Friday, July 6, 2007

Australia: Licence to spill is a big water fight

Sydney Morning Herald: Competition for water in the Murray-Darling Basin has gone from a non-event monopolised by farmers to an aggressive multibillion-dollar game in a few short, remarkable years. In Australia's food bowl, irrigators have been crowded by the likes of RiverBank, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, the National Water Commission, Water for Rivers, catchment management authorities, The Living Murray, the Achieving Sustainable Groundwater Entitlements Program, the National Water Initiative, the Australian Government Water Fund and the NSW Wetland Recovery Plan.

So many vehicles for restoring water health and security in response to so many suffering farmers, thirsty towns, stressed rivers, aquifers and wetlands. Now the Prime Minister, John Howard, has trumped the lot with his $10 billion national plan for water security. By August, the Environment Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, hopes to get the plan into Parliament, seven months after it was launched with great expectations by Howard.

Back then, Howard said if we were going to save the Murray-Darling, "we must think and act as Australians - not as Queenslanders, New South Welshmen or Victorians". But while the NSW Premier, Morris Iemma, quickly signalled his support, his Victorian counterpart, Steve Bracks, has been more reluctant to hand over the powers that will decide who gets precious river flows and, in some cases, how land is used. After much horsetrading, Victoria is edging toward agreement that will allow the bill to be passed before the election.

At stake is the future of Australia's food bowl and its cotton industry. Almost a third of the country's fruit and vegetables and a good deal of the cotton, rice and pastoral industry happens in the basin. Almost 2 million people live there in towns and on farms needing water supplies. It is also home to our most important and fragile inland wetlands.

The new Murray-Darling legislation will determine how precious water from the basin's rivers and groundwater is shared between all these interests. The drought forced the Federal Government's hand but so, too, did the relentless expansion of irrigation, dam building and takes from groundwater. Along with the projected impact of climate change, all this put the Murray-Darling on, "a knife edge".

The key elements of the Murray-Darling plan are aimed at addressing the overallocation of water throughout the entire basin by buying back water, massively upgrading irrigation systems to stop leakage, cutting water theft, capping the use of groundwater and setting out a new system for allocating the precious water flows. All this competition for water means it looks more like liquid gold than ever before…

…A recent paper written by the chairman, Richard Bull, said Water for Rivers reclaimed its first 80 gigalitres for $80 million. The savings have mostly been achieved through water-saving projects such as Barren Box Swamp near Griffith. Reducing the surface area of irrigation water stored in the swamp by building a vast wall across it saved 20 gigalitres through reduced evaporation.

…Once the National Plan for Water Security starts operating "it is not outlandish to suggest that further project costs may increase a further 100 per cent - $6 million per gigalitre", he says.

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