14 March, 2012

Outlook Conference and Water

Last week I attended the annual Agricultural Outlook Conference in Canberra for the umpteenth time. I attended my first in 1975 and have only missed two or three since, so perhaps I have been to 40! One of my workmates once pointed out that nearly every year I would say that I wouldn't bother going, yet still went. Not because of the accuracy of forecasts! Who can do that? No one, climate and unforeseeable events make it impossible. But at least one can identify the factors that impact and thus gain better knowledge of how to deal with the risks and monitor changes as they occur. The other big attraction is meeting and mixing with friends with common interests-to use that hackneyed word-"networking".

Another attraction is that I enjoy going back to Canberra. I did most of my limited schooling there as a boarder at Canberra Grammar School, where my mother was the Housemother for Garran House, the junior boarders abode. After the premature death of my father our family had no home-so CGS was it. Most holidays I went home with school mates, mainly to the Miners family at Adaminaby, and I loved it. Horseback droving trips to the Kiandra snow leases, are experiences I will always treasure. When I left school in 1957 Canberra had a population of 27,000-a big country town with lots of VIP's. I knew every inch of the core area from the back of a pushbike. Whilst today it is so much bigger with a population around 380,000, much remains so familiar.

Five elements of the Conference standout. First the general optimism leading to the question of how well are we prepared to do our bit in meeting the demands from the fast growing middle classes of the "Near North".
Second, I much enjoyed a paper from the Australian Farm Institute's Mick Keogh on agricultural risk. Thirdly, the two papers from JBS Australia's (our major abattoir operator) executives brought home our increasing lack of competitiveness and general domestic cost pressures resulting from the appalling policies of the Gillard Government in respect to labour and so called 'climate change'. Fourthly, the rise of animal production (beef and sheep meat) as the most profitable enterprises at the expense of grain. And fifthly (no surprise), a reinforcement from the Murray Darling Basin Plan session that the Water Act (2007) and the Plan are so dreadfully flawed.

This MDB session 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 Water Holder (CWH).
According to the ABS, during the most recent years of the drought the very effective water sharing plans for each of the Basin's rivers reduced extractions to-
(GL'S)
2005-06     7369
2006-07     4458
2007-08     3141
2008-09     3492
2009-10      3564

not around "10 to 11,000 GLS".


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 CWH 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 the CWH 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 the 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.
Post a Comment