Ghost water, poor planning and theft: how the Murray-Darling plan fell apart | Environment

Kate McBride stands on the banks of the Lower Darling river as it flows past her family property, Tolarno, south of Menindee in New South Wales. She surveys the stagnating waterholes that were once a river. They are turning an alarming shade of chartreuse, thanks to blue-green algae.

The sometimes mighty river has ceased to flow again this summer – an increasingly regular occurrence in these reaches of the Murray-Darling system.

Some 600kms away, at Mildura, toward the South Australian border, celebrity chef and environmentalist Stefano de Pieri is also lamenting what’s happening to the river.

His concern stems from the massive expansion of irrigation he sees in his region. The Murray is flowing and there is a brisk trade in water rights with farmers purchasing temporary water from other valleys to turn their properties into verdant fields of citrus, almonds, grapes and vegetables.

But as de Pieri asks: what happens when the next drought hits and there is no temporary water to buy?

“I am baffled because there is no real sense of what is truly available and what is not,” he says. “Buying, selling, renting – no one can really guarantee me that this water is available.”

Last year the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists – some of Australia’s most eminent environmental scientists – warned the Murray-Darling basin plan was in danger of failing. Despite the government having spent almost $9bn already, they say the plan is not delivering the environmental outcomes promised.

The Murray-Darling basin plan, a joint agreement between the commonwealth, Queensland, NSW, Victoria, the ACT and South Australia in 2012, was designed to restore the health of Australia’s inland river system by coming up with a joint commitment to retrieve water entitlements from farming and restore natural environmental flows.

Murray-Darling basin plan at a glance

The Murray-Darling basin plan was agreed to by the commonwealth and the states of NSW, Victoria, South Australia and the ACT in 2012 after a hard-fought negotiation.

It aimed to rebalance the share of water being taken from the Murray-Darling system by recovering 3200GL for the environment a year. This water is being purchased with $13bn earmarked for this massive project. Some of the funds are also being used to help farming communities adjust to and to pay for water efficiency projects, such as covering irrigations channels and removing or building infrastructure that impedes environmental flows.

Water recovered for the environment is held by the commonwealth environmental water holder who works with the assistance of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to determine how best to release the flows. The idea is to mimic nature by letting small and larger flows flush the system. Water is also being diverted to sensitive wetlands that were in danger of dying completely.

“Wetlands, such as Menindee Lakes, are crucial breeding grounds for both migrating birds and for fish stocks of Murray cod and golden perch, throughout the river system,” says Prof Richard Kingsford from University of NSW.

The plan is also about ensuring that there is consistent regulation of water throughout the basin. Some rivers and types of water rights were unregulated when the plan came into being, so it’s been necessary to introduce new rules and new water sharing agreements.

This is a joint state/federal regulatory system​. States remain responsible for drawing up detailed water resource plans in each catchment and for enforcing the water laws, which deal with embargoes on pumping in droughts or periods of low flow. 

The federal Murray-Darling Basin Authority was established to oversee the system, provide scientific input and monitoring, approve catchment-by-catchment water recovery plans, and deal with the outstanding issues that remained at the time the plan was agreed.

The early years of the plan focussed on buying up water rights from farmers to reduce the overall amount used in irrigation and increase the amount available for the environment. In some areas, farmers were forced to give up a fixed share of their entitlements. In other cases, the federal government has bought back entire allocations, or even purchased farms to buy the associated water. So incensed where Some irrigation communities were so incensed that they burned copies of the plan in the streets.

By December 2017, 2106GL has been recovered for the environment, 76.6% of the current 2750GL target.

The Wentworth Group’s concerns were echoed earlier this year by another group of scientists and economists who issued the “Murray-Darling declaration” . They warned that the environment was going backwards in places such as the Coorong and that the public was not getting value for money for the billions spent so far.

Prof Jamie Pittock from the Wentworth Group warns that with two-thirds of the 3200GL target achieved, the low-hanging fruit – the easy buybacks and projects – have already been done. Recovery of the remaining 1,100GL is now much harder.

The plan, they say, represents the very minimum that needs to be done to fix the great Murray-Darling system and now is not the time to weaken the resolve to implement the plan in full.

Even with full implementation, the Wentworth Group says one of the key objectives of the plan – keeping the mouth of the Murray open without the need for dredging 95% of the time – will be impossible.

But it is the litany of failures in policing the plan and its governance that has environmentalists really worried.

This undermining of the plan “has now placed water reform at great risk”, according to the Wentworth Group.

So what’s gone wrong?

As Neil Andrew, the chairman of the Murray Darling Basin Authority, said in a recent article for World Water Day, the basin plan represents a profound shift in how we think about the rivers, how we operate them and how we share their water.

He argued that the plan “puts the environment’s needs on a par with those of irrigators and other water users”.

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Kate McBride stands on the banks of the Darling river, which flows past her family home, Tolarno. The waterholes are changing colour thanks to blue-green algae. Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

But with billions of dollars of agricultural production affected by access to water, to say nothing of the impact on rural communities, the transition to a more balanced system is meeting stiff resistance from entrenched interests: state governments, the National party, agricultural lobby groups and irrigators.

At the same time environmental groups and some groups of farmers, notably those in the Lower Darling, as well as the South Australian government whose residents live at the end of the river system, have become increasingly concerned that the environmental dividends from the plan are not being achieved.

The issues are multifactored: the rules that underpin the plan have been watered down since 2012. There is a lack of compliance and inadequate enforcement when irrigators steal water, as ABC’s Four Corners investigation revealed.

State governments have lost the appetite for difficult reforms and, as the bodies mainly responsible for enforcement, they have dropped the ball, particularly in NSW and Queensland.

There has been regular talk of states pulling out of the plan, notably NSW. Big Cotton and other irrigators has used their political leverage to demand changes at every level of the plan, from the big picture – how much water should be recovered for the environment – to the detail of water-sharing plans for each catchment. Some of these seem small and insignificant but they combine to undermine environmental outcomes.

There is also a lack of will at the federal level. A succession of National party ministers seem intent on reducing environmental water recovery targets or meeting them with dubious water purchases. At the same time the Murray-Darling Basin Authority seems unwilling or unable to force recalcitrant states to do their part.

And there is a sleeper issue: the plan makes no allowance for climate change.

Says Pittock: “The scientific views [of the current plan] range from ‘It’s the barest minimum to restore and maintain the environmental health of the river’ through to people saying ‘It’s incapable of delivering the outcomes planned’.”

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In other words, there is no room for slippage.

A lack of enforcement

The ABC’s Four Corners program revealed shocking incidents of water theft and the pumping of environmental water in the Barwon-Darling system. Two major cotton growers – the Harris family and the Barlow family – have now been charged. There were also allegations that cotton irrigators were pumping environmental water released from further upstream because of inadequate rules to protect the flows as they moved down the river.

A report by water expert Ken Matthews, commissioned by the NSW government, found “that water-related compliance and enforcement arrangements in NSW have been ineffectual and require significant and urgent improvement”.

He highlighted the slow progress in rolling out modern water meters across the state to allow real-time monitoring of water use. Metres are meant to measure the amount of water extracted from the river.

In some parts of the Barwon-Darling system, there is no metering at all. In others, the meters are old and are not able to send data back to base.

Matthews said it was imperative the state department of industry moved swiftly to introduce a “no metering, no pumping” policy.

The Four Corners program also prompted some soul searching at the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in Canberra. It commissioned its own compliance review and an independent panel.

“Our report points to a series of deficiencies in current arrangements, a lack of leadership at the commonwealth level and a falling-short in commitment by basin states,” the independent review said.

It said the MDBA had been unable to assert its authority during the development of water resource plans. It found there had been insufficient progress on two important compliance areas of accreditation of these plans and protection of environmental water.

It also said the MDBA should assume a “last resort” role when states failed to enforce their water laws.

Where is the plan now?

The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists says the plan has assisted in removing one million tonnes of salt from the river each year but is short of the target of two million tonnes. Environmental water recovered so far is not sufficient to arrest long-term degradation of wetlands, though some have improved. The Coorong is still in poor condition at the Murray mouth.

What are water entitlements?

As part of managing the basin, the government has created water entitlements, which can be bought and sold. Available water is distributed to users via water rights administered by the basin states, and the total amount is capped. The rights can be traded in the water market and the government can also buy back entitlements for environmental flows. There are two main types: water entitlements that give rights to an ongoing share of the total amount of water available in a river system and water allocations that are for an actual amount of water available under water access entitlements in a given season.

What are the key water efficiency systems?

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has shifted focus towards funding projects that result in more efficient use of water, such as reducing evaporation by covering irrigation channels, encouraging crop varieties that need less water, and removing human-made structures that impede water reaching wetlands.

What are environmental water flows?

The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder manages water purchased for the environment. Working with the MDBA, it periodically releases water from storages along the river to mimic natural flows, water wetlands and flush the river. 

The plan is now set to undergo a new wave of scrutiny by a South Australian royal commission. As the state at the end of the river system, South Australia feels the greatest environmental impact of a river under stress.

Some argue the federal government should have convened its own inquiry with the powers of a royal commission given this is a national issue – but so far the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has resisted the calls.

Ghost water – bad value for money on environmental water purchases

In April 2016, the then water minister, Barnaby Joyce, declared he would end large-scale buybacks of water because of the damage it was wreaking on farming communities.

Instead the government embarked on a new direction: a program of water-efficiency projects that would bridge the gap remaining in the plan. This could include building weirs to store and release environmental water more efficiently, or infrastructure that would reduce evaporation in the system.

But water buybacks have continued. Farmers are free to approach the federal department of agriculture and offer to sell their entitlements.

In 2017 there were four buybacks, totalling $184m. As the Guardian revealed, each raises serious questions about whether the taxpayer – and the environment – got value for money.

In the case of the purchase from Tandou, a cotton irrigator owned by Chris Corrigan’s agriculture company Webster, there are questions aboutthe licences, because over extraction upstream in the Bourke region has arguably reduced the flows to the Lower Darling.

Webster should know – it owns cotton farms upstream at Bourke. There were also questions about the price paid, as the federal government ignored its own valuation and relied on one from the NSW government.

A MDBA report (pdf) released in February confirmed what farmers in the Lower Darling have been saying for years: that the lower reaches of the Darling are experiencing more frequent events where the river barely flows or stops altogether, and that is directly linked to what is happening upstream.

In the case of another purchase by the commonwealth in the Warrego river system in Queensland, the government purchased rights to overland flows that only occur in floods. Only a small portion of the water reaches the main Darling system.

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Sunset Strip, which sits on the dry shores of the Menindee Lakes in NSW. Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

A third smaller buyback in the Murrumbidgee for Lowbidgee supplementary water rights was not supported by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. The authority wrote that the purchase of this kind of water “is not a priority for further acquisition because we already have substantial holdings of this class of entitlement primarily from the Nimmie-Caira purchase”.

The $5m purchase went ahead after the authority conceded that it could count towards reaching the government’s overall target for environmental water.

There are also question marks over the quality of some of the water rights that the commonwealth has bought since 2012. Water rights are classified as either high security – available most of the time – general security or supplementary water rights, which might only be available in flood conditions.

Climate change not factored into the plan

Chef Stefano de Pieri says the climate in Mildura is becoming hotter and drier. That’s backed up by work from the Victorian government that forecast that Mildura, near the border of South Australia, can expect its days over 35C to rise dramatically, from 35 days now to 46 days in 2030 and 66 days by 2070.

The impact for irrigation and for the health of the river system is frightening.

Incredibly the Murray-Darling basin plan does not include climate change impacts in its modelling, and instead put off the issue for the 10-year review.

Although it worked with CSIRO on the sustainable yields project in 2012, it proved too contentious to include its forecasts in the plan.

Penny Whetton from University of Melbourne says the CSIRO modelling is still valid but will need to be revised for future years.

Her recent review of the latest available science for the Wentworth Group shows the Murray-Darling basin area has warmed by around one degree since 1910, and will continue to warm (projected ranges is 0.6–1.5C in 2030 relative to 1995, and by 0.9–2.5C in 2050 without mitigation), with more hot days and fewer cold days.

Rainfall is projected to have a tendency to decrease, particularly in the south and in winter, with more time in drought and decreased soil moisture.

The Wentworth Group is urging the MDBA to take into account the CSIRO report in the formal plan targets, to ensure the environment is not shortchanged.

“There is a need to re-assess management of water resources in light of the impact of climate change on water availability,” it says.

“A first step is to select the appropriate climate scenarios and prepare future flow projections. New modelling may be required as CSIRO’s sustainable yields projections do not extend beyond 2030.”

On its website, the MDBA says it takes account of climate change by being flexible and adaptive to change and new information.

The current debate – adjustments to the plan

A number of important adjustments to the Murray-Darling basin plan are now being debated in the Senate, which has put the spotlight on progress so far.

These changes were foreshadowed in the original agreement with the states, in order to get that agreement over the line. Now five years on, they are proving equally as sticky.

One change is in the northern basin and one in the south.

The first affecting the northern basin in Queensland and NSW is a 70GL cut to the 390GL water recovery target for that part of the river system. It has already been disallowed by the Greens, Nick Xenaphon Team and Labor, who joined forces to vote it down.

This disallowance went through despite a four-year public inquiry by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and a recommendation in favour of it.

The cut, if implemented, would take the pressure off catchments in Queensland and northern NSW, and would see the targets for environmental water recovery reduced. The MDBA says the change is based on sound science and that no harm will be done to the environment, while the potential economic damage to agricultural communities was significant.

The MDBA pointed to “toolbox measures”– projects like fish ladders to facilitate fish travelling up rivers with lower flows – that could be used to enhance the environmental outcomes instead of purchasing water for the environment. The 70GL cut is supported by Cotton Australia and the National Farmers Federation but opposed by the Wentworth Group of Scientists and the Murray “declaration” scientists who argue strongly that the cut will undermine the plan outcomes.

The federal government is expected to have a second tilt at cutting the target for the northern basin in May.

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The Barrier highway between Wilcannia and Broken Hill. Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

Meanwhile the debate over the southern basin changes is more complex and it’s likely to be even more fiery.

Known by the arcane name of “the sustainable diversion limits adjustment scheme”, this change aims to find 605GL of water for the environment, not by buying it back from farmers, but by using water flows more efficiently.

A total of 37 projects have been proposed by the states including shrinking the Menindee Lakes to save on evaporation losses, new operating rules for the Hume dam in Victoria, modification of infrastructure along the river so that environmental water can be delivered more effectively and introducing more computer-aided river management.

Some of these are likely to improve the environmental outcomes but some are dubious.

Before he retired, David Papps, the head of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, wrote to the MDBA saying: “I remain concerned that that the characteristics of some of the entitlements proposed to be acquired through the SDL adjustment scheme may not be consistent with [the principles outline in my act], limiting my capacity to achieve the ecological outcomes intended by the basin plan.”

The Wentworth Group has also analysed the projects based on information available on state websites and concluded that only one project – the South Australian Murray key focus area – meets the necessary conditions for approval. But even this depends on what happens upstream with other projects.

It found 11 of the projects representing 150-270GL of water savings require additional information before a proper assessment can be undertaken and, without this information, it’s impossible to say whether the projects meet the 12 conditions for approval laid out by the MDBA.

Another 25 projects – representing in the order of 316-436GL and including the Menindee Lakes project – do not satisfy these conditions and should not be approved in their current form, they said.

The Senate is due to debate this second change when it returns on 7 May. It is expected to be a fiery and prolonged debate.

Meanwhile South Australia says it will only support the southern basin plan if the government legislates for a third change: a firm commitment to another 450GL of environmental water savings. The original target of 3,200GL also proved too hard in the original negotiations. So 450GL was relegated to 2024 for further discussion.

Currently the environmental water recovery target is 2750GL, below the minimum that the scientific consensus says was necessary to achieve a healthy river system.

But the bigger picture is the plan is in crisis. It needs visionary leadership from the federal government and a greater sense of co-operation from the states if it is to have any chance of delivering for the nation.