Professor Rupert Quentin Grafton, director of Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy, writes: Water reform needs to include the knowledge, skills and leadership in Basin communities to develop new futures and support vital services needed for thriving communities. This not only requires political leadership and funding from Canberra and the States, it demands that community leaders also step up:

  1. To take on the responsibility for making adjustment work; and
  2. To help create, with Commonwealth and state funding, new opportunities for everyone.

To assist in this adjustment we need to free up the billions locked in for infrastructure subsidies and allow some of it to be spent flexibly in a variety of ways to help create new futures.

We have successfully reformed in other industries that were strongly opposed by vested interests. In 2006, we spent $150 million buying back fishing licences to compensate fishers and their communities for needed reforms. And the result along with better fisheries management? Those who chose to remain fishing are better off and between 2006-2009 the proportion of fish stocks classified as overfished and uncertain in their sock status fell from 72% to less than half, while the number species not overfished more than doubled.

We have been told in the past week that the proposed sustainable diversion limits will result in:

  1. tens of thousands of job losses;
  2. the end of irrigated agriculture; and
  3. the death of dozens of communities in the Basin

These claims are all false. The reality is as follows:

  1. There will be no water forcibly ‘taken’ from farmers because the Prime Minister has committed to meet all reductions in water course extractions by buying water entitlements from willing sellers. This will put, in total, at least $5.5 billion into the hands of farm businesses;
  2. The Commonwealth farming business compensation package will go a long way to offset transitional job losses from reductions in average water diversions;
  3. The Commonwealth is already close to half way to realising the minimum required water reductions and the sky has yet to fall on our heads;
  4. The reduced extractions, to be phased in over 5 years starting in 2014, are much less than what farming businesses experienced over the past drought which in the worst years were 70% less than normal. Yet despite these reductions, entirely due to drought, and with no compensation package, farmers were able to maintain their gross value of production because of water markets and better on-farm practices; and
  5. Some of the worst affected communities (Griffith and Shepparton) actually grew in size from 2004-2008 in the middle of the drought.

My point is not to trivialise the transitional costs that will be borne by communities, but to correct the misinformation that has, understandably, generated such fear within Basin communities.

Insufficient and even zero flows at the Murray Mouth that arise because of how we manage our water have already damaged many farming, tourism and other rural businesses.

Because of poor water management, a 1,000 km long blue-green algae plume imposed huge costs on communities when it last happened on the Darling River in the early 1990s.

Failure to allow small and medium-sized floods because of the way we manage our water has impose major costs on floodplain graziers and diminished soil productivity because such floods are needed to “flush out” salts and contaminants from the landscape.

This is why we need water reform.  Reform, or the lack of it, will define us a nation in the coming decades. We need it for our producers, for our communities and for our landscape. The benefits of reform far outweigh the costs and these costs can be reduced substantially if some of the water funds available from the Commonwealth can be used to work with and to support communities in the transition.

This is an edited version of a speech given yesterday lunchtime at the National Press Club. This is also part of a Rooted series from different interested parties — farmers, lobby groups, environmentalists, etc — discussing their reactions to the guide of the draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the community consultations surrounding it, called Murray Murmurings. If you’d like to contribute your thoughts, email ajamieson[at]crikey.com.au