An ocean’s worth of $5 billion has been drained down the gurgler by Australia’s titanic water reform, according to eminent water economist Professor Quentin Grafton.
His claims, which were splashed across headlines last week, were also firmly denied by the Murray Darling Basin Authority.
But either way, his sensational statement is just the latest drop in a deeper debate which may yet overflow with inter-state anger.
At issue is how to best achieve the environmental goals of the basin plan.
For South Australia that means achieving complete recovery of the 3200 gigalitres figure which was listed in the plan when it was written in 2012.
But Queensland, Victoria and NSW want to invest in works that can help the environment without the hurt of water entitlement reductions.
According to Prof. Grafton, the $5b spent on the basin plan since 2001 hasn’t delivered meaningful results. The Australian National University’s public policy fellow also holds a chair on United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) water economics and governance body.
Government erred when it bought irrigation entitlements which were not being fully utilised, he said.
The volume of water recovered from productive use has not decreased, he argued. Irrigators who had either sold their entitlements, or traded it for infrastructure subsidies, could have maintained usage levels by simply using a greater share of the water allocated to their remaining entitlements.
“It seems likely we’ll have the same problems as we did in 2001 when the next drought comes,” Prof. Grafton said.
The MDBA disagrees. A spokeswoman said it was wrong to asses the effectiveness of water recovery by “looking at the recent pattern in annual intake, which can very greatly due to seasonal conditions”.
Under-utilised entitlements acquired by the government are now at the disposal of the Commonwealth Environment Water Holder (CEWH), to allocate flows to areas of most need.
“The truth is since the start of the Basin Planning process, the CEWH has acquired from irrigation water entitlement holders 2000GL.”
National Irrigators council chief executive Steve Whan echoed the MDBA. Prof. Grafton’s analysis was “selective and ideological”, he said.
While it’s dispiriting for communities to hear Prof. Grafton’s criticisms of the water reform program, which has come with no small degree of economic pain, they would welcome call for a pause in the plan.
“Let’s start a dialogue about how to achieve public good outcomes. It’s going to be messy, but there is no simple way to do it,” Prof. Grafton said.
For Queensland, NSW and Victoria ‘public good’ means using projects to deliver an environmental benefit without reducing irrigation take.
Such measures are referred to as complimentary measures and could encompass repairs to river banks, initiatives to boosts to native fish stocks, or eradication of damaging ferals like carp.
Stakeholders in Queensland and NSW these works, also known as toolkit measures, should be incorporated into the Northern Basin Review process.
NSW and Victoria have even commissioned an independent expert panel to review the MDBA’s assessment of the complimentary measure projects they propose, to ensure maximum bang for buck.
But the prospect of complimentary measures reducing cross-border flows is controversial. It SA Water Minister Ian Hunter, spurred SA Senator Nick Xenophon to warn government from the crossbench and even prompted Labor’s former federal water minister Tony Burke to threaten fresh legislation.
Late last year Mr Hunter called for federal Water Minster Barnaby Joyce to be sacked after he suggested the 450GL upwater flow target, intended as a direct injection to SA, was not achievable without unacceptable economic pain. The upwater comes on top of a baseline target of 2750GL – but only if the extra water can be delivered without unacceptable socio-economic impacts from the reduction in primary industries. Mr Hunter said he was “outraged” that upstream states don’t want to meet recovery targets “because it’s too difficult”.