A group of academics has called for reforms into the way projects along the Murray-Darling Basin are administered, following concerns that billions of dollars had been wasted on irrigation projects that have failed to achieve their intended environmental outcomes.

The  group of 12 academics, which includes economists and some of the nation’s top water scientists, has released a declaration in Adelaide urging fundamental changes to the way the system is administered.

Those changes include halting subsidies and grants to irrigators that have been introduced under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

According to the researchers, $6 billion has already been spent on water recovery projects across the basin, including $4 billion to subsidise irrigation.

“For many of these projects there is no scientific evidence that they have actually increased net stream flows,” the scientists stated.

“Despite allocating half a billion dollars in 2007 to upgrade water meters in the Basin, as much as 75 per cent of all surface water diversions in the northern part of the basin may still not have water meters.”

The criticisms have been rejected by the Federal Government, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the National Irrigators Council.

The declaration also calls for an independent audit of all water recovery measures across the Basin, and a new scientific body to advise governments on the implementation of the 2007 Federal Water Act.

Former head of CSIRO Land and Water, Professor John Williams, said the science underpinning current water policy was deeply flawed, and called for immediate changes to ensure more water flow through the system.

“We’ve got to have a river system that has sufficient water flow to flood, recharge groundwater, take salt to the ocean, and provide wetlands and habitat,” Mr Williams said.

“Our current system is not doing that.”

According to data cited by the scientists for The Conversation, buying water back from irrigators is “60 per cent cheaper” than spending on irrigation engineering projects.

Mr Williams said currently, authorities were “playing accounting games” that made it “look as though we’re doing something”.

The agency tasked with overseeing the multi-billion-dollar basin reform plan, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, has hit back at the scientists’ claims.

Chief executive, Phillip Glyde, said, “Claims that the plan’s investment in more modern and efficient water infrastructure is not delivering benefits for the environment are simply not true.”

The authority said the plan was a “visionary, long-term policy” and that water infrastructure efficiency programs had already helped recover water for the environment.

“The Basin Plan was neither expected nor intended to deliver immediate results,” Mr Glyde said.

“It is simply not possible to repair 100 years of damage to such a vast river system overnight, or even within five years.”

Federal Assistant Minister for Water, Anne Ruston, said the recommendations did not factor in the economic needs of farming communities in the basin, and that favouring water buybacks could be harmful.

“We can’t just decimate out regional communities by buying back water out of them and leaving them with no means of future existence,” Ms Ruston said.

National Irrigators Council CEO, Steve Whan, also criticised the scientists’ findings, saying the benefits would be witnessed by future generations.

“The important thing about this to remember, we are five years into a plan that is going to take a number of years to implement, but [it takes] decades to see good environmental outcomes,” Mr Whan said. 

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