Well, allow me to retort: angry academics line up to defend Murray-Darling Basin Plan

By Stephen Easton

Friday July 19, 2019

Picture: Getty Images

A group of around 20 senior academics and scientists with relevant expertise have declared strong faith in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and accused the ABC’s Four Corners of putting it at risk by focusing on those holding very different views.

The divide between the historic water management plan’s leading critics and its biggest defenders continues to widen.

In an open letter published today, the group complains the program added weight to calls for the plan to be put on hold and investigated through a major federal inquiry. Their lead spokesperson is Robert Vertessy, a professor of water resources at the University of Melbourne School of Engineering and former public servant who was chief executive of the Bureau of Meteorology for five years and the head of the CSIRO’s Land and Water Flagship for three years.

While accusing the ABC of adding to “superficial and sensationalist” claims made in the media since South Australian royal commissioner Bret Walker delivered a scathing report in February, they warn against “a witch hunt to embarrass public officials involved in the water reforms” — apparently in reference to calls for a federal royal commission into the scheme.

They argue the basin plan and the institutions responsible for it — presumably the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the relevant federal departments — are being “unfairly maligned” by critics and this is undermining public support for what they see as good public policy.

“It troubles us that some in the community imagine that most scientists regard the Basin Plan as a mess. We worry that negative populist rhetoric may hold sway and derail the Basin water reform process entirely.”

The plan’s defenders fear a major public inquiry would lead to the collapse of fragile political compromises that allowed it to happen, and the result would be arguments, uncertainty and worse outcomes all around.

Groups representing farmers and irrigators often say their constituents are not entirely happy with the plan, but support it as it provides certainty. Any change that is seen as imposing significant new restrictions on agricultural water use would meet strong opposition.

Sally Jackson from ABC public affairs has already published two follow-up statements responding to critics of the program, and Four Corners reportedly sent a 10-page response to their colleagues at Media Watch, which ran a critical segment about the episode last Monday.

The Media Watch verdict was that the episode omitted some important facts, which were pointed out in responses from agricultural lobby groups and the Minister for Water Resources, David Littleproud.

“Four Corners is absolutely right to question whether the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is working and taxpayers’ money is being well spent. But it should not ignore inconvenient evidence or fail to present one side of the argument,” concluded Media Watch host Paul Barry.

In its defence, Four Corners said its team consulted “‘experts at the coalface of water management” — and the authors of today’s open letter say that could also describe them.

“Our collective skills are in hydrologic analysis, riverine ecology, irrigation engineering, water quality, climate change and socioeconomics, crafted through many years of working in the Murray-Darling Basin and elsewhere. Many of us have advised governments on a range of water-related matters over many years.

“We now feel compelled to comment on what we see as ill-informed commentary on the Murray-Darling Basin water reforms, catalysed by our disappointment in the recent Four Corners program.”

The open letter claims the episode perpetuated three “myths” about the scheme.

First, they say, new irrigation infrastructure subsidised by the federal government in the name of improving water-use efficiency has not increased the total water extracted and stored on irrigated farms.

Farms that increase their water use have to buy entitlements on the water market from others but the total amount of water available to agriculture is capped. This assumes that farms are not extracting or capturing more water than they are entitled to.

Second, the scientists say “the available evidence” does not support “assertions that water efficiency projects funded by the federal government are yielding little or no water savings”, and refer to a study published by some of the authors of the open letter, which estimated about 85% of the projected water savings from the water-efficiency infrastructure are occurring.

“Third, suggestions that the Basin Plan is of no environmental benefit are false,” they argue.

“Water entitlements yielding an average of 2000 GL/year have been acquired for the environment by the Commonwealth. This is a substantial transfer of water from the consumptive pool back to the environment. Indeed, it is the largest re-direction of water to the environment that has ever been made in any large river basin in the world.

“The Commonwealth Environmental Water Office, in concert with relevant State agencies, now routinely and expertly deliver these secure water entitlements, targeting critical places in the Basin where environmental water is needed. Much effort has been put into assessing the environmental benefits arising from those releases and it has been demonstrated that positive environmental benefits are being generated and more are to be expected over time.”

They say the system is so good that other “basin managers” around the world look to Australia for guidance but say they are not aiming to “sugar coat the problems” that remain in the Murray-Darling Basin.

“Years of overallocation have severely degraded the system and climate change is making the recovery task even harder. However, more commentators must appreciate that only so much change can be enacted at once and degradation that was a century in the making will probably take decades to repair.”

One key claim aired in the Four Corners report, which has been made repeatedly including in the SA royal commission’s report, is that there is insufficient proof to back up the claims and estimates of how much water is being set aside for environmental flows.

The authors of the letter “agree with critics who assert there should be more comprehensive and rigorous analysis of the hydrologic, ecologic, economic and social impacts” but disagree with those who say none has been done at all.

“Calls for more detailed hydrologic audits have merit, but only if done systematically and patiently, becoming business as usual. In particular, the volume of extractions from floodplain harvesting must be better quantified. We would stress that substantive improvements in auditing water movement in the Basin will be technically difficult and costly, so there is a cost-benefit dimension to be considered.”

Another issue covered by the program was the impact of speculation on the water market and the fact that Murrumbidgee farms could buy water entitlements for the Murray system, then trade them to the government at a higher valuation to receive generous grants to fund their infrastructure in the Murrumbidgee.

The open letter published by the University of Melbourne heartily endorses “active debate on the relative costs and impacts of water buy backs and water infrastructure programs” and supports the need for “sober analysis” of the water trading market and any perverse outcomes arising from it.

For now, the authors argue the plan should continue and say the right time to re-examine it is in 2026 when a major review is scheduled.

“This may sound like an eternity for those who are worried about the Basin, but the time lags involved in environmental response make this a very short time away indeed. Leading up to the review, we would all be wise to focus on careful analysis and authentic stakeholder consultation, so that come 2026, we can all engage in a more graceful deliberative process than we did back in 2008-12.”

Read more:

‘Like pink batts for farmers’: Minister defends questionable ‘irrigation efficiency’ grants

Flooded with criticism, MDBA finds a small island of common ground

Murray-Darling plan a failure of evidence-based policy and co-operative federalism

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