Water Buyback Limit Proposed for Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin

Legislation would redirect the flow of money for water-saving projects.

Australia Darling River Menindee New South Wales driftwood drought water buyback ecosystem restoration J. Carl Ganter Circle of Blue

Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
The Darling River flows near Menindee, a town in the Australian state of New South Wales. The Liberal Party is proposing to limit the amount of water that the government can purchase to meet environmental goals in the Murray-Darling Basin, the country’s largest watershed. Click image to enlarge.

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.

It’s at least three times more expensive to secure water for the environment through infrastructure upgrades than through buybacks.”

–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.

47 replies
  1. Darren De Bortoli says:

    Why not talk about the destruction of 94% of the wetlands of south east South Australia or how 40% of the south east was wet lands pre European. How 2500 km of artificial drains now discharge the water from those wet lands out to sea killing their sea grasses .We could talk about how 4 trillion litres of water once flowed from the south up the Coorong now removed by those drains and how that has resulted now in a black stinking sludge sediment that is exponentially increasing at 6.4 mm a year in the southern lagoon and 5 mm a year in the northern lagoon of the Coorong and how those waters once flowed into the lower lakes and eventually out through the so called Murray mouth into the southern ocean. We could talk about how a vibrant estuarine system and important fish nursery was destroyed by the construction of 7.6 km of sea wall which lifted the artificial fresh water level 750 mm in the lower lakes and affected 265 km of river upstream , increasing the ingress of salt into the river and lower lakes and how that has elevated the water table now resulting in the death of river gums and river bank collapses. I could go on and on and on but I think you have gotten the message . In the name of this so called “Alice in wonderland” environment South Australia has presided over one of the greatest disasters of modern times . The real story is how successive South Australian Labour Governments with the help of at least $800,000 of payments to a former Liberal Premier Dean Brown as an advisor created one of the greatest environmental frauds in modern times and how stupidity , ignorance and belligerence helped them achieve this end . The real fraud was the listing under Ramsar in 1985 of the Coorong as a reverse estuarine system and the lower lakes as a fresh water system and the subsequent wording in the Water Act that stated the water of the mighty Murray must be supplied to these Ramsar listed sites . So this great evil will destroy the communities of the Murray Darling basin and the reason the cap is being legislated ( and you wonder why the Federal Government and Bob Baldwin remain silent, how embarrassing is this for Australia in the international environmental community ) but that still is not enough , the water that was stolen from these upstream communities must be returned within reason

  2. Virginia Tropeano says:

    Totally agree with you Darren. Disconnecting the Lower Lakes from the ocean has produced an annual requirement for 950 GL of freshwater just to replace evaporative losses each year. This could instead be refilled by seawater. 4000 to 6000 GL of environmental flow are required each year to maintain this artificial freshwater ecosystem.
    The Lower Lakes have been partly salty for at least 6,000 years before the barrages were built and the ecosystem of the Lakes benefited from these seawater inflows. They were once a vast estuarine ecosystem connected with the Coorong but the presence of the barrages has caused an abrupt change in the water environment and destroyed the once thriving mulloway fishing industry. It is quite sad to go to the Goolwa barrage and see the poor fish trying desperately to get into the lake whilst being picked off by the birds and the NZ fur seals.

  3. Dugong Scrapers Walsh Shed says:

    Mr De Bortoli,
    Your areas in particular wine.
    Wine/perment plantings got the right in trans forming to HIGH secrity water from general.
    Take a look around and see whats happening to your wine industry. Really this is the state of an Australian investment.
    I think the changes of the “members” and the groups they are in are for totaly different reasons I SHOULD KNOW.

  4. Darren De Bortoli says:

    This morning whilst munching on my Californian grown Almonds and waiting for Nanna’s frozen berries to thaw I was contemplating the pro’s and con’s of the Malthusian crisis argument when I received this strange response to my comments .I still can not work out what the point was , anyhow going back to Virginia’s comments which in substance are correct , however I would like to clarify the point that during a drought the evaporation rate for the artificial fresh water lower lakes is actually around 1300 gigalitres , fresh water that thanks to the Water Act now must be supplied from already depleted upstream reserves . And to think that we arrogantly thought that our Forefathers were fools and that they had destroyed the MDB , the history books will not treat us kindly

  5. Dugong Scrapers Walsh Shed says:

    RE: Joyce a Barnabee your dogs needs water.
    Solutions pay someone to fill the bowl, or do it yourself. If the wine industry state of affiars is anything to go by no money means no solutions. History’s page should read couldn’t find the word farm in the good book. I cant believe the wine indusry is a bad as it is after all that money was spent and the excess water. What a waste. When will farmers accept the job that Jo Hockey suggest be ditched and get on with it.

  6. Dugong Scrapers Walsh Shed says:

    Fair enough Darren,
    John o s dogs were clean to. This information you have used is total crap.
    From my personal experiance farmers are well known to stretch the truth on just about anything.
    Lets see the science on some of these claims first. And not their friend GOVy hands out cash with a blind fold thats been done over and over. Just look up the word farm and read that out and all that is left is disbelief. Dont give them any money this theory works best.

  7. Darren De Bortoli says:

    So Graham Walsh thinks that I am a Liar . Lets ask Professor Michael Young if what I have said is incorrect since he would be following these comments . In the meantime whilst we wait for his reply, Graham if you Google “Peter Switzer Darren De Bortoli ” you will come across an interview I did with him late last year on Sky or you could also look up a more recent presentations on You Tube called ” Murray Darling Basin Scam ” where Ron Pike , Senator John Madigan , Ken Jury ( from the Lower lakes at Golwa and retired ex SA fisheries journalist) or myself ,a very reluctant expert on the whole Murray Darling Basin made individual Presentations and then tell me that the whole sorry saga does not deserve a Royal Commission but then again why should you care , after all it is only your tax payer dollars that are being wasted and up to billion dollars of foregone tax receipts for the Government ,so we can create an environmental , economic and social disaster on a unprecedented scale. So what are you going to do Graham ?

  8. Dugong Scrapers Walsh Shed says:

    I’m glad that some one argees stretching the truth is a lie. Lets say the wine industrtys an example. Over and over we here how bad it is when YOUR area was responsable for the over supply of HIGH sercrity water coverstions. I dont accept the reasons you state as a valid reason this was always going to happen. The water act is the single largest GOV y spend only dwarfed by the NBN counrty role out that should never be happening. TELSTRA was gotten rid of because of its costs only to have stupid NBN projects suggested. Do you see a pattern of money spent in rural areas some 50 billion dollars and none of them worked. I read the science anyway I like. Be a farmer and be good at it. Professors are an after the event people. So what are you going to do to make it work.

  9. Darrell says:

    Mister dugong scraper I am a irrigation farmer I can not understand your dislike to hs Water as it was made available to all irrigators to convert GS water to hs warter.It makes up about 20% of the total water in the system . The hs water is a farmers asset it goes to rice cotton wheat not just permanent plantings . The government by backs came from a environmental study not a group of Farmer’s having a truth stretching metting .The hs water is allocated after towns stock and domestic environment water needs are filled . After all that us truth stretching farmer’s get a go a try to make a living of what Warter is left. Let’s just let all the Warter go down the rivers and live on imported food and wine .

  10. Dugong Scrapers Walsh Shed says:

    I’v read MIL ‘s and other irrigation companys break up of water and are familiar with being a farmer. The high security water and conversitions took place before 2000 changing the balance of water held in securities a great deal. Government buy backs are an excuse for the water to be reissued later, this is written in histories pages.
    We already live on imported food and wine because the lack of ablity to supply a consistent dependable quality for ones diet is just not supplied by the Australian growers. Basically why coles and woolworths have a story and a business.
    Bills before parliament come from the sectors you live in and those are the people whom should know how to present the right facts for the discussion no matter where they come from.

  11. Darrell says:

    Mister dugong you are happy to live on imported produce??? Do you no what it is like to be a farmer??? As a Australian farmer I would like you to eat 100% imported produced as I no I am wasting my time growing some of the produced you my eat

  12. Mat Ryan says:

    The fact that you think we live on imported food because of a lack of ability to supply etc proves your ignorance.
    Australia is actually a net exporter of food and one of the few countries in the world that could sustain itself if food trade was to stop immediately.
    The fact we import some food is because many Australians like the choice to eat cheaper products of unknown origin whilst we export the best quality food around the world to people that are happy to pay for quality.
    This choice would not be available without Australian farmers and the WATER they use to produce it.

  13. Dugong Scrapers Walsh Shed says:

    Mat Ryan,
    I think I was pointing out farmers did not supply a consistant produce so people turned to the food suppliers like coles and woolies.
    I think that my cousin whom sits on the board of sunrice should explain enough about were I have come from and whole food farmers lecture and water story, its boring never mind the business I run franksfinalgrade.com.au and farm that I use to own in irrigation.
    I do teach my kids milk comes from supermarkets the three year old understands that.

  14. Darren De Bortoli says:

    Professor Mike Young was a member of the “Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientist ” that orchestrated this whole sad affair concerning the Murray Darling Basin and why I want one of their group to refute what I have said .I was in California four weeks ago which is in the middle of a self inflicted water crisis and I was rather bemused by comments about the high water use of Almonds and questioning the appropriateness of growing them there . I also was alarmed by how unaware they are of the 1861 ARk storm that devastated California by nearly raining for the proverbial 40 days and 40 nights and sent the state into bankruptcy , it would be far worse than a major earthquake if it was to happen again (Dams are not just about water conservation but also flood mitigation) . China has its own water issues such as contamination of ground water, water scarcity and food safety hence the reference to Nana’s frozen berries and judging by the articles in the Circle of Blue the problems are widespread which makes you wonder if you are going to rely on food importation, where is it all going to come from . My generation is the last connection to my Grandfathers generation that knew what starvation was , I remember asking him about what the great depression of 1929 to 1932 was like . He shrugged his shoulder and said he always had food on the table, something that was not the case in his native Italy after the First World War One. This is why the immorality of what is happening to 2.2 million Australians living in the Murray Darling Basin must stop and the “Nuremberg ” defence of the MDBA that they are just following orders ie the Water Act does not cut it

  15. Mat Ryan says:

    Again your argument is unfounded. Name on time in history when Australia has been unable to feed its population. Coles and woolies do not supply food they mearly distribute the products supplied to them by farmers. The fact their produce is not all grown in Australia has very little to do with inability to supply just they buy cheaper products from who nows where and distribute them to people who want food at the lowest cost irrespective of quality.

  16. Dugong Scrapers Walsh Shed says:

    The word farm in the dictionary needs to be applied before and after all assements of farming practises or resources.
    Over supply of produce, drought, low prices and unprofitable situations and unresolved amounts of money needed on the lack of resources, for booming potiantial in markets is the exuse for ignoring the dictionary meaning of farm.

  17. Mat Ryan says:

    In your last post you say farmers are unable to supply consistent food in Australia now you say we have an over supply please clarify?

  18. Darrell the truth stretching farmer says:

    Mister dugong from what if can make of your post you dislike to the government hand out money to farmer’s?????? The Qld government hand out a lot of money after the floods 2010 2011 to help out which I don’t need to tell you about you as you are from that reagent should they not have done this???. We all know the government tends to waste some money . But some times they need to help out businesses . So stop the drought aid form cattle farmers . Then we will go from a exporter of beef to a importer that just one example.. Don’t ever think the gov buy backs are a hand out for farmers as it drove the price of water up and out of the ranges of cost of production on most crops . And yet the farmer cant just put their price up to make ends meat . As most consumers will just buy the cheaper imported production. Wouldn’t you say .

  19. Darrell the truth stretching farmer says:

    A farm is an area of land that is devoted primarily to agricultural processes or an area of water that is devoted primarily to aquacultural processes in order to produce and manage such commodities as fibres, grains, livestock, dairy, or fuel. It is the basic production facility in food production.[1]

    A farm may be owned and operated by a single individual, family, community, corporation or a company, may produce one or many types of produce and can be a holding of any size from a fraction of a hectare[2] to several thousand hectares.[3]

  20. Dugong Scrapers Walsh Shed says:

    I see what you are saying, what exactly what do they do for me out of all of this? What good is over suppling of grapes and wine doing for you? There are plenty of acts that could mediate stock and areas planted I just dont have any sympathy for the farmers they are thier own worst enemy. So the GOV y wastes money problem is the winging from the rural sector never does on the same issues year in and out.
    I sell a product and its the same stuff over and over.

  21. Darrell the truth stretching farmer says:

    Mister dugong the over supply of grapes is problem . But I must point out I am a rice wheat cotton and sheep farmer not grapes . So you are tell me your product the dugong scraper you never have a prodlem whit quality some where all long the line .???? Dont you try and sell you stuff to the rural area .The point I made about the Qld hand out it that you and most other businesses could have claimed the grants not only the farmers that lost their inter crop. And don’t for get their income . Quality is easy to manage in side a shed . I am finding it hard to manage quality of my produce when I can’t control mother nature . You can get a new welder I can make it nor stop it from raining being to cold or to hot can I

  22. Darrell the truth stretching farmer says:

    Mister dugong some times their may be a rain which may put a spot or to on fresh fruit the wheat gets some black tip this is where hole meal bread comes from .it ant going to hurt you .. and yes the consumer looks away for it . Frozen Berry’s with a trace of hep well I let you work that out . Some of the country’s we import produce for still us chemicals that have been band from Australian for years .

  23. Dugong Scrapers Walsh Shed says:

    Everyone has a reputation and the farmers certainly have their’s. Multi million dollar farms and water licences must be so hard to make a buck I’m sure peoples hearts go out to the humble tenable non obtuse peasants.

  24. Mat Ryan says:

    Who is doing the truth stretching now initially you tell us Aussie farmers can’t supply now you are saying it is an oversupply maybe it is you who will embellish a story to get you point across. My primary source of income is not from primary production but I understand how important our farmers are to us. Send our farmers the right price signals and they can produce anything we need.
    A wise man once told me without the country the cities would die but without the cities the country would survive.
    Your references to the wine industry have little to do with water security and water buy backs.
    You quote your past involvement in agriculture and family history and how this makes you a self proclaimed expert, I have a relative who is a pilot so that must make me an expert in aeronautical engineering.

  25. Dugong Scrapers Walsh Shed says:

    Just to be clear Mr Ryan,
    The point was not that farmers could not supply people the produce, that the produce supplied was crap and lots of if. The super markets put a bottom line and a consistant product in front of people. I dont know how farmers can be trusted to know what they are talking about with the wine indusrty in the shape its in. Trans forming water licences into high sercrity tripling the value. The envirmental social and finical mess soon to be most likly equaled by the rice indusrty if listed on the exchange. Why rice growers think they are a player is mind blowing. 2 billion ish people eating rice 3 times a day, I’d say amusing to the market. Wise or not people still make a choice and that choice is the people with the folding stuff, facts are they want the property not the produce and the imported not the local produced.
    You the aussie farmers will have to get over the price of water rising from the lack of it from buy backs bo who.

  26. Darren De Bortoli says:

    I have just been reading “Long term trends of flow dependent ecosystems in a major regulated river basin ” by Colloff et al , a good read even if it is telling the people that live in the MDB what they already knew . So most of the Murray Darling system in not showing a ” declining ecological trend ” contrary to what the ” Wentworth group of concerned scientists ” was telling us but it does state that 22% is in continual decline , but then we all know that part of the system ( or do we ?) is not technically a part of the Murray Darling Basin , so we can therefore assume that the rest of the MDB is all right , contrary to what what we were told several years and several billion dollars ago . Special mention for the bully of the year and academic brilliance goes to Professor Kingsford ( another member of the “WENTWORTH GROUP ” ) by my South Australian brother in law who has given him the “Birds can fly ” award and whom wonders if he ever did a bird count in the irrigated regions beyond the wetlands . If academic research was conducted by regional based Universities as opposed to capital city based researchers I suspect this fiasco never would have happened ,but then again it makes perfect sense to base all our Marine research at Broken Hill after all it is central to all the major oceans and would help off set some of the damage done by the current Murray Darling basin plan and Water Act to their community

  27. Darrell the truth stretching farmer says:

    Mister dugong what is your point about the yanco Creek off take as I flows south out to where you would have had you farm that you sold ??? I get most of my Warter from the Sturt chainal if that helps you. You keep going on about the wine jod where you a grape grower .???? You state you heritage in rice and you us that to sell you product then you bag sun rice out. Come on you can’t have you cake and eat it . It like you tell your 3 year old milk comes for a supermarket . What will you say when that ask what a deary farmer is

  28. Darrell the truth stretching farmer says:

    Mister dugong where are you going with this the GBC off take at yanco is one the main canal and has been for years are you getting the GBC off take confused with the yanco Creek off take ???? The main canal dose go north then west then south west and dam near ends up a barren box swamp once again what is your point you trying to make .. as I have a fare understanding off the canal systems on the north side off the river as I use some of them to get my Warter deliver ..

  29. Dugong Scrapers Walsh Shed says:

    if I was an overseas Government I would be wondering two things.
    If i depend on Australia and its food supply.
    What will happen to me if the population lets say 1 billion people start to starve.
    Farmers in this counrty seem to missunderstand their place.
    I explain to my three year old what a maths professor was but I will leave them in the dark on dairy farmers.

  30. Darrell the truth stretching farmer says:

    Mister dugong the average rice yield around the would is around 5 t/ha the average rice yield in Aus is I don’t need to tell you would now all about it . So you say rice farmer’s suck getting a bit harsh . Get thinking of all the laser buckets I know of are hear their a lot of bagshaws a few k tec a couple of Tommy’s yet I havent sean a dugong so would I say that dugong scrappers S=== as you don’t seem to have sold many down hear . No I wouldent say that as I not as small mined as some seam to be . So again I will ask you what is your point ??? And why you come to the conclusion that rice farmer’s suck

  31. Dugong Scrapers Walsh Shed says:

    The price of eggs?
    The price of rice?
    The price of meat?
    The exchange rate?
    I would have though farmers would have been eager to produce 10 – 15 tons per hectare?
    Even grow less area free up water for the ………… plan.

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