A damning report released earlier this month has revealed that just a fraction of the proposed amount of water has been returned to the Murray Darling Basin system as environmental water.
The Murray Darling Basin Plan set a target of recovering and returning 450 billion litres of water to the floodplains and wetlands along the River Murray system in order for native ecosystems to live.
To date, only 0.5% of this water – around 2.6 gigalitres – has been delivered with the report authors deeming that the overall target “cannot be achieved” by 2024, according to a review under the Water Environment Special Fund (WESA). According to the report, very little of the $1.755 billion of funds set aside for the initiative has been spent.
A senior lecturer from the University of Adelaide said that the targets were doomed from the start as efficiency gains aren’t significant enough to support a 450 gigalitre target, comparing water savings to a zombie.
“It staggers around no matter how many times you try who was involved in the development of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, “ said Dr David Adamson from the university’s school of economics and public policy.
“You don’t know where your efficiency losses were, you don’t even know how much water you’re going to save… and so it then becomes actually quite interesting: what are you truly saving? Are you saving any water at all?” he added.
With water savings through efficiency gains clearly not working, focus now returns to the potential of water buyback schemes to recover water for the environment.
Buy Backs Back on the Table
Federal environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has suggested that water buybacks are “back on the table” and the South Australian Minister for Climate, Water and the Environment, Dr Susan Close has also indicated that she thinks that it would be a cost-effective way of saving the 450 gigalitre target.
“We’ve known that ever since 2010 that the buyback was the most efficient way possible [to recover water], cost far less, and was the best way going forward,” said Dr Adamson.
“Buybacks were incredibly popular, incredibly well-supported by the farmers.
“They knew what was happening [in the market], they had the conscious choice to decide whether they got out of agriculture, they could use that money [from buybacks] to transform their farming systems.
“It gave them great flexibility. It ended up with a far better reallocation of resources for farmers and allowed those farmers who wanted to get out, to get out. The efficiency program effectively locked farmers back in.”
Ms Plibersek claimed that the former government deliberately didn’t spend the WESA funds as part of a lack of interest in achieving the goals of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
“The previous government had no intention on delivering on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan – they just didn’t have the guts to admit that before the election.
“Their failure to deliver on the plan wasn’t due to a lack of money – it was a lack of will.”