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What’s going on in the Murray-Darling Basin?

TILPA, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 16: Chrissy and Bill Ashby walk along the banks of the Darling River near their property Trevallyn Station on January 16, 2019 in Tilpa, Australia. Chrissy elaborates on being able to deal with the extreme heat, the drought, the dust but is deeply concerned about getting justice in regards to the poor state of the river. Its a fight for life for us, for you and future generations. Local communities in the Darling River area are facing drought and clean water shortages as debate grows over the alleged mismanagement of the Murray-Darling Basin. Recent mass kills of hundreds of thousands of fish in the Darling river have raised serious questions about the way WaterNSW is managing the lakes system, and calls for a royal commission. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images) Source: Getty
What's going on in the Murray-Darling Basin? Source: Getty

The Murray-Darling Basin has been the cause of a lot of debate across the four states it runs through: Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

The state governments allocated permits to extract water for human uses (irrigated agriculture and urban water), but in the second half of the 20th century, those allocations outgrew the sustainable capacity of the river.

This led to the 1991 outbreak of toxic blue-green algae over 1,200km of the Darling River - which continues to occur - and eventually, highlighted the need for more water in the river.

This photo taken on May 26, 2009 shows algae along the Murray River at Albury on May 26, 2009, as the continuing drought affects the river which supplies irrigation to Australia's food bowl region, some 300 kilometres north of Melbourne.  The eight-year 'big dry', the worst drought in a century, has devastated the region, an area covering 1.06 million square kilometres (410,000 square miles) -- the size of France and Spain combined.   AFP PHOTO / WILLIAM WEST (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images). Source: Getty
The Murray River suffered a blue-green algae outbreak in 1991. Source: Getty

Eventually, a solution was put in place: water restrictions. But what was meant to be a short-term fix actually turned into a longer-term solution, because other solutions, like legislation and dams, didn’t work.

Earlier this year, the Basin made headlines again after reports showed hundreds of billions of litres of water was missing from the river.

That Australian National University study found efforts to recover water in the Basin actually could have resulted in a further reduction in net stream and river flows.

The ANU report suggested that if in fact there was a reduction in net stream and river flows, the Australian Government’s decision to fund infrastructure subsidies to help out the river would’ve actually “compromised the delivery of key objects of the Water Act”.

What’s in the Water Act?

The Water Act was introduced in 2007 and established reforms to set aside more water for the environment - around 2,750 gigalitres of surface water (water flowing in the open air, not underground).

To start, the Federal Government invested $3.1 billion to buy back water rights, and invested $8 billion to modernise infrastructure and water efficiency improvements, according to The Conversation.

WILCANNIA, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 06: Barkandji person Christine Awege walks along the Darling-Barka river bed next to her property  on March 06, 2019 in Wilcannia, Australia. The Barkandji people - meaning the river people - live in Wilcannia, a small town in the Central Darling Shire in north western New South Wales. The Barkandji are part of the group who signed an open letter to the NSW Water Minister Niall Blair highlighting the social and environmental impacts throughout the Murray-Darling Basin due to floodplain harvesting. The letter, signed by Indigenous groups, graziers, environmental groups and the former commonwealth environmental water holder urged the minister to stop Murray-Darling irrigators from “harvesting” overland flows after rain events. The practice of floodplain harvesting is unregulated and unmonitored in NSW, but is now diverting huge volumes of water in the northern basin of the Murray-Darling system into irrigation storages. While the exact impact of floodplain harvesting is unknown, it is thought to be a major contributor to a huge drop in flows in the Darling river or "Barka" as it is known to Barkandji people, which has been highlighted following the deaths of hundreds of thousands of fish at Menindee in three separate events earlier this year. In Wilcannia, the Barkandji elders claim the alleged water mismanagement is killing the river and with it, their people. Without the river the Barkandji say they are nothing. Source: Getty
Irrigation issues in the Murray-Darling Basin have caused millions of litres of water to go missing. Source: Getty

The reforms aimed to improve water delivery and make irrigation more efficient.

As of this year, the Government has spent $2.5 billion of its promised $3.1 billion towards water rights, and $4 billion of its $8 billion to improve infrastructure.

Why hasn’t the government invested all of its cash, or achieved its target?

According to University of Melbourne professor Q J Wang and research fellow at the Department of Infrastructure Engineering, Avril Horne, it’s because of “return flows”.

Return flow refers to water that returns to the river, rather than being consumed by plants due to irrigation.

More efficient infrastructure and irrigation means less return flow to the river, but if those reductions aren’t considered when calculating water reductions, this leads to implications for other water users that previously benefited from return flows.

Basically, the government hadn’t calculated the return flows properly, which meant the volume of water extracted for irrigation was never adjusted - something the ANU study revealed earlier this year too.

Taxpayers had spent $3.5 billion on water use efficiency, but the Government hadn’t actually returned the necessary water back into the river.

Chief executive of the National Irrigators Council, Steve Whan, told the ABC earlier this year that the government’s version of the water that had been recovered was “quite different” to the academics’.

ALBURY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 23:  A view of the Hume Weir at sunrise on February 23, 2007 in Albury, Australia. The Hume Weir is the largest dam on the River Murray and is currently at two percent capacity, the lowest level ever for the weir. When full the weir has a capacity of 3,038 Gigalitres and was built to manage water for irrigation in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. The Hume Reservoir covers a total of 1,538,000 hectares. Reports suggest that inflow to the Murray-Darling Basin is at an all time low, now 60 percent lower than the previous minimum. Located in the south-east of Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin covers 1,061,469 square kilometres, comprising about 14 per cent of the continental landmass. Some seventy percent of the river's water is used for irrigation. In the midst of the worst drought on record, the federal government, along with, Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland and South Australia are examining ways to secure water supplies and to adjust the operations of their river systems to maximize flexibility and minimize losses from the system.  Source: Getty
Reports suggest that inflow to the Murray-Darling Basin is at an all time low, now 60 percent lower than the previous minimum. Source: Getty

What’s the latest with the Murray-Darling Basin?

Last night, the ABC’s Four Corners program Cash Splash showed that any efforts by the government to aid the river had actually resulted in more water being sucked dry by irrigators.

The show revealed that over $4 billion in Commonwealth funds had been handed to irrigators, which allowed them to expand their operations and use more of the Basin’s water.

It was a program meant to reduce the amount of water going into irrigation, but it actually increased the opportunities for irrigation, and was subsidised by taxpayers.

Essentially, after billions of dollars of taxpayer money being injected into saving the Basin, the system could be worse off than before.

What’s next for the Murray-Darling Basin?

Scientists are calling for an independent commission of inquiry into the management of water flows in the Basin.

Professor Wang and Horne said there was a need for betting ongoing data collection and regular evaluations

“Both taxpayer investments and the water market are changing irrigation to become more efficient and reducing the river’s base flow,” they wrote in The Conversation.

“With this in mind, we need to regularly reexamine how we share water between everyone (and everything) that needs it, particularly in extended dry periods.”

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