The changing landscape of the MDBP


Zara Lowien

Executive Officer
Gwydir Valley Irrigators Association Inc

Noel Baxter

Namarang Farms

Question 1: Assuming that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP) stays in effect, is it responsive enough to account for ongoing climate variability and likely changes in inflows and still meet the needs of all stakeholders?

Zara Lowien

Just because we are in drought, doesn’t mean the MDBP or local planning arrangements (i.e. water sharing plans, which provide the immediate tools to respond to changes in inflows), have not adequately responded to changes in climate. Despite inflows of around 2% of our long-term average flows, planning arrangements in the Gwydir has meant that critical water needs, remaining irrigation water and environmental deliveries have been possible. This includes the unique opportunity for environmental water managers to deliver carried over allocations to our wetlands and provide drought refuge flows, occurring right now in the northern basin.

However, planning may not have been as successful everywhere. I don’t agree that it’s the fault of the MDBP, it’s a long-term plan based on long-term analysis and therefore too early to tell. It's potentially a combination of factors including a misguided expectation on what the MDBP should be achieving locally and throughout the Basin.

While we need to evaluate and learn following this drought to help determine what we have achieved and what needs improvement, we must recognise the limitations in preparing for every scenario or trying to achieve everything for everyone because sometimes there just may not be enough water.

Noel Baxter

My view of the MDBP is that it’s not responsive enough to account for climate variability and still meet the needs of all stakeholders. The Plan has removed – and continues to remove – large volumes of water out of the consumptive pool, leaving volume not adequate in dry years. This is due to a combination of a reduced water pool and increased losses due to more environmental and consumptive water being delivered well down the river compared to pre-Basin Plan.

Along with increased development in the north and on-farm efficiency projects that have also increased water use, this has resulted in nowhere near adequate water to service the needs of all the stakeholders in average to dry years.

The 2018–19 season is a good example of this. NSW general security water holders are on zero allocation, temporary water is at $500 a megalitre and we have only been in a dry inflow sequence for one year. What will happen if we have multiple dry years? Will there be anything for the annual croppers that produce everyday food and fibre that the world needs? I think not, it will all be heading down the river to the lower lakes, out to the ocean, and to increased horticulture developments.

Question 2: Water trading allows allocations to be purchased and redirected towards more profitable industries and sectors (potentially in other irrigation regions). Is ongoing disruption and adjustment within the MDB irrigation areas inevitable without changes to water trading rules?

Zara Lowien

The challenge in highly connected systems within minimal market restrictions and extensive crop choices, any fluctuations in the market are not localised like in most of the north, where hydrological restrictions are replicated in trade rules, ensuring water remains within the valley. Simplistically in connected systems an opportunity in one region can become an economic shortfall in another and communities will also burden the impact of changes in water availability.

While we must respect the value of a water right and a water user's choice to use that right, either on their own crops or selling to another, we can consider ways to support those that remain and ensure their accessibility to water is maintained, regardless of whether others choose to sell their water. Active planning to provide security of access rights through individual daily extraction limits should be considered and can be done through switching on unused elements of water-sharing plans and even providing new market products.

But we should ask ourselves whether we want to see more towns like Collarenebri without irrigation water, where the people and businesses that supported the industry ceased to be needed overnight? Or should we provide transitional arrangements that allow the transfer of water to higher uses but allow communities time to adjust?

Noel Baxter

Unfortunately, ongoing disruption is going to continue unless we see some changes in the water trading rules. Free trade is here, within constraints, but is it the best model? There are multiple issues with this, one being that within the free trade model water can move from up river to down river and no losses are taken out, how can this be fair?

The end result is that river losses are increasing due to more demand further down the river and NSW and Victoria are wearing all the extra losses.

Water moved downstream from its place of origin should be incrementally reduced the further it goes downstream to reflect the true quantity of water that actually gets there.

Another issue with free trade is that it’s allowing major corporate companies to outbid family farmers for water, and this means water is moving out of traditional areas that produce milk, rice, wheat, canola, corn and cotton into higher value (predominantly luxury) foods like almonds, wine grapes and avocadoes. Horticultural crops need water every year and are not flexible like an annual crop.

There needs to be a balanced mix of annual and permanent plantings to allow for inflow variability and produce what the growing population needs.

Question 3: Some irrigation organisations are calling for a ‘reset’ of the MDBP. Given the difficulty of achieving agreement on the MDBP, is a reset realistic and if it was attempted what changes would you want to see?

Zara Lowien

A reset can’t change the fact that most of the local and shared contribution has been achieved and there is already an extensive environmental water portfolio being managed, only a rewrite could. With the recovery including contracted volumes from projects around the Basin which have significant ‘unknowns’ that unsettle many irrigators and their communities.

While we may not like some or all of the projects, a reset will not make them go away or make the requirement for the water contracted, not to be recovered. Resetting as a way to reject them doesn’t address the fact that communities (not irrigators) need these projects because they are designed to reduce the burden on the productive water and communities to achieve environmental outcomes.

A reset puts each community within the Basin at risk that governments will take the easy option and buy back the water; this means we will also miss the opportunity to invest in ways to be more efficient with environmental water and focus on outcomes, rather than just managing volumes of water.

We cannot afford to not show collective leadership and put the time, effort and due consideration into implementing the current bipartisan MDBP with the added transparency and certainty we need, for our communities.

Noel Baxter

The MDBP is not working for the consumptive users or the environment. We have had mass fish kills in the Darling, negative environmental impacts from flooding of the Barmah Forest for 141 days this water year, and bank erosion due to massive flows down the Murray for prolonged periods; no-one is happy.

It should be reset to a balanced plan that works for more stakeholders. If the Plan was to be reset, we would want to see changes to the volumes recovered – 3200 GL is too much, the river can’t deliver what the Plan currently specifies, let alone the balance of the 2750 GL and the 450 GL is just not needed.

The system losses also need to be more fairly shared, especially when moving water from above the Barmah Choke to below the Choke. Losses are much higher now and the remaining irrigators are paying almost the full cost for the losses.

If there are changes to the characteristics of the water and third-party impacts, neither were supposed to happen under the Plan, why are they occurring? A more balanced plan is needed so we don’t destroy some of the best irrigated land in the country.

Additional comments

Zara Lowien

The vitriolic debate about who is responsible for low water availability, rivers ceasing to flow and unfortunate fish deaths during this current drought exemplifies that we’ve failed to manage expectations about the MDBP; what it is about for communities and the broader Australian public and what it can achieve now and into the future.

The focus on a number for recovery has meant we have never communicated what it aims to provide at a local or a Basin level. We need a cooperative effort to be more transparent and communicate better, including environmental water managers actively promote what they are achieving, so we can inform the debate about water management.

Most importantly as regional communities, we should stand together and ensure that we work through our differences for a common purpose to ensure governments don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. We all want strong and vibrant communities for future generations, right around the Basin, not just in our own backyards.

Noel Baxter

My family has farmed in the Berrigan area for nearly 100 years, and never has there been such concern about the viability of farming and the local community as there is today. The MDBP has removed so much water out of the system that the everyday farmers can’t function. I feel as if we are only going to be opportunity irrigators if the Plan rolls out as is, how does that work? Dairy herds and many other commodities can’t turn on and off when water is available. There can be some flexible use as there was pre-Basin Plan, but we can’t operate with zero allocation when the dams have plentiful stocks, nor can family farmers outbid wealthy corporates for the remaining consumptive water. We need change or many farms and communities will shut down. The dams and the Snowy system were put in to drought-proof the country, not turn the lower lakes into an artificial fresh water system or keep the Murray River running high for an unnatural extended period. Common sense must prevail.

About the authors

Zara Lowien applies her skills in policy, advocacy and natural resource management as the Executive Officer of the Gwydir Valley Irrigators Association Inc in Moree in Northern NSW. She’s passionate about promoting opportunities in agriculture and advocating its importance in regional communities, like the Gwydir.

Noel Baxter is a fourth-generation irrigation and dryland cropping farmer in southern NSW. Together with his brother, father and families they farm 9500 hectares spread across Murray and Murrumbidgee irrigations areas. Risk management has been a focus over the years with a spread in geographic location of properties, a mix of irrigation schemes, various crops including wheat, canola, barley, faba beans, corn and cotton. Noel and the family are passionate irrigation farmers and look to do everything they can to help the industry and the local communities.