Legislation would redirect the flow of money for water-saving projects.
By Brett Walton
Circle of Blue
Following through with a strategy outlined a year ago, Australia’s Liberal Party introduced legislation on May 28 that will limit the amount of water that the federal government can purchase from farmers to achieve environmental goals in the Murray-Darling Basin, the country’s most important watershed.
By capping water purchases, called buybacks, at 1.5 billion cubic meters (396 billion gallons), the Liberals hope to soften the negative economic effects on farm communities that sell water to the government for use in ecosystem restoration. Instead of buybacks, the government will direct more federal dollars — at least $AUS 2.3 billion ($US 780 million) through 2019 — to tighten up irrigation infrastructure so that farms require less water for irrigating crops.
The Water Amendment 2015 bill was introduced by Bob Baldwin, a member of Parliament from New South Wales and the parliamentary secretary to the minister of the environment.
Baldwin, in a speech in the House of Representatives on May 28, touted the bill’s balance between farm communities, the economy, and the environment.
“Our vision for water reform in Australia is very clearly founded in a triple-bottom-line outcome,” Baldwin said. “We understand that the focus must be on the social, economic, and environmental benefits equally. We will not achieve optimal outcomes through the Basin Plan without this triple-bottom-line focus.”
Yet, critics question the proposal’s price tag, pointing to studies that show infrastructure investments cost three times as much per unit of water conserved than buybacks. Moreover, indigenous groups in the Basin question whether the cap will achieve the Basin’s environmental goals.
Implementing the Basin Plan
The buybacks are part of a broad set of water-management reforms, called the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, that were initiated more than a decade ago in response to Australia’s worst-ever drought. The ultimate goal of the plan — which was adopted by Parliament in 2012 — is a 20 percent reduction in water use in the Basin, a watershed that covers Australia’s most populous state and its most productive farmland.
To achieve a 20 percent cut, some 2.75 billion cubic meters (726 billion gallons) will be returned to the river system, to ensure that wetlands and streams continue to function. Each of the Basin’s 28 catchments has its own target for reducing water use.
As of April 30, 71 percent of the total reduction had been achieved, three-fifths of which came from water buybacks. The deadline for meeting the overall reduction target of 2.75 billion cubic meters is 2019.
–Michael Young, professor
University of Adelaide
Clawing back water from farmers for the river system will be more expensive under the government’s proposed cap, said Michael Young, professor of water and environmental policy at the University of Adelaide, who helped redesign the Murray-Darling water rights system after the historic Millennium Drought in the early 2000s.
“It’s at least three times more expensive to secure water for the environment through infrastructure upgrades than through buybacks,” Young said, citing a 2010 report from the Productivity Commission, an independent government advisory body. The federal government already spent more than $AUS 10 billion ($US 7.8 billion) to improve irrigation infrastructure. Young noted that future costs for infrastructure upgrades will rise as the cheapest options are exhausted.
“Farmers are obviously delighted, because it’s a transfer of wealth from the taxpayer,” Young told Circle of Blue.
Baldwin said in his Parliament speech that farmers asked the government to help with the transition to cultivation techniques that reduce water use. Those investments do bring real benefits, he argued.
“What I have seen in the places I have visited in the Basin is how our investment in water-infrastructure projects is having positive long-term outcomes for rural communities and their businesses,” Baldwin said. “Through improved irrigation-delivery infrastructure, we are seeing more opportunities for Basin farmers to get water to their farms with fewer losses along the way. Once water gets to the farm gate, the benefits of Commonwealth investment in on-farm efficiency programs have changed the nature of irrigation farming substantially, to a precise and highly technical business.”
But for Young, the larger question is why current leaders, who already control the purse strings, would lock future governments into a more expensive water-saving path.
“One would need to ask why this government needs to pass legislation to enforce an economically inefficient means of procuring water,” Young added.
Baldwin did not respond to questions about the proposal that were submitted by Circle of Blue through his press office.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton