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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