water to evaporation by sending the water downstream to South Australia – where the water evaporated in the Lower Lakes in any case, or was sent out the sea. This deprived the towns and irrigators of Menindee and downstream of water and magnified the fish kill of unhappy memory.

The second drought is in the Southern Connected Basin of the Murrumbidgee, Murray and Goulburn/Campaspe systems. Although also suffering rainfall deficits, it is essentially a man-made drought resulting from government policies. There is water in our major southern storages but the 2007 Water Act and the Basin Plan have swung priorities towards the needs of the environment.

Water has been lost from evaporation in the Lower Lakes, from where it flows out to sea, as well as being used to water forests and wetlands in a drought sequence when they would naturally be dry; besides which they got plenty of water anyway in the 2016 flood.

Other adverse policy decisions, inc­luding the disaster of separating land from water with no zoning restrictions, the enabling of speculation and foreign ownership of entitlements, have led to water being used as a commodity for profiteering. Water should instead be viewed as the essential ingredient for food and fibre production and the development of vibrant rural communities.

The result of these actions and policies is that NSW Murray irrigators are in their second year of zero allocation of water, Murrumbidgee irrigators are in their second year below 10 per cent of their allocation, and Victorian Murray with depleted high-reliability availability and zero sales allocation.

With a massive reduction in rural production (rice, irrigated cropping, cattle, sheep and dairy) and a threat to horticultural industries, associated businesses and communities are also suffering from the associated consequences.

Professor Peter Gell’s most recent paper (“Watching the tide roll away: Contested interpretations of the nature of the Lower Lakes of the Murray Darling Basin”; peer reviewed and published by the CSIRO in the CSIRO’s Pacific Conservation Biology journal on June 20 this year) has scientifically confirmed that the Lower Lakes (lakes Alexandrina and Albert, at the mouth of the Murray), for at least the last 7,000 years, have been estuarine.

More particularly, Professor Gell reveals that in 2009, the South Australian Government, when negotiating the details of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, relied on a 2009 paper that misrepresented the results of a 2007 report into the status of the Lower Lakes. The new 2009 paper claimed the lakes were always fresh, which Professor Gell now confirms was not so.

Now that the fact of the estuarine nature of the Lower Lakes has been securely established, the upper states have ample reason to walk away from the Basin Plan. South Australia needs to acknowledge the error and agree to:

  • The building of Lock Zero near Wellington, SA, and a reconfiguration of the barrages in order to return the saved water (2,700 gigalitres) to upstream productive use.
  • Re-divert the southeast drainage scheme as much as possible back through Salt Creek to the southern end of the Coorong, which will help to replenish the dwindling groundwater in the region and provide east-to-west flows.

A final point. The Federal Government’s just-announced initiative of paying $100 million to South Australia to turn on its desalinisation plant in return for forgoing its right to 100 GLs of fresh water from the Murray system, is obscene. A lot of that water would in any case have evaporated from the Lower Lakes or flushed out to sea to keep the Murray mouth open! This meagre amount of water, representing about 2 per cent of allocation, may be welcomed by some desperate irrigators but, for most it is too little, too late.

Immediate action that the Government could take to restore confidence to regional communities would be to debit to the environment the conveyance loss of one million megalitres, which are currently being borne by irrigators in NSW and Victoria. These conveyance losses would represent about a 30 per cent allocation increase to these irrigators. A stroke of a pen would do it, yet the request to do so has been ignored.

Neil Eagle AO has been involved in agriculture and water issues for over 50 years.

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April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm