Water, water everywhere, but not for the farmers

In this and the next edition of News Weekly, Neil Eagle will focus on three areas of national urgency. This week the topic is water allocation and food security. Next time the topics will be: reliability and affordability of electricity; and energy security.

The current government policies relating to drought, water, electricity, food security, national fuel security and the nation’s security are in urgent need of change.

The extensive drought in New South Wales, much of Queensland, and in Victoria in the Mallee and East Gippsland has finally resonated with the urban population, the media and politicians.

This is commendable. However, it seems that the hoops farmers in need have to jump through may make access to assistance difficult, and then difficult to repay. Compare this with the massive grant (that is, no repayments) being provided once again to save the Great Barrier Reef: which, to my memory, has been proclaimed as being in imminent danger of dying for over 50 years.

It hasn’t and won’t die. Farmers and others have done a great deal of good work to reduce adverse impacts on the reef; but, as Professor Peter Ridd, a renowned reef scientist says: “The dire predictions have been exaggerated. Obviously saving something, especially if it is an icon, is an endless money pot for the involved scientists.”

Meanwhile, Jeff Kennett in The Herald Sun on August 8, 2018, criticises successive governments for squandering hundreds of millions of dollars on futile projects (desalination plants for our main capital cities, now mothballed, for example). That squandered money could have been put into building more water storages.

Kennett rightly emphasises this urgent issue: if future drought impacts are to be minimised, we need a dam-building program. The last major dam constructed in Australia was the Dartmouth in northern Victoria, 40 years ago. A number of dam sites have already been evaluated in NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

The extreme detractors will immediately be in full flight (such as Tim Flannery and his fellow travellers), who now should be hanging their heads in shame having promoted and inflicted desalination plants on our nation instead of dams, which would by now be providing relief and reliability to agricultural industries.

Those people will question a rate of return on the capital expenditure on dams; but fail even to question the massive squandering of several billion dollars on flawed government programs of no benefit to our nation, with no return on capital ever.

Murray-Darling Basin Plan

As the communities of the Murray-Darling Basin predicted, the progression has been from bad to disastrous! Massive adverse impacts on food and fibre production along with associated business employment and population reduction have occurred.

Further to rub salt into the wounds, we now have state and federal Water Ministers (except for Victoria) voting to approve provision of the contentious extra 450 gigalitres of water to be squandered to the insatiable demands of South Australia.

The environmental water holder is thus declining to make available water to stressed irrigators and those trying to save dying winter crops, at a time when New South Wales general security irrigators have zero allocation, even though Dartmouth is at 90 per cent and Hume at close to 50 per cent.

The pretense is that the environment is still in need, just two years after being massively flooded. Not to speak of the huge amount of water that is due to flow into the system from the annual spring thaw.

At this same time, South Australia has been flushing precious water in vast volumes through the open barrages out to sea.The environment has surplus allocation; as it had in 2004, when the previous findings of the House of Representatives Interim Report into the Living Murray were released.

Furthermore, inconceivably, the upper states have agreed to allow South Australia to carry over water in the upper storages. This directly contravenes the basic rule of high-security water not being able to be carried over, the reason being that next year’s water has priority.

As South Australia’s allocation is assured before any water is allocated to the upper states, this is an absurd situation, further diminishing the water available to the upper states by taking up dam space.

It is past time that the water-sharing arrangement between the three states be reviewed and that proper evaluation of the future management and needs of the Lower Lakes and Coorong be put in place; as that was purposely excluded from the evaluations of the Basin Plan, even though that is where the vast majority of the recovered water is destined to be delivered. We are talking about the squandering of the Hume Dam annually (3 million megalitres) to maintain a naturally estuarine lake system as fresh.

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

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