RICHARD BEASLEY The Murray Darling Basin Plan – Four Corners v Media Watch

Monday week ago, Four Corners aired “Cash Splash”. It concerned whether government funded water saving schemes (“efficiency measures” in the Basin Plan) have been a waste of money. Since the broadcast, the National Irrigators Council, and other lobby groups, have indicated they will lodge a complaint to the ABC. Subsequently, “Media Watch” suggested that Four Corners ignored “inconvenient evidence”. I disagree, but more of that later.

In his Murray Darling Basin Royal Commission Report, Bret Walker SC called for a “review” of the “probity of the processes involved in the provision of commonwealth funds” for efficiency measures, and for an “audit of how much water has actually been recovered”. He accepted the evidence of several experts that the volume of water claimed to have been recovered from these schemes is likely to have been “meaningfully” overstated, and that there is “no proper justification” for the “massive additional expenditure” on them.

The Commonwealth Water Act is premised on the fact that for decades Australia has over-allocated water licences in the Murray-Darling Basin. This, to paraphrase the Act, has caused environmental degradation. To restore this degradation, “special measures” must be taken.

The “special measure” is the Basin Plan. It required the Murray Darling Basin Authority to calculate how much water now needs to be taken from irrigated agriculture and other uses, and returned to the environment to stop the Basin’s rivers and wetlands from dying. This is a complex work. Many different disciplines of science were involved. The law though – something that should generally be followed in this country – required that the task be performed according to “the best available scientific knowledge”. Commissioner Walker found it was not.

We still do not know how the MDBA performed the task in a scientifically meaningful way. We do know though that having found that between 4,000 and 7,000 gigalitres (billion litres) of water per year needed to be returned to the environment, twelve months later that figure was down to 2,750 gigalitres. Quite a drop. Walker found this was not a lawful, science based volume of water. It was a “political fix”. The figure – politically – simply had to start with a “2”.

This was one of the reasons Walker found that the implementation of the Basin Plan had been marred by “maladministration”, “negligence” and “incomprehensible decision-making”.

Now, to efficiency measures. They involve replacing less efficient irrigation with something like drip irrigation. Say a farmer uses spray irrigation. The farmer says to the Government, “give me money, I’ll install drip irrigation, and I’ll give you some water”. The Government says, “here’s the money”, and takes back some water from the farmer. The Government has claimed, and irrigation lobbyists still claim, that 700 gigalitres of water has been recovered for the environment through these schemes.

Some scientists say, “not so fast”. When the farmer was less efficient, some of their water ended up in the groundwater, or ran off back into the river system, and was not lost to the environment. This is called a “return flow”, and needs to be subtracted from the amount of water the farmer returns to the government. The peer-reviewed literature on this goes back decades. Hydrologists and water economists have been saying to the MDBA and the Government for years now they need to take “return flows” into account if we’re to have an accurate water audit. They have been ignored. That’s disappointing, as the public is paying for this. And recovering water from an efficiency scheme costs at least 2.7 times more per megalitre than buying a water licence. This was one of the main issues covered in “Cash Splash”, and it was the issue for which it received criticism from “Media Watch”.

Media Watch quoted Fiona Simson from the National Farmers Federation who claimed that efficiency schemes have saved “… nearly 700 hundred billion litres [of water] ….This is clearly a huge win for the environment but it wasn’t even mentioned on the show.”

Did it have to be? There may be competent hydrologists or water economists who would give sworn evidence that 700GL litres of water has been recovered from efficiency measures, but they did not make themselves known to the Royal Commission. The witnesses who did – many of whom appeared on “Cash Splash” – say that the 700GL litres figure is inflated. The likely savings for the environment are probably half this amount, or less.

Last year, the MDBA commissioned a preliminary report on “return flows”. It found that they might amount to about 121GL of water. That’s a lot of water. The report also stated much more research needed to be done.

“Media Watch” also noted that the Chairman of a company that featured on “Cash Splash” for building a new dam with millions of government funds, has since stated that this “did not mean it could take more water from the river”. Okay, but so what? Taking water from rivers is not the only means by which dams become full. Sometimes, it rains. More importantly, in terms of the Basin, new dams trap floodplain water that might otherwise find its way back to our dying rivers.

Media Watch then complained that Four Corners could have easily found people to “defend the efficiency scheme”. They nominated the National Farmers Federation as such an entity.

No disrespect, but really? If I decide to express a view as to how to best perform brain surgery, I should not be taken seriously. I’m yet to master it. Anyone is entitled to claim that 700 billion litres of water has been recovered from efficiency schemes. But should Four Corners air non-expert views? Or should it do what it did – speak to the people that have the qualifications to express an informed opinion? Non-expert assertions that 700 billion litres of water has been recovered from efficiency measures have the substance of someone asserting the sun revolves around the earth (it doesn’t, despite what One Nation voters say).

Finally, Media Watch suggested that it was fine for Four Corners to question whether taxpayers’ money is being well spent, “but it should not ignore inconvenient evidence or fail to present one side of the argument”.

This is where I have a concern as to what is meant by the word “evidence”. Evidence as to whether 700 billion litres of water has been recovered for the environment by efficiency measures is not to be found in a lobbyist press release. The answer will be found in scientific fieldwork, and a proper water audit. Four Corners gave scientists a voice. No doubt more detail of that science could have been given, but the complexities of water are such that this would have taken a miniseries, not 40 minutes of air time.

Richard Beasley SC was Senior Counsel Assisting the Murray Darling Basin Royal Commission, and is a fan of both Four Corners and Media Watch.


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7 Responses to RICHARD BEASLEY The Murray Darling Basin Plan – Four Corners v Media Watch

  1. It pleases me that floodplain harvesting and return flows are discussed because that is the only semblance of discussion about what a river really is. Rivers are not meant to be drains carrying flows between water storages. The land should be the sponge that allows rivers to carry on flowing after the train stops.

    It seems to me that most people do not get it. Even talking about gigalitres or any other measurement of water leads us to misunderstand what a river system is.

    In 2007 I paddled and dragged a kayak all the way down the Darling system on my way from Brisbane it Adelaide. The subsequent book, Cry Me a River, is about what I saw, as a water engineer. The system was dying then. Billions of dollars have exacerbated the problem, not fixed them. Our stupidity and greed almost beggar belief. The productivity of the land to support people has been in decline for decades, land that may take a millennium to recover.

    I thought when I wrote the book that it would be important to be read sometime after I died. Little more than decade later I just wish people would read it and understand what I learned.

  2. Rodney Angell says:

    I have just read through the link supplied by Glen Walker and the list of signatories at the bottom suggest they are still working for the Liberal Government.
    Most of them have profited themselves by being on review boards set up by the NSW State and the Federal Government and in return they have given those governments favourable reports.
    I would not take anything they say as being correct. In fact I can only suggest they are part of the problem itself.

  3. Ian Robinson says:

    I’m surprised that Media Watch fell for the old “equal time” ploy. The people who wrecked the Murray Darling demanding “equal time” to put their point-of-view is a bit like the guards at Auschwitz demanding equal time in a program on the Holocaust.

    • Don Macrae says:

      That ‘open letter’ is a doozy. The views expressed are the opposite of what we have gleaned from the popular press over the past few months and years. They’re not at once convincing, they’re a bit blimp-like in tone, and I’m reminded of the role of eminent Harvard academics who operated as hired shills in both finance and sugar. But really, I don’t know. If these ‘scientists’ want to convince us spectators of anything they’ll need to put in a bit more effort in explaining.

    • Stephen Saunders says:

      One has read the scientists’ reply. One is not quite convinced. It’s the same logic as emissions trading schemes, trust us, we’ve got to start from behind the eight ball don’t we, and gradually, the pieces will all come together.

      When I consider the egregious fish-kill, and glaring gaps and corruptions in water ‘efficiency’ and water ‘buybacks’ routinely studied by Richard Kingsford and Maryanne Slattery in particular, forgive me for my scepticism.

      Let’s now see if the shiny system is fit for the purpose of the all-time drought. As indeed it ought to be by now.

      If we’re world-best water practice, I say the world’s in trouble. With scientists complicit, it won’t back off from endless population growth.

    • R. N. England says:

      The Open Letter with the link above is probably the best we have to go on, but people are right to think it may not be entirely disinterested.

      Successful academics these days are highly productive at writing reports, and especially submissions for funding in a very competitive environment. The money comes in small packages which people compete for. Gone are the days of the scientist-public-servant who collected his salary whether the news he conveyed to government was good or bad. He might not have been promoted as quickly as a specialist in good news, but at least his words were still heard.

      The fundamental doctrine of neoliberalism is that nobody is disinterested, and that output is maximised in a culture that plays people off against one another. “At least you know they’re trying,” the neoliberal Keating said. Neoliberal administrators get what they deserve. An abundance of well presented information, none of which can be really trusted. The humble servant of the great world culture of science, the nearest we have to a disinterested inquirer, shrinks from the neoliberal environment.

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