12 June, 2018

Murray Darling Basin Plan

The NSW Irrigator's Council submission to the SA Royal Commission should be compulsory reading for all those who attack the irrigation industry and the cotton and rice industries in particular. Whilst any submission from irrigators on water usage will always be subject to the "they would say that" syndrome, the submission is clearly expressed and loaded with defensible facts. I would particularly draw attention to 'Illegal Take' on page 5, 'Irrigated Crops' on page 7 and 'Darling River and Menindee Lakes' on page 8. Once again the ABC are shown have done Australia a great disservice with biased reporting.

15 May, 2018

Letter to The Western Herald Bourke-Published 10.05.18

The dates might look strange, but note it was delivered nine years ago. On re-reading it I like what I said about Gail and Bourke graziers.

The Editor,
Your article on Will Ogilvie and Bourke (Western Herald-April 12) reminded me of the  speech I gave at the Official Opening at the Back of Bourke Centre in October 2009. I quote some extracts-

I came to Bourke with Dalgety, as a fresh-faced eighteen year old, 50 years ago next August. I soon met a strong-willed, spirited young school leaver called Gail Dugan. There was great strength of spirit and character, and a certain Irish cussedness, not atypical in Bourke residents.

The old timers around here will tell you that not only was Gail very pretty, but she could run like the wind, having distinguished herself on the athletic field both at Bourke and at the All School Sports at Bathurst. 

I chased her, on and off, for six years until she became my wife 43 years ago.

If you track back every branch of your family tree you will find that you have no less than eight great grand parents. In Gail’s case all of those great grand parents came from Bourke or Brewarrina. So, it is no exaggeration to say that I have lived with Bourke for the last 43 years!

Whenever Gail is asked where she was born and replies “Bourke” you can hear the retort coming “Oh….. Back o’ Bourke”. 
The term must be as well known as “she’ll be right” and “’ow you goin?’ ”. 

The term “back o’ Bourke” was coined by the Scottish poet Will Ogilvie in his poem “At the Back o’ Bourke”. Ogilvie spent twelve years in Australia from 1889 to 1901, much of it at Belalie Station and around Bourke generally. So he saw and wrote about the Great Flood in the Darling of 1890 (see the plaque on the Post Office which records the height in the main street) and he also saw and wrote of the Federation Drought. 

Bourke is quintessential inland Australia. It experiences the character building extremes of the Australian outback climate. It rolls with the punches, recognising that humans have no choice, but to adapt and respond to what nature deals out. Its people are resilient and its land has great recuperative power. It rewards those who are consistent and persistent.

Let me conclude by reading the last verse of Will Ogilvie’s “At The Back of Bourke”

“That’s where the wildest floods have birth
Out of the nakedest ends of Earth—
At the Back o’ Bourke

Where poor men lend and the rich ones borrow
It’s the bitterest land of sweat and sorrow—
But if I were free I’d be off tomorrow
Out to the Back o’ Bourke”!

David Boyd

09 May, 2018

Blog Presentation

I have just spent several hours "labelling" all the 317 posts I have entered/written over the last ten years. By changing the date of origin I have brought to the "front" those on the very topical Murray Darling Basin Plan, which I consider the most relevant. 

Son Mike has also pointed out that by entering http://davidboydsblog.blogspot.com.au/search/label/Murray%20Darling%20Basin%20Plan You can bring up the whole 59 on this subject. Sorry about the repetition, but they were written at different times in response to events/issues which arose at those times.
David Boyd

08 May, 2018

Submission To the Murray Darling Basin Authority On the Draft Plan 10th April, 2012

Submission To the Murray Darling Basin Authority On the Draft Plan
10th April, 2012

The debate over the last year or so on the Draft Plan and its predecessor has revealed glaring flaws in both the Water Act (2007) and the Draft Plan.
So much so that if we are serious in securing better natural resource management in Australia we need to go back to the drawing board and repeal the Act.
I remain greatly concerned that as a consequence of misguided action by Government we will cause great socio-economic damage, unnecessarily limit future production, and do little or nothing for the environment.
I make these comments from the perspective of somebody who has followed the Basin debate closely, and has had long experience in water management particularly in my past role as Chairman and Chief Executive of Clyde Agriculture which was not only an irrigator but had extensive floodplain grazing and dryland farming operations.

Base Position
The Millennium Drought had a major impact on the Basin. (The renowned recuperative power of the Australian landscape has been demonstrated in its spectacular recovery since the drought broke.)

Water extractions were well controlled by the adaptive management approach embodied in the allocation process, guided by the Water Sharing Plans. 

Natural impacts from extreme drought are being incorrectly labelled as chronic ill-health.

At the top of the Murray and Murrumbidgee the Snowy Scheme is not being managed in a manner which optimises its original water conservation objectives. 

At the bottom, the Murray River has been deprived of its estuary by The Barrages and this has created serious environmental problems, and the call for ever more fresh water. The diversion of fresh water flows in the South-East of S.A. to the sea, flows which once drained to the Southern Lagoon of The Coorong, has also caused environmental problems.

Asking the CSIRO to come up with single figure Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDL's) for the rivers within the Basin reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of our inland rivers and their massive variability. To argue that these numbers are "averages" doesn't help, given the enormous spreads around the averages. In using absolute numbers as the MDBA has done, to prescribe acceptable extractions/diversions limits without relating these to actual flows (availability), is really nonsense. 

One has to wonder whether we are proposing to "throw the baby out with the bathwater' in moving to a centralised Commonwealth water management regime.

Our current water bureaucrats could do worse than study how the existing control system operates. It works rather well. 

Drought Induced Perceptions
In 1990 I toured China, Vietnam and Laos with a delegation from the NSW Department of Water Resources. The delegation included the State Minister, the Departmental Head and the Chairman of the MDBC. One of our objectives was to explain to our hosts how different jurisdictions could successfully manage a river-in their case the Mekong. The successful model was the MDBC which at the time was held in the highest esteem. How perceptions have changed!

More Conservation
If we had more dams, in the big wet events, we could store very substantial additional amounts of water, yet they would represent only a tiny percentage of the big flows. A consistent misunderstanding relates to failure to appreciate the magnitude of the water flows in these totally irregular, but surprisingly frequent events.

Toorale Station Lesson
The Government purchase and closing down of Bourke’s most productive property, Toorale Station in 2008, is a microcosm of the Basin Plan. If Toorale had continued to operate it would have reduced river flows in the Darling River past Louth in 2010/11 by 0.01%! 
In other words, great social cost, for no environmental benefit. 

2012 Outlook Conference
The MDB session at the recent Agricultural Outlook Conference disturbed me for a number of reasons-
  • The opening graph showed no impact from the allocation system which dramatically reduced extractions during the recent drought.
  • There was a broadbrush comment that MDB extractions were usually "around 10 to 11,000 GLS."
  • There were many comments such as "recovering water" and "closing the gap" without it would seem an understanding that Government buying entitlements is simply changing ownership from the private sector to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH).
Recognising the Difference Between ‘Entitlements’ and ‘Allocations’

According to the ABS, during the most recent years of the drought the allocation system guided by the very effective water sharing plans for each of the Basin's rivers, reduced extractions to-

2005-06     7369
2006-07     4458
2007-08     3141
2008-09     3492
2009-10     3564

not around "10 to 11,000 GLS" as quoted at the Outlook Conference

Water entitlements without allocations amount to 'phantom water'. An 'entitlement' only grants the holder a share of 'allocations' when there are any. The entitlements held by the CEWH will apparently still attract allocations (when water is available) and nobody really knows what this new player (the Government) is likely to do with them.
So, we have a situation whereby before allocations are granted the water sharing plans call for a priority to 'critical human needs' and assessed ‘environmental needs’. Once these are met then allocations for 'consumptive' use are made. So, in what is proposed the CEWH gets a second bite, presumably mainly for environmental needs and becomes a player in the water market. This gives rise to some interesting conflicts of interest.
It seems to me that if the assessed environmental needs are not covered adequately under the water sharing plans, which I doubt, then it is those plans that should be changed. Not have the "dog's breakfast" that is now proposed.

I contend that the fact remains that we have confused the natural impact of a very severe drought with "ill-health" and invalidly blamed it on extractions. A situation which has been wonderfully and dramatically corrected in the time honoured manner by the flood flows of the last three years.

We should repeal the Water Act and begin the process anew
 along lines proposed by a former NSW Director General of Water Resources who has had extensive global experience in river management.

I have serious doubts of the wisdom in centralising control in Canberra. The former MDBC/Ministerial Council approach with all the tensions and debates between the States that water management inevitably involves, was once held up around the world as an example of how to do water management properly.
I can do little better than conclude with the words of Harvard Professor John Briscoe-
"My conclusion is stark. I believe that the Water Act of 2007 was founded on a political deception and that the original sin is responsible for most of the detour on which Australian water management now finds itself. I am well aware that unpredictability is an enemy and that there are large environmental, social and economic costs of uncertainty. But I also believe that Australian cannot find its way in water management if this Act is the guide. I would urge the Government to start again, to re-define principles, to engage all who have a stake in this vital issue, and to produce, as rapidly as possible, a new Act which can serve Australia for generations to come. And which can put Australia back in a world leadership position in modern water management."
J.D.O.(David) Boyd

07 May, 2018

Murray Darling Basin Plan -Overview 2014 Updated 2018

Murray Darling Basin Plan-Overview 

From the time that the Howard Government, in an attempt to garner "green" votes, decided to throw $10bn at the Murray Darling Basin, the management of the Basin has been a political football. This vote chasing initiative arose as the great Millennium Drought was biting hard and water shortages, the natural consequences of drought, were being erroneously blamed on extractions for irrigation. The term "over-allocation" entered the national lexicon.

In the years preceding the drought there was extensive reform of water regulation throughout the Basin. "The cap" limiting extractions to the 1993/4 level was introduced and John Anderson's National Water Initiative was passed introducing property rights and market trading of water entitlements and water allocations. These were all positive moves and reinforced Australia's international reputation as a leader in effective water management.

It is fundamental to a proper understanding of water management to recognise the difference between entitlements and allocations. Entitlements grant the holder an ongoing share of consumptive water when there is an allocation. An entitlement without an allocation is phantom water. For each of the Basin rivers there is a water sharing plan which guides the granting of allocations. These plans give priority to critical human and animal needs, followed by assessed environmental needs and then and only then, are allocations for irrigation extractions even considered.

These principles are applied in a regime of massive natural variability. Our rainfall and run-off is arguably the most variable in the world. Given this variability, asking CSIRO to come up with single figure "Sustainable Diversion Limits" is really nonsense and only demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of our rainfall variability. Averages are really meaningless when one looks at the spreads around the average. Our major dams and the Snowy Scheme diversions have "flattened out" some of this variability, particularly in the southern Murray catchment, and have provided additional water to the west, but compared with the severity of our droughts and the magnitude of our floods, we really only "fiddle at the edges". 

Additional dams, with appropriate by-passes to allow small flows to pass, would further assist and would only "hold back" a tiny percentage of our big flood events.

Our ecology is geared to this extraordinarily variable environment and there is no better example than recent years with the severity of the Millennium Drought and the big flood events that followed.

To gain the necessary authority over the States in the Australian federation the Commonwealth relied on international environmental agreements. As a consequence we have a Commonwealth Water Act which lacks proper balance between social, economic and environmental needs. We have tarnished our previous reputation to be world leaders in water management. The Act should be repealed.

Against this backdrop it can be seen that the Government’s massive purchase of entitlements ("phantom water") will do nothing for the environment in the lean years, when allocations will be limited or non-existent. But in better years, with the Commonwealth now being by far the biggest holder of entitlements and an active player in the allocation market, we are likely to see decisions made for political reasons at the expense of sound commercially driven decisions, had the entitlements remained in private hands.

The most negative human induced environmental issue in the Millennium Drought was the management of the Lower Lakes in South Australia and the controversial Barrages which close-off the Murray River estuary from the sea.

With the piping of fresh water from upstream to the Lower Lakes environs there is now no reason for the South Australian obsession with keeping the Lakes always fresh to prevail. Failure to open the Barrages during the drought and allow salt water to enter, when there was simply no upstream fresh water available for any purpose, quite unnecessarily allowed the emergence of acid-sulphate soils. The huge evaporation of fresh water from the Lower Lakes is a wicked waste of a precious resource.

The commitment of additional water to the Lower Lakes in the latter part of the Plan negotiations and the target of keeping Lake Alexandrina open to the ocean 90% of the time, is a classic example of the political football approach at the expense of objective analysis, which has pervaded the whole Murray Darling Basin issue.

Sadly, the management of the Snowy Scheme has been expressly excluded from the MDB deliberations of recent years. There needs to be more focus on the original water storage/irrigation objectives. Improvements could be made without detracting from the all important hydro/electricity production objectives. If Snowy Hydro is to be privatised, a prerequisite should be a new operating agreement which gives greater weight to water storage for food and fibre production.

04 May, 2018

High Praise For Murray Darling Water Management

A leading world authority on water has lavished praise on Australia's water management during the Millenium Drought which has now broken so spectacularly.

Harvard Professor John Briscoe is a former Senior Water Advisor at the World Bank and was called in as an advisor to the Murray Darling Basin Authority in the preparation of the controversial Murray Darling Basin Plan. He has now made an invited submission to the Senate's Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.

In commenting on Australia's inland water management during the drought he states "Over the last 10 years Australia did something which no other country could conceivably have managed – in a large irrigated agricultural economy (the Murray Darling Basin) a 70% reduction in water availability had very little aggregate economic impact. Before the buts and the buts and the buts, this extraordinary achievement is, in my view, the single most important water fact of the 21st century, because it shows that it is possible (with ingenuity and investment) to adapt to rapid climate change and associated water scarcity". He goes on to say "how dramatically this perspective is different from the political and public perception, which is largely that “we have done a terrible job”. High praise indeed.

Professor Briscoe goes on to quote Malcolm Turnbull saying “our water management has been extraordinarily ill informed in years past” and the Murray Darling Basin Plan saying “over the past few decades….the focus has swung to looking at economics …and the role of the environment has been overlooked.” He finds these two comments to be "(a) extraordinarily widespread and (b) extraordinarily erroneous." He adds "What is obvious to me is that the overwhelming factor behind the dismal situation in the MD Basin was the dramatic reduction in rainfall and even larger reduction in river flows. It is equally clear to me that the institutional response (of the Murray Darling Basin Commission,the basin states, and farmers) was extraordinarily innovative and – within the bounds set by nature – effective. Not only for the economy but, as shown by the National Water Commission,for ameliorating the environmental damage of the terrible drought."

In his submission Professor Briscoe analysis the impact of the Commonwealth Government using international environmental treaties to gain power over the States and how this had prevented the Water Act gaining a proper balance between environmental and socio-economic factors.

He concludes his submission with the following statement:
"My conclusion is stark. I believe that the Water Act of 2007 was founded on a political
deception and that that original sin is responsible for most of the detour on which Australian
water management now finds itself. I am well aware that unpredictability is an enemy and that there are large environmental, social and economic costs of uncertainty. But I also believe that
Australian cannot find its way in water management if this Act is the guide. I would urge the
Government to start again, to re-define principles, to engage all who have a stake in this vital
issue, and to produce, as rapidly as possible, a new Act which can serve Australia for generations to come. And which can put Australia back in a world leadership position in modern water management."

We would do well to take careful note and act on these objective comments from a knowledgeable analyst untainted by Australian domestic politics.

Murray Darling Basin Plan-Big 2016 Wet-Reminder

The big winter wet of this year (2016) is a timely reminder of the flaws in the MDB Plan. I have long been fascinated by inland water flows in this very flat land, with highly variable rainfall, which is the predominant feature of Australia. Dorothea Mackellar got it so right with her classic line "Droughts and Flooding Rains". She might well have added "And not much in the middle".

My interest in the subject became even greater when I found myself Chairman and CEO of an agricultural company whose interests included an irrigation business growing cotton on the Darling River upstream and downstream of Bourke.

My first impressions as I familiarised myself with this business were:-

  1. The human characteristic of always seeking to blame somebody for water shortages and the reluctance to attribute these shortages to natural factors.
  2. The meaningless of average statistics when the spreads around the average are enormous.
  3. The failure of water authorities to appreciate the massive magnitude of the big events, and their frequency, albeit irregularity.
  4. The persistence of these authorities to maintain an attitude of "we must determine how much water for this or that" when "we" have very little control. Man fiddles at the edges. Nature dominates.
For the MDB Authority to ask CSIRO to come up with single Annual Volumetric Limits (AVL's) for each of the significant rivers in the basin is a stupid question from people who clearly do not appreciate the above facts. Limits should be based on percentages of actual flows. Note that from the big events , a very small percentage can amount to a huge amount of water. This massive variability cries out for more dams to spread the benefits.

The 2016 'big wet' winter, following an extremely dry period with no flow in the Darling River below the Menindee Lakes, is a wonderful demonstration of the key characteristic with which we live in this fascinating country. The volume of water that has flowed past Bourke in the last fortnight now exceeds the volume attributed to Sydney Harbour-500,000 megalitres or 500 gigalitres.

David Boyd