Water Security, Murray Darling Basin

The impacts of lack of water supply for local community use are now regular concerns. In our cities water restrictions and rules on usage are common place. Connection and consumption is priced accordingly, as are fines for non-compliance.

For rural and regional Australia supply concerns include agricultural and environmental needs.

Inland NSW, Victoria, most of SA and SW Qld the concerns are shared across all needs. The Covid pandemic crisis has shown just how well the community and occasionally Political leadership can act responsibly. The ABC has offered a great insight to the water supply issues facing the 20% of Australian’s connected to the MDB (Murray Darling Basin).

For those wondering about cotton and why we grow so much in the MDB. It consumes on average 26% of all water used in Australia for farm irrigation.

The ABC notes in comparison to the 26% of all water used for irrigated crops it returns less than the same in income at 20%.

As a source of employment cotton production is highly mechanised, with a low labour component. The value is in export earnings and high profitability when water is available to use. Value add through processing of cotton into thread, cloth or products is absent from the local economy. Despite that observation many towns depend on the cotton industry as it is now for their existence.


The MDB Plan is a standout example of how to fail at nation building. It was much trumpeted by John Howard.

It was a great achievement, a great plan where States came together, lead by the Feds, to revive a dying river, settle interstate squabbles that had been going on for a century or more, fairly allocate resources and ensure the future of the towns along the rivers and their people that rely on irrigation to live.

It has achieved exactly none of those things at the cost of many billions of dollars.

It needs to be done again and done properly or all those problems will come back to bite us. I do mean us not them. In a land of so little water we must do much better, a huge amount of food comes from the MDB that is very significant to our national food supply and to export trade.

This ‘do over’ will win no friends, whatever you do will upset somebody. It may be the State pollies who cannot let go of State’s rights to gain support and power, irrigators who cannot understand that if the river dies the towns die and environmentalists whose idealism overrides any practical solution. The repeat performance has to embody climate change and in the constituencies of the basin the people are as much divided over that as are their representatives.

At the risk of stating the obvious the mark two needs to have built in verification to ensure that what was planned is what is done and that the plan can be modified progressively in the light of new knowledge. Knowledge that at the moment we do not have.

All a leader can do is equilibrate the misery and hope that in time a proper solution will vindicate their actions. There is absolutely no chance of keeping everybody happy. It will take leadership that has a long view, that does not have their eye on short term popularity and that is very tenacious in the face of sustained opposition.

Which is why it won’t happen. The problem will be kicked down the road until the looming disaster is realized. Then the blame game will be wound up to 200% as they all claim that the problem was caused by the inaction of others - in relation to action that they would not take themselves.


The NBN. Self regulation by what and sundry ‘industries’…

I suspect a pattern, and that we as a nation are getting what we deserve by who we vote for or preference. So long as that is consistent nothing is going to change because those who have been getting elected and re-elected see no need to change any of it.

As with other countries, a very small segment of our electorate decides government and their needs and values often are what they are, whether with or against good government overall.


Years ago I read that growing crops such as cotton and rice which need massive amounts of irrigation, was the equivalent of Australia exporting water.
Which doesn’t make much sense, as after Antarctica we are the driest continent on earth.


And don’t forget that 10.4% of the MDB water is foreign owned, with “Chinese and US investors each own 1.9% followed by the UK owning 1.1%”.

More than 1,800 gigalitres of foreign-held water entitlements are within the Murray-Darling Basin, which is 9.4 per cent of the total Murray-Darling Basin water entitlement on issue.

The current systems has allowed water to be traded like any other commodity, that is to make a profit, rather than based on need, and being supplied to those farms/industries that return the most to Australia socially and economically. Businesses are buying water out of one river system which has cheaper water and then taking it out of another such as the Murray Darling.


Who determines need? If you it has no monetary value it will be overused.

1 Like

The flip side of the coin on that is that monertary value can cause overuse, eg bottling the water to sell to consumers has a huge monetary value and has caused one CEO to state that access to water is not a human right. As someone put it “If you’re selling them water, you’re saying that unless you have the money, you don’t get access to clean water which is something that’s necessary for a healthy life”.


What sellers of bottled water may say about access to clean water is of no relevance to the decisions a farmer needs to make about the use of gigalitres of water in broadacre farming.

Bottling water may in principle lead to overuse if it is coming out of a limited aquifer. If that does happen it has nothing to do with problems of the MDB and it is not a reason to take the position that all water, in any quantity, should be free.

There are huge problems with the bottled water industry, some are listed here, even so they make the mistake of saying tap water is free. Whether you are on town water or tank water it does not come out of the tap for nothing.


It looks like they are comparing the modelling data in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority Murray River Basin Plan with actual recorded flows. Water hasn’t vanished but shows that the modelling used by the MDBA needs to be reviewed and potentially ground truthed as it currently overestimated flows in the river through inputs.

While it is worth salivating about the news article, it does show the limitations of relying on modelling for a complex system … and assuming the flow numbers produced are accurate and reflect the real world situation.


Perhaps some other reasons water is vanishing from the system?


Morrison government goes to water over irrigation buybacks

I found this section to be interesting:

The government will spend $38 million to set up a new compliance agency using staff from the Murray Darling Basin Authority, as well as the current Commonwealth Inspector General for the Murray Darling Basin.

Former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty is the inspector general, although his work has been hamstrung by state governments, which have refused to open their water accounts to him, leaving him with reduced opportunity to review their management of river operations.


Yes there could be theft…but not to the scale of the overestimating flows within the model. The MDBA has come out in the past 24 hours or so indicating that the model has overestimated potential flows. The conclusions drawn in the ABC article were comparison of modelled outputs verses real data. If the model had been an underestimate, would have the article read ‘Billions of litres being magically appearing in Australia’s most vital river network’?

I suspect that the MDBA would have been flogged by underestimating the flows in the model and the headline would have read very differently. The state governments and river water users would not have been impressed. Environmentally, it may have been a better outcome.

Any model has levels of confidence and also should be continually refined with real world data. This may narrow the level of confidence, but never lead to a perfectly accurate model.


If one is going to be wrong is it better to say there is too much or too little to go around?

I’d be most concerned if the States and water users now come out and say that the water buybacks that the tax paper has funded have come from the vanished 20%. Effectively we have all paid for something that was not there to be had.

I’d not hang my hat on the argument the MDBP was wrong by 20% or not. Real water owners gave up real water allocations to return real water flows to the basin.

The ABC suggested five reasons for the failures to balance the flows in the model. We could say that the model was wrong because it does not take into account all five of the following.

Clue one: tampered meters and criminal prosecutions

One possible explanation for the shortfall is that some of the missing water has been stolen.

Clue two: shadow take

The idea that floodplain harvesting could explain some of the missing water fits with the data in the Wentworth Group’s report. In late 2016, there was a flood in some parts of the basin and despite there being much more water in that period, the shortfall remained high.

Clue Three: The cash splash

Return Flows
The MDBA commissioned its own analysis of the issue and concluded the loss of return flows was reducing water in the rivers by 121 billion litres a year.

Clue Four: Climate change

There is one issue, however, that most experts do agree is a major reason for the missing water in the basin.
Climate change means more water is likely being lost between gauges, as it flows along — lost into the dry river beds and the hot air.

Clue five: The water was never there

In a twist worthy of any whodunnit, could it be that some of the missing water was simply never there in the first place?

According to the Wentworth Group, the government modelling used to predict how much water we should see in the river has some fundamental flaws which likely exaggerate the volumes.


Townships that have relied on the water flows through the Murray Darling system, and who may now rely on “bottled” product might see it differently when they have to pay a premium to buy the water instead of using the water that used to flow past them and was relatively free. Of course I agree there is a cost to all water, as there is for all things in this life. They feel that overuse has led to a problem and profits both for the suppliers of the bottled product and the farms that use the large amounts of flows while they pay vastly more for what should be a lot easier to access.

I feel it is sort of a “Let them eat cake” situation.

The bottling of water was just an example of what can cause overuse of water (not necessarily the MDB), though I would suspect that the MDB flows actually restored aquifers in the past and that overuse of that water in the flows has led to decreased flows in the aquifers. In fact the MDBA have pumping systems to drain the saline waters that are now filling these aquifers.


Well if we are now going to talk about “bottled” water as all the water that is now in short supply OK but the issues are quite different for all the purposes where water is required if you don’t mean the kind that literally comes in bottles.

Let me put it another way, how will any kind of rational balance be obtained between all the competing demands and the Tragedy of the Commons situation be avoided if water has no value?

I agree that there is a and should be a cost but the amounts and how much is taken by large Agriculture ventures has both a low cost and a very high demand, Townships are being forced to pay an inordinately high cost (not just in terms of money) and receive very low relative usage. Balance requires a lot of adjustment in this case and it seems not to be happening with Agribusiness being the vastly dominant beneficiary.


What is value of a licence to take x amount of water out of a system when that water is not there?

When the total quantity on paper licences for an area’s time period exceeds the water that is actually there, is it first in gets served and rest go dry? Is that why the big corporations pump water out into ‘holding dams/ponds’ as soon as they can? with no concern for (a) the others with water licences for whom no water is left, and (b) the evaporation from their holdings dams/ponds. From the air the number and size of these holding dams/ponds beside the river is astounding.


But you are assuming that the modelling was correct and that the flows were measured upstream and they went missing as they travelled downstream. If the water never existed…and only existed in the model, then it can’t vanish. It only vanishes on paper.

I also stand corrected, the modelling assessment which has been used in the media article and identified the billions of litres of vanishing water was not carried out by the MDBA, but by the Wentworth Group. The MDBA has responded to the Wentworth Group report…


It is also interesting that in relation to modelling, the Wentworth Group report states:

Expected estimates can never be determined with certainty as this would require perfect knowledge of all components and dynamics of the complex river system. Modelled estimates will therefore always be approximate.

The summary for the report also states:

Since 2012, 20% of the water expected each year under the Basin Plan did not flow past these sites (320 GL/y on average). While some sites received the expected flows, most sites including those upstream of Ramsar wetlands of international importance did not.

The expected flows are that modelled by the MDBA and were less that that recorded in the river. Even the Wentworth Group acknowledges that the modelling outputs are a little rubbery, but has used the modelling outputs to claim water has vanished. Maybe its core objective of the 'conservation of Australia’s land, water and marine resources.’ has been the focus of conclusions drawn.

Hopefully the measured flows and real river data are used to refine the model so that future expected flow calculations have a higher level of confidence. While it will never be perfect, at least it moves towards continual improvement.


To whose benefit remains to be seen.

It’s easy to say that there is less flow because the model was wrong by 20%.

I’m still left with a fundamental question. If the Australian Govt using tax payer funds bought back the volumes of water previously mentioned. Where is that water now? It would seem that within the rules some would suggest all other users have been able to draw their share, but not the Australian Nation.

Fraud on a grand scale that makes the Pink Batts and School Halls funding look like playtime lunch money?

The return of environmental flows was a measurable downstream event. Was the MDBA monitoring those flows to assure itself the flows required were being delivered. If not why was there no intervention. Saying the model is wrong also seems trivial. More so given the billions invested over the previous two decades.

It appears a simple the model is wrong approach which does not hold any water. The down stream flows are based on the upstream catchment weather events. The ABC report offers more than it’s all ok, it’s just the model is wrong as the only explanation.

No need to argue the points. I value the ABC as more reliable than the MDBA.

What ever is being taken, lost, or stolen from the MDB is evidently more than the system can sustain to provide for even basic personal residential needs, let alone to protect the environment. Although at between $35 and $71 per Megalitre quoted irrigation supply cost to cotton, or less cost for self serve, agriculture is on a winner.

The hard cash realities of the cotton industry are well covered. In the northern basin cotton becomes unprofitable at a water cost of approx $259.30/Ml while in the southern Murrumbidgee Irrigation area it’s break even at $149.70/Ml based on the 2018 season. Note that in Aug 2018 100% of NSW was drought declared. It was also the most profitable year for cotton production in recent years.

If the model has been wrong for so long there was still more than sufficient capacity to meet the needs of the cotton industry, despite the ongoing drought? It defies a simple model is wrong explanation.


I will have to check to see what us used as that to buy back water…modelled or real data. I assume that the bought back water exists (real) and is based on expected flows (modelled). If the expected flows are less than real flows, it possibly means there is less water somewhere (either flowing down the river or available for use).

Possibly in quoting information provided by the Wentworth Group…which may have vested interests. Unfortunately quality investigative journalism is disappearing and all news agencies are using media releases they are fed from various parties/organisations to produce their news.