Big irrigators first, communities later: River ‘owes’ water to cotton


New research released today by The Australia Institute shows that around 2,000 gigalitres of water were used for cotton crops in the northern Murray Darling Basin in the last year, while less than 11 gigalitres made it downstream to Wilcannia where residents have no drinking water.

Almost no water reached Menindee, the site of the summer fish kills.

This is not unusual – the Australia Institute report shows that big cotton crops in very dry years are common and, perversely, the Barwon-Darling/Barka River is actually in ‘debt’ to irrigators, owing them water that it does not currently have.

“The public is told that annual crops like cotton are good for the Basin because if there’s no water, they aren’t planted,” said Maryanne Slattery, Senior Water Researcher at The Australia Institute. “But data shows that is not true. Four of the top 11 cotton crops were in years when virtually no water flowed past Bourke.

“Bad policies and storage in massive dams mean industry has a much more regular water supply than the refrain of ‘when it doesn’t rain we get no water’ suggests.”

“Despite years of unsustainable extraction, bad policy means the Barwon-Darling/Barka River is actually in ‘debt’ to irrigators to the tune of 635 gigalitres,” said Bill Johnson, Professional Associate with the University of Canberra and co-author.

“When the water isn’t in the river, the amount owed to irrigation keeps accruing. The river is underwriting the risk of water security for the irrigation sector.”

Maryanne Slattery said the river is unlikely to ever repay this ‘debt’ because of climate change, increased extractions and the allocation policies up stream.

“With the river being in debt to irrigators, there is a real risk that future flows will be diverted to crops and not used to allow the environment and downstream communities to recover from crippling drought,” said Slattery.

“The Barwon-Darling/Barka River will only return to health if fundamental changes are made to its system of management. While the rules governing the river’s use are under review, serious reform can only be undertaken if all stakeholders come together and have an honest and calm discussion, without recriminations, about what is an isn’t working.

“It is our fear that the NSW Government’s upcoming Water Resource Plan, in conjunction with the failing Murray Darling Basin Plan, will not fix this broken system.

“We know that continual mismanagement of the Murray Darling Basin led to the horrific scenes of rivers full of dead fish at Menindee and communities like Wilcannia and Walgett running out of water.

“For example, when NSW and Federal governments and agencies knew that too much water was being diverted from the Barwon-Darling/Barka. Rather than enforcing limits, they changed their computer models to show that water diversions were within the existing policy.

“Another problem is ‘floodplain harvesting’ – the diversion of floodwater into massive private dams. This is not even measured by water agencies even though around 1,000 gigalitres evaporates out of the dams each year.

“Taxpayers are spending $13 billion dollars on the Basin Plan and clearly they are not getting value for money.”

The full report is available here

Note: ‘Barka’ is the name of the Darling River used by Traditional Owners. 

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