The long and ‘catastrophic’ road to Murray-Darling water reform

It seems that many people in the water industry believe that water reform in Australia, and in the Murray-Darling Basin in particular, started with the National Water Initiative in 2004. But, this is selective memory and back-slapping on the part of the current cohort of water bureaucrats.

The long road to MDB water reform started over 40 years ago, in the late 1960’s not in the 2000’s.  In drawing attention to this much longer water reform timeline, I want to emphasise the central role of ‘catastrophes’ in creating the right political, social and economic environment for change.

The first of these policy-changing catastrophes for the MDB was the 1967 drought. This revealed to all who were on the land at that time what the Egyptian Pharaohs had learned over three millennia ago. If you get the water balance wrong on poorly-drained irrigated lands then massive salinisation problems will follow as surely as night follows day. The first major investigation into Murray Valley salinisation was prepared by consultants Gutteridge, Haskins & Davey in 1970 for the River Murray Commission (as it was known in those days).

The machinery of government and the bureaucracy moved slowly for another decade until the next big drought in 1982-3 yet again revealed the lurking threat of salinity. At the same time, in concert with rapidly growing and often poorly conceived upstream water allocation agreements, this drought caused the first recorded closure of the Murray Mouth (where the river system discharges to the sea in South Australia) since European settlement.

These catastrophic landscape events – and indeed they were catastrophic for both farmers and aquatic ecosystems affected – prompted a major, coordinated policy response by the Murray-Darling States and the Commonwealth Government. 1985 saw the first Meeting of the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council and in 1988 the (revamped) Murray Darling Basin Commission1 (MDBC) was established with the objective to: “Promote and coordinate effective planning and management of the equitable efficient and sustainable use of the water, land and other environmental resources of the Murray-Darling Basin.”

The first actions of the new MDBC were to agree the MDB Salinity and Drainage strategy in 1988, and to implement the first integrated land and water, Natural Resources Management Strategy from 1989.

It was another catastrophe, in another decade, that re-activated the water reform process in the 1990’s. This time it was the infamous 1000 km long bloom of toxic blue-green algae in the Darling River in the summer of 1991.

This event generated saturation media coverage for weeks right across Australia (and even globally). There can be no doubt for any of us old enough to remember that the Darling River toxic algal bloom was a pivotal event that galvanised public and political opinion for radical policy change. The fact that around the same time the Murray Mouth closed yet again only added fuel to the fire that was public outrage about the over-exploitation of the Murray-Darling’s waters. Even the most conservative of agricultural and irrigation organisations realised that change had to come.

And come it did, and in pretty rapid time considering the normally glacial pace of political and bureaucratic policy reform. 1994 saw the first official COAG2 Water Reforms agreed. Forget what people may tell you about the National Water Initiative in 2004, it was the 1994 COAG Agreement that set the Murray-Darling and the rest of Australia, cities included, on the path to the re-visioning of ‘sustainable’ water use that we see today. To quote directly from the February 1994 COAG Communique: “while progress is being made on a number of fronts to reform the water industry and to minimise unsustainable natural resource use, there currently exist within the water industry

  • approaches to charging that often result in commercial and industrial users of water services, in particular, paying more than the costs of service provision;
  • major asset refurbishment needs in rural areas for which, in general, adequate financial provision has not been made;
  • impediments to irrigation water being transferred from low value broad-acre agriculture to higher value uses in horticulture, crop production and dairying;
  • service delivery inefficiencies; and
  • a lack of clear definition concerning the role and responsibilities of a number of institutions involved in the industry”

The policy and managerial flow-on from these concerns can be clearly seen in the way we trade, price, allocate and manage water across Australia today.

The following year, 1995, saw the imposition of the MDB Cap on surface water use, and in 1996 the landmark ARMCANZ ‘National Principles for the Provision of Water for the Environment’ were published.

It was just one more drought in one more decade – but this time the worst of all – that lead to the National Water Initiative in 2004 (which in many ways only reaffirmed the 1994 reforms and provided updated roadmaps for implementation), the Commonwealth Water Act in 2007, and ultimately, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, agreed in 2012.

By the new Millennium just about everyone had had enough of watching productive farming lands run out of water, and river vegetation and wildlife being ravaged by drought or poisoned by acid-sulfate sediments.

There is no doubt that the National Water Initiative and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan are pinnacle water reform policy achievements, both for Australia and for the world.   But it is worth remembering they were a long time coming, and we had to suffer near-decadal catastrophe after decadal catastrophe to really galvanise ourselves to action.

It has indeed been a long and catastrophic path to water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin …let‘s hope we don’t need more in the coming decades to keep us vigilant. The political signs right now are not at all encouraging.

Footnotes:

1 This was the second major policy change in the MDB’s management history – the first being the establishment of the River Murray Commission in 1917. It saw a fundamental shift from seven decades of ‘management for supply’ to a new era of ‘management for sustainability’.

2 COAG is the Council of Australian Governments, and the peak inter-governmental (federal-state) policy-setting forum in Australia.

This blog is an edited version of an opinion piece published in the Newsletter for the Peter Cullen Trust in 2013.

2 thoughts on “The long and ‘catastrophic’ road to Murray-Darling water reform

  1. Rational approaches so often take the back seat to self interest in Australia and in water resource management this it painfully obvious. I’m not optimistic about the future of the Murray Darling catchment. There are too many vested regional and provincial interests spread across too many marginal seats for science to triumph over selfishness.

    • I perhaps don’t feel as negative about the future of the MDB as you, Russell. You are certainly right about the many vested interests, but nevertheless I hold the MDB Plan to be a landmark agreement in re-balancing human and environmental water use – it is certainly seen as that in most international water management circles. I also don’t feel that ‘science’ has a specific perspective that must prevail in public debates such as this, other than aspiring to present the ‘truth’, as we scientists understand it from our research, to the public in a clear and unbiased manner.

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